From About.com to Dotdash: 5 Questions With CEO Neil Vogel

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Through its collection of premium vertical brands, Dotdash helps 100 million people a month answer questions, solve problems and find inspiration. It’s impressive considering the company only launched in May, when About.com rebranded as Dotdash. Under that umbrella, the IAC-owned company operates six websites:

Verywell, focused on health and wellness, launched in April 2016 and has grown its monthly U.S. unique visitors 26% from 11.9 million in May 2016 to 15 million in October 2017. It’s now the 6th largest site in the ad-supported Health Information category. Over the same period Healthline grew 53%, WebMD grew 8%, Healthgrades declined 31%, Everyday Health declined 14% and CNN Health declined 9%.

The Balance, personal finance and investing, launched in August 2016. Its monthly U.S. unique visitors grew 173% from 6.5 million in September 2016 to over 17 million in October 2017. It’s the #8 site in the ad-supported Financial News/Research category. Over the same period CNN Money grew 14%, Fortune grew 10%. Bloomberg grew 7%, and IBT declined 14%.

Lifewire, personal technology information, launched in October 2016 with monthly U.S. unique visitors growing 142%, from 3.4 million in November (the first full month measured) to 8.2 million in October 2017. Lifewire is the #8 site in the ad-supported Technology News category and the third largest standalone site, after The Verge and TechCrunch. Over the same period Wired declined 1%, CNET remained the same size, Ziff Davis grew 7% and IDG declined 41%.

The Spruce, home and food, launched in February 2017. Its monthly U.S. unique visitors have grown 187%, from 8.5 million in March 2017 to over 24 million in October 2017. The Spruce is the largest home and food domain on the internet and the #9 largest property in the ad-supported Lifestyles category. Over the same period HGTV grew 13%, Houzz grew 38%, Café Media grew 25%, Epicurious.com grew 16%, Apartment Therapy grew 5%, and SheKnows Media declined 6%.

ThoughtCo, a general education and reference site, launched in March 2017 and monthly U.S. unique visitors have grown 180%, from 5 million in March 2017 (a partial month) to almost 14 million in October 2017. ThoughtCo is the 6th largest site in the ad-supported Reference category. Over the same period, Encyclopaedia Britannica grew 40%, How Stuff Works Science grew 12%, and Yahoo Answers declined 21%.

TripSavvy, a travel hub, launched in May 2017 and since then, its monthly U.S. unique visitors have grown 82%, from approximately 3.2 million in June to 5.8 million in October. It’s now the #18 largest site in the ad-supported Travel category, reaching more users each month than Conde Nast Traveler and nearly as many as Travel and Leisure.

The Dotdash group reached 26% of the total US digital population in October 2017, and grew 37% (March through October) in the highly competitive world of digital publishing. Dotdash is currently the #18 largest ad-supported brand on the internet (up from #27 in March 2017).

Neil Vogel, Dotdash CEOThe digital brand-builder overseeing all this is Neil Vogel, who became CEO in 2013 after The New York Times sold About.com to IAC. As a brand About.com (which started life as The Mining Company) was floundering and losing relevance as a general information website trying to be all things to all people. Vogel’s mission was to relaunch as a family of standalone sites with clear identities, purposes and audiences.

Doubling down on 20 years of accumulated data, he and his Chief Innovation Officer, Jon Roberts, assembled a team of NASA-trained data scientists to define and design branded vertical properties in response to the most-asked questions and -searched topics by consumers.

“People and sites are all looking for the growth hack, or any hack, that gets them on a Facebook or Pinterest algorithm, but we want to be a content publisher where there’s no room for mediocre content,” Vogel says.

“We are faster and have better design and we ask ourselves all the time, if this content disappeared today would anybody really care? There’s no trick. Just 500 writers working really hard.”

“We also learned what not to do. We’re not spending for Snapchat or Instagram stories, or pivoting to video. We’re helping people solve problems with targeted text and some video. We’d love to do those other things but there’s no immediate return.”

