On the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Dotdash CEO Neil Vogel joined Peter in our studio to talk about a media turnaround story: His team took an aging internet property, the once-mighty About.com, and rebuilt it into a modern network of sites answering people’s questions about topics like health, food, and personal finance.
Making that transition, however, meant Vogel had to pitch IAC’s Barry Diller and Joey Levin on the idea of drastically cutting back on the topics About.com had historically covered and reducing the number of ads on every page. Their response to the risky idea?
“Great, you guys could’ve come to us with this six months ago and it would’ve made sense, so go do it and go do it quickly,” Vogel recalled.
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Peter’s conversation with Neil.
Peter Kafka: This Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That is me, Happy New Year from Vox Media headquarters in New York City. I’m sitting here with Neil Vogel. Hi Neil.
Neil Vogel: Hi Peter.
I want to call you CEO of About.com, I can’t do that anymore. So I’m like two years behind.
You can. A lot of people still do. The CEO of-
What’s the current company?
The current company name is Dotdash.
Thank you. Dotdash is the thing, you used to be called About.com.
Dotdash is that.
If you’re very old, you’ll remember About.com, it used to be a fundamental part of the internet.
Maybe you still are?
Yes, we still are. I would argue that we were, we weren’t, and we are again.
We’ll do the whole setup. Here’s the way I want to set it up: I often write in stories about things like Verizon deciding they didn’t want to own Oath anymore, or own Yahoo and AOL anymore. That everyone knows that you cannot turn around a consumer internet property. Once it has peaked, it goes away. No one’s ever done it. The one exception is Priceline, you can kind of argue that wasn’t really a consumer internet business. Enter Neil Vogel, who says I wanted to do this with this thing called About.com and I have succeeded-
Oh, no. I didn’t want to do a turnaround, it just was so bad the first couple of years we had no choice.
But you did. You’ve taken an old/faded internet property and said I want to fix it. Or I’m trying to fix it.
Yes, we did.
This is the premise of this discussion.
No, no. Yes.
If it’s not true, you should tell us and we can stop.
No, no, no. It is actually very true. I got there almost six years ago now, time is flying. What I signed up for ended up not being what I thought it was gonna be. The team at IAC, Joey, and Mr. Diller and the whole crew, they bought About.com from the New York Times-
We’ll pull way back, ‘cause there’s terms here that old people like ourselves know. But IAC?
IAC is Interactive Corp.
Dude, let’s skip what it’s called. It’s IAC, right? It’s a conglomeration of internet properties, many of which you’ve heard of, some of which you haven’t, controlled by Barry Diller.
Who was a key guy in building up the media entertainment complex.
Yeah, the biggest pieces are Match, which is Tinder and Match, all the dating properties.
But Barry Diller is someone who made his fortune and name in Hollywood, and then eventually moved to the internet, and is still a very big deal. But I think if you’re under 40, you may be less familiar with him than ...
Might not be familiar with him, but you’re familiar with his stuff.
Yeah. Well, you’ve watched Fox.
You’ve watched Fox, you’ve-
You’ve seen movies.
... used Expedia. You’ve been on Tinder.
Yeah, so he’s got this big conglomeration of internet properties, one of which became ... He bought About.com.
He bought About.com.
From the New York Times. About.com was an early attempt to create content very cheaply, and then have it searchable.
Yes. Actually, the model was never “make content cheaply”, it was “make a ton of content and cover everything. It was from a time of the internet, which the same people who know Barry Diller will understand … 1996.
Yeah, it’s internet browser time.
So 90s, early 2000s, early internet if you had a brand people recognized, they would trust you. You could write about anything. So About.com was the everything to everyone place, and at some point it probably had 100 million people a month using it. And what happened is it-
The idea was they paid people actual money ...
They paid people actual money-
Not a lot of money, but to write about everything.
Topic level experts, at varying levels of expertise. Different if it’s cancer than if it’s pizza, or whatever. Pay them amounts of money to create content for them, put it on the internet, and then sell ads against it. A very simple model. Got very, very big. And then when the internet-
Primarily ‘cause it was early, right?
’Cause it was early-
And that model worked.
... it had built a brand, and the model real worked. The model really worked. The place did great.
It was search-based, right?
It was search-based.
You could go to about.com, but you generally got there ‘cause you typed into some kind of search engine, and there used to be many of them.
They were one of the first people to really grow on the back of search ads scale. They were one of the first. And they did a fairly good job of it. I think what happened was like what happened to a lot of media businesses, a bunch of owners, traded hands a bunch of times, ended up with the New York Times, and as the internet changed, the business didn’t change. And About had always been profitable in scale, then I think Comscore was probably around ... Whatever it was. It was huge. It was a top ten site on the internet.
There was a period when The Times was faltering, like 2007, 2008. And there was a lot of, “Are they gonna go bankrupt?” Where the conventional wisdom among smart digital people was The Times screwed up by not becoming About.com, and not feeding About.com. And if they were smarter they would’ve turned The New York Times into About.com. I’m exaggerating only slightly.
No, you’re not. The cashflow from About.com ... Again, I wasn’t there, I can’t say this. The cashflow was About.com is a big part of the reason The New York Times still exists during that time period. The New York Times, everyone says, “The New York Times messed up About.com and then Barry Diller bought it, and that was your opportunity.” The Times didn’t actually mess it up, they just optimized for what they needed. They needed cashflow, it was profitable, they just-
And also, to be clear, I don’t think they would be comfortable with it today, but they’re certainly more comfortable in 2005, 2006, 2007, and sort of taking the About.com model, which is farming out lots of editorial work to lots of people, and stamping The New York Times’ name on it.
Culturally, it was full-on organ rejection. It was kept separate. The Times newsroom had not a lot of interest in someone writing about quilting and saying they were a New York Times employee, so the whole thing just didn’t work. And then, at the same time, the internet really changed, so back when About.com started, if you twisted your knee playing tennis, and you went on Yahoo or Excite or Google and had to figure out, “Oh, well, what’s wrong with my knee?” About.com was fine. But as the internet evolved, all the sudden there’s a WebMD, and a Healthline and you wanted that answer from someone more specific. If you were cooking dinner, and you wanted to barbecue ribs, you wanted that recipe from Epicurious, not About.com.
Maybe, but it worked for something. There was a period where Demand Media ... There was a whole period where people got really good at gaming Google-
They did, but there is no business in gaming someone else’s algorithm in the long-term. It’s been proven over and over and over and over again.
Yes, it is not a good long-term, you can definitely make money in the short-term.
Whether you’re Upworthy, or whether you’re Demand Media, or whether you’re a Little Things, there is no business in that. So we actually got beat up a little bit, but it was because our content got old and bad, not because it was shitty farm stuff. That’s never really what we did.
I think what About.com didn’t realize was as the internet got more specific, and there were food sites, and there were financial sites, and there were tech sites, they clung to About.com. And they’re like, “Well, it’s a big name, everybody knows it, this is the future of what’s going on.” And when I got there in 2013, I was positive the best asset we had was this brand that we’d be able to rejuvenate, we’d clean up this content, we’ll sell some ads, this would be easy, this would work. And it turned out that what we thought was our asset was our problem.
On the internet today, 2018, ‘16, whatever. You can’t be everything to everyone. And About.com was still trying to do that.
So you get there in 2013, and your job is fix/cleanup About.com.
You probably don’t remember this. I spoke to you right after-
I Googled and found the story that I wrote about you.
Right after I started, we were speaking on the phone, and you got in a perfect Peter Kafka voice, so annoyed with me, because I just wouldn’t tell you what I was going to do.
That sounds right.
And the answer is, I had no idea what we were going to do. And the answer that we thought we were gonna do was so simple, I thought you were gonna be bored by it. I’m like, “Oh, we’re gonna make the content better, and make the product better and sell some more ads.”
Here’s a good line from this story from 2016.
No, this is ‘13.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sorry.
’16 you did a little bit on …
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But there is another article. You can Google it.
Anyway, so what we realized when we were there and we spent two years trying to fix About.com, is that we managed to fix the monetization, we managed to clean it up, we managed to make it so that if you went to cocktail party you weren’t embarrassed to say you worked there. For a time, this was the worst problem-
That was the main problem? Was-
That was a big problem. We couldn’t hire anybody, we couldn’t do anything.
By the way, just to go back to Barry Diller, right?
He owns a bunch of properties that people are not gonna flock around you at the cocktail party, ‘cause they’re curious about it. There’s a couple that are sexy, like Tinder. And most of them are not sexy, and people don’t care, but they make a lot of money.
Yeah, Home Advisor, Angie’s List.
No one’s gonna say, “Angie’s List, tell me more about that.” They might on this podcast.
I think was IAC saw in this was they say, “Okay, we see something is done by The New York Times, that it’s not investing in this. It still has 50 million people a month using it, it’s still big, it’s still profitable. We can probably make something of this.” It’s a little bit of, like, “We have the longest view of this in the room. We have the patience, we’ll wait it out. We’ll get someone to come in here and try and run this and build a team.” So that’s what we tried to do, and for the first two years we were there, we basically did a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong, but the summation of it was everything was in the service of the wrong idea, which was About.com. We got to the point where we’d managed to fix monetization a bit, we’d hired some really talented people, we did a little bit of what a bad basketball team would do: Sign a couple of free agents to change the tenor in the room, got some talent in there, but we still couldn’t win.
Still the same product.
Still the same product, so-
And was the thought always, “This is gonna continue to be a search-based business”, even though when you get there that’s Facebook, and everyone is orienting their business around Facebook?
So when we were scrambling and trying to figure out what to do, we tried everything. We tried making content for Facebook. It didn’t work. We tried being better for search, it didn’t work. And what we concluded was sort of, like, where we started before, which was we have a brand problem. Our product’s better, we have a product problem. People who consume content want expertise. Everything is about trust. And we’re also doing a lot of things that were not core to what About.com does. So we really boiled it down to ... Said, “We are going to make content that has value that helps people.” And starting with that, we said, “Okay, what gives people value? Great content, comprehensive answers to their questions to their answers gives them value. And we need to communicate in this value, so we need real brands.”
So we had this relatively ... In the lore that the six people are interested in, the lore of our history, we had this meeting with the senior crew at IAC, where we just went in and we said, “Listen, this isn’t working. We’re gonna run this thing…” We’d managed to make a little bit of money —
Yeah, what was the thing that tells you it’s not working?
Traffic was going down.
Traffic was going down.
Was going down, every month was going down.
Back to where you started, right?
This was an aging internet property-
Aging. And no matter what we did, it was going down. Consumers were moving away from it, advertisers ... We had a meeting with, like ...
Which, again, you can make money doing that, you can harvest that for a long time.
But I didn’t wanna do that-
You don’t wanna do it-
... but I mean, in theory, there’s a way you can say, “All right, this is an aging internet property, we can run it efficiently-
It’s what The New York Times is doing. But that’s not the IAC move. They thought they had something here.
So we went back to the crew people and said, “Listen, we’ve got two choices; do the model you just outlined, or I think, this is gonna sound insane, we can turn About.com into what Conde Nast should be. We can turn About.com into what Hearst should be. And here’s what we’re gonna do. We actually have great content, it’s always been great. We’ve done a pretty good job upkeeping the content. We were-
Still paying people to tell you how to fix your knee after you screw it up-
Paying a lot of money, like more than anybody else on the internet to tell them how to fix their knee-
What is a lot of money?
I dunno, well, depending on the vertical, anywhere from, like, a hundred to five hundred dollars an article that we then-
That’s an actual freelance rate that people would get paid?
Oh, yeah. Well, again, if you have an orthopedist writing about knee stuff, who’s like a tenured professor at a medical school-
And that’s the premise, right? You’re not paying a guy who’s Googling-
... how to fix tennis knee, and then-
Nope. That’s the Demand Media. That doesn’t work. So anyway, we wanted to create real value for people, so we went back and said, “Here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna throw away all of our content that we don’t think is any good.” So we had 1.2 million pieces of content. We went down to 300,000 pieces of content. “And we’re going to align with areas of the internet that we think we can add value and create value where we have some critical mass.”
So that lined up with health, personal finance, tech, travel, and home and food. And we said, “We are only going to do stuff that has a three month or more life. Three months to three year life.” So Evergreen explainer service content. “We think there’s a huge opportunity on the internet to treat service content like it’s important, like it’s beautiful, and we can win, and everything else we’re gonna throw out.”
So we threw out no news, no sports, no fashion, nothing breaking, we’re not making any content for social, we’re not doing any of that stuff-
Not anything that has a sell-by date.
I mean, some stuff has ... Definitionally, if you’re writing about personal financing, it’s gonna have a sell-by date, but it’s not six hours from now.
And Twitter’s not our jam, Facebook’s not our thing, we’re gonna build a business that works with algorithms that care about quality content. We’re gonna care about Google, we’re gonna care about Pinterest, we’re gonna care about Apple News, we’re gonna care about Flipboard, we’re gonna care about building our own primary audience-
Google, right? I mean, it’s still-
We’re primarily Google.
I screwed up my knee, I’m on Google. I’m searching.
Yeah, I mean, everybody in our business is-
What is the advantage of getting rid of content? If I’m not looking for it, and you don’t show it to me, but it’s still there, why not keep it there in case someone stumbles on it?
There’s two reasons, one, advertisers don’t like to see old things floating around that are bad. Going back to your knee example, our user experience like in Very Well, our health site, it’s super vertical. You hurt your knee, you come in. You’re gonna go deep on knees. If you go deep enough, we don’t want you to find something that’s ten years old. The average age of content on our health site is under a year, like you will not find something-
We don’t want you rooting around in the dustbin.
No, and more importantly, it’s not that, we don’t want to give you bad advice. We don’t wanna give you dated stuff. So-
So you have three different constituencies, right? There’s the actual user, there’s Google, who’s gonna send me to you, and there’s the advertiser.
Yes, that is exactly how we presented it in that meeting, and we said, “Brands are better for all three of those people.” One, users trust brands better, so let’s make some brands. Two, we had a very famous meeting with a very large computer company that said, “We love About.com, your traffic is really intent-driven, and it performs well. We’re never giving you another dollar. Because why would we when we can give it to The Verge? Even if it doesn’t perform as well. ‘Cause I’m not putting my brand next to About.com.”
So Dell, or whomever knows that people are searching, looking for computer information-
And who are search-
... ending up on your site and saying, “I do not want to advertise here.”
They don’t want their brand. Okay, so consumers have to trust it, brands have to trust it, and then algorithms have to trust it. And what had happened to us is algorithms, they’re super smart, but they’re not that smart. If you have how to fix a flat tire content the same place like how to make a chicken pot pie, the same place how to unclog a drain, the same place that’s like symptoms of diabetes, they have no ... algorithms can’t figure out that you’re good at all those things. So, you have to make it easier for them to understand what you’re good at. And then when you have the most comprehensive articles with more videos and more graphics that are written more frequently with a terrific bio’d author, they can recognize that and reward you for it. And that’s what happened.
So, you say we’re gonna take this content that we’ve paid for that has value, right? There’s still, someone clicks on that old article, someone’s paying you for it, and we’re gonna get rid of that. That’s an asset, we’re just gonna throw it out. And we are going to muck around with the site that has significant search traffic, at best we’re gonna take a hit, right?
Correct. At best, we took a hit, but we ...
Right. But the point is we know we’re gonna take a search hit, we know we’re gonna take a traffic hit, we know we’re gonna take a revenue hit ‘cause things that were generating revenue are going away. You present this to Barry Diller?
Barry Diller is not a chill dude.
No, he’s ...
Makes people cry.
His favorite, what’s the term? There was a big article in like... It’s called “creative conflict.” I love the place, because you ...
People either love it or they try and leave.
Everybody’s challenged. Yeah, I haven’t seen anyone cry and leave, but look, it’s not the easiest place. But it’s because they’re really smart, passionate people that you work for that know a lot about a lot of stuff. Like my favorite Barry Diller stories are always like the times when you’ll disagree with him, you’ll be in the shower two days later, be like, “Ugh, he was totally right.” He’s just seen so much stuff that he just has ... he might not always use words you totally get, because it might be like a Hollywood word you don’t know or whatever. But he’s by and large, his view is correct. And they’re incredibly patient. So, when we sold this story, the reaction everyone expected was like-
He didn’t say, “Why are you wrecking my asset that is generating revenue?” Or “I don’t care”?
No, he was basically into ... It was him and Joey Levin, the CEO also, there was a little bit like, “Great, you guys could’ve come to us with this six months ago and it would’ve made sense, so go do it and go do it quickly.” And I think that the reason we were able to do this and the reason why there have not been very many if any real consumer turnarounds is usually there’s no patience. It’s an old media company with a problem. It’s someone that’s raised venture money. It’s someone who’s already public. So, we basically said, “Give us 12 months, we’re gonna spend a bunch of money, and we’re gonna take About.com and we’re gonna launch our new brands that we’re gonna make up from whole cloth. And what we’re going to do is ...”
And you can’t just go to them with that idea. That’s not enough. The idea we said was we said, “Okay, we just had an experience for the last two or three years where everything that you can do wrong in publishing, we’ve actually done. So, there’s two things we need to do. We need to take back leverage. Take back leverage from who sends you traffic and how you get it, and take back leverage from how you make money.”
So, we said, for how are we gonna get traffic from people, we said, “This is easy. We’re gonna do something that no one’s doing now. We are gonna focus exclusively on making the very, very best content. We are gonna make the fastest sites on the Internet.” Our sites are like Google Amp speed on their own. And the controversial thing we had to sell is not only are we gonna take this hit for splitting these things up in domains, but we’re taking about 35 percent of ads off the page. And in every vertical we go in, we are going to have fewer ads than any of our competitors by a material, measurable amount.
So, that’s a big leap to take and they took it. They’re like, “Great. Do it. How quickly can you get these things launched?”
So, you have this thing that used to be About.com Health.
You replace it with Very Well. This article that I did pull up, was my words, not yours. Compared it to Mic.com.
Oh, goodness, no.
This at the time was what you were aiming and I even, by the way, I found other articles like, “We want to be like BuzzFeed or Vox,” all these sort of-
No, none of those things.
Facebook-oriented, highly valued web publisher circa 2015, 2016. Thought was, people liked them, advertisers liked them, we’re gonna look more like them. So, you do that with About.com, you get sort of the health stuff launching.
We launch Very Well and we do this thing, we make really great content, super fast site, fewer ads than everybody else, and all of a sudden of those constituencies, algorithms start to like us.
But first there’s the lurch, right? Like the thing you knew was coming, right?
Oh, there’s a lurch. Oh, yeah, there is like-
How long is that period?
We launched five different brands. The lurch period was anywhere from like a week and a half to a couple of months.
But the first time out, right?
Couple of months.
Couple of months. So, you’re on the roller coaster, you’re going down, which is planned.
We’re going down, which was planned.
But if you’re normally in a roller coaster, you know it’s gonna work, here you don’t know-
So, the darkest time, no. The darkest time was we were two months after the Very Well launch. We had some green shoots that it was gonna work. We were already like half pregnant with our next two verticals, like there’s no going back on this. There’s very few things you can do on the Internet that you can’t reverse. This was a non-reversible thing. And then over Labor Day weekend of 2016, it just all started to click in and traffic started to go and traffic started to go. And as soon as we saw that and all the engagement metrics for a user totally changed and we were seeing numbers that you’d never see with About.com. Like, “Oh my god, this is working.” And then it just hit, and it worked, and the fly wheel happened. And users liked that model, algorithms liked that model.
And then what happened for advertisers is the most fascinating thing. We knew that selling audiences we never thought was that interesting because you can get an audience anywhere and rates just get clobbered and crushed by everybody. So, the one thing that we knew and little bit, the one thing About always had is we have very intent driven traffic. People don’t generally come to our site, you don’t come to a health site, or a finance site, or a tech site to hang out. You come because you want to learn or do something. Turns out that traffic is super clicky. When you take super clicky traffic-
Clicky meaning, “I’ve come to your site and now I’m gonna click to the next thing because I’m here for a reason.