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Is Created Or Curated Content King? Who Cares, says About.com


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About.com has 176 million monthly users and no compelling user experience.

As chief executive of About.com, Neil Vogel has content by the bucketload. Formed in the dotcom boom of 1996 – two years before the incorporation of Google in the era of now defunct or irrelevant internet companies such as Excite, Lycos and AltaVista, it has amassed an archive of three million pieces of content and adds to that at a rate of nearly 7,000 new articles a month.

Receiving five to ten articles a month from its army of 1,000 experts on 17 channels featuring topics ranging from barbecue sauce to hip-hop music, About.com is ranked in the top 20 internet sites in the US with 83.6 million users a month as of January, and another 92.5 million monthly users internationally.

Yet ask Vogel where he stands in the debate about created versus curated content and he is not terribly interested.

“We have this discussion,” he sighs. “Someone is always saying ‘content is king’ or ‘content is nothing, curation is king’.  I think it is dangerous for us to be like that…..The whole reason this business still exists – and there was a time where the investment in it was so light that you could argue that it shouldn’t have existed – is that people value really good content.

“Just look at our numbers. Eighty to ninety million Americans every month think we have really great content and we help them.

“I do feel that the world is coming around and recognising good content. Users of the internet are people who need content for their daily lives. But if you or a family member are diagnosed with thyroid cancer, you just want to get information on thyroid cancer that’s as comprehensive, useful, accurate and trusted in a way that you can consume it. Whether it is created or curated… you’re not concerned with that. You just want credible content.”

Vogel’s frustration is understandable. Founded by a group of entrepreneurs as The Mining Company – it changed name to About.com in 1999 – the company was acquired by Primedia in 2000, The New York Times in 2005 and  Barry Diller’s IAC in 2012. Vogel, who arrived the following year, relaunched About.com in 2014 and describes it as “a reasonably well known brand”. He is new and frank enough to be brutally frank about what the company is not, however.

“We’re like the oldest kid in the locker room at lunch,” he says.  ”We’ve been around a really long time, but when we got there, the company had been through a prolonged period of a lack of investment. About was a 1.0 internet play. It was always a place to get content from experts but it hasn’t always had a lot of support.

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“The reason it still had traffic was that the content was so good but the site was set up very much a place to answer a question that you searched for. When I got here, we took a really hard look at what we were doing here and said that we really only had two things: fantastic content and 80 million users a month. But the user experience was terrible, the site looked horrible and… culturally it was not a place that was set up to be dynamic or to do or try new things.”

Vogel and his team have increased the staff from 150 to 220, including an entirely new senior team, rewritten almost every line of computer code on the website and redesigned almost the whole site from scratch. The chief executive claims that page views and average reading times within the site are both up by about 20 per cent, the original dynamism of the company has been rediscovered and the data science side of the operation has been built up.

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“I think we’re on a path to be a great internet turnaround story but we have a really interesting branding challenge and I can’t think of anyone else who has that in this way. So many people interact with our brand every month and everyone knows who we are but we don’t mean anything to anyone.

“Our great challenge over the last two years is to think how we build an experience for consumers where we begin to mean something to someone again. At one point, we meant a lot to people. We were a place where you could reliably get answers. Then we kind of lost it. Now that we’re delivering an internet experience that’s modern and great, using data to really help people get answers that they need we’re beginning to mean something to people again.

“Our content is a great asset but it is a very big challenge for us to give you what you want when you need it. If we could become your trusted place in the know when you’re trying to diagnose why your elbow hurt, tell what is wrong with your nine-month-old child, or trying to cook or redecorate your home, we have a very, very bright future.”

Immediate plans include launching “chapters” that will group About.com’s content in a way that Vogel says will allow users to go deeper into a topic and launching international offices to run overseas markets locally. Canada, London and Australia will be the first stops.

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