Neil told us more about the journey to Dotdash and the marriage of data insights and instinct, content and customer experience, and the power of knowing when to say no in a Q&A:

Neil, what was your first order of business when you arrived at what was then About.com?

When I arrived, we were stuck in an old model from 1998 when you attracted traffic because somebody had heard of you. It was the wild west days of the internet. The site wasn’t expert in anything and we confused people who sent us traffic. None of the search guys could figure us out. Advertisers couldn’t either.

We needed to take topic areas, clean them up and launch custom domains specific to verticals, tightly edit the content, be clear about the branding so algorithms and advertisers knew what each vertical was about. That took about 18 months.

We are now a branded premium publisher. Each vertical is in the top five or ten in the category. Out of ashes we built the fastest growing, all-evergreen self-help content sites. We’re not news, sports, fashion, entertainment—we’re not about things that move fast.

Our content is written by experts, all organic, and it’s real content that matters to people. We’re in the conversation with scaled publishers like Business Insider, Meredith, VICE and Vox.

How are you using science, data and information to  transform a media business?

We’re different than other media companies. Our first challenge was how to transform 1 million pieces of content. We threw out about 700,000 pieces of content and edited the remaining 300,000 into the verticals we were creating and arranged it in a way good for users.

Our data science and growth team was unique—from NASA hires to a physics Ph.D. from Oxford—and now we have a seven-person team with 5 Ph.D.’s in linguistics, physics and math.

The team is building tools to figure out what to write and what makes the best path for a user’s journey. Most tech websites if you’re searching for how to fix your router, will give you 8 trendy articles. We teach you how to diagnose, fix and/or buy a new one, using cases that are vertical, not horizontal. Engagement is up 50% plus because we’re giving people what they want—not what we want them to want.

What was the decision-making process for which new digital brands to create?

Response to consume interest and three requirements:

1. A corpus of excellent content (or could get there).
2. A financial profile we wanted to invest in and could monetize. We’re spending $10 million this year. We need to monetize.
3. For advertisers, ways to differentiate our site. We didn’t choose fashion, style, entertainment or sports since there were other guys doing that better than we could. Same for news. We looked for a space in the market to compete.

Is the user experience different depending on which site you’re on—are some designed for leisurely browsing, others for deeper dives?

We offer deeper dives—not designed for browsing. The Spruce gets some browsing but the others, not so much. Our users are there for action, and our success with advertisers is there’s an audience there for actionable responsiveness to their messages.

As for content, computers can tell a lot, but it’s still an art. Our writers are passionate about their topics and we have tools to help them. Have we written about this before? Is it being talked about on Facebook, Twitter? Is there demand for it? No algorithms; humans know what humans are talking about. Long-tail content in areas they know. We have a 25-person editorial team that works with our 500 writers, who are contractors.

In an attempt to create a better user experience you’re not a fan of “annoying ad formats,” auto-play video etc. Where’s the money coming from?

Number one, we eliminated annoying ad formats and ad density and have fewer ads than last year. We don’t do pop-ups, interstitials, road blocks or autoplay with sound on – nothing excessively sticky. We just don’t do those kinds of ads.

Our traffic is up 60% and ad rates up almost 30%. We bet on taking ads off the page, and our users found it faster and satisfying—and those ads left perform better by a measure of up to 40-50%.

Our ads are supplemental to the experience. We lost some money but made it up in traffic. We don’t work with advertisers who insist on using what we don’t want. Many give us push-back, then listen, and things work better. The power of no has been amazing.

Are you cross-promoting between the Dotdash family of sites and what’s your plan for e-commerce?

No. Each brand is standalone with no links between them. Our users want a vertical experience. Users on Spruce don’t care about our travel site. In 2016 we realized about $1 million in referral revenue. In 2017 we’ll do ten times that. It’s a happy side effect to verticals. When people look for the best blender on Spruce, they want to buy it and have price information.


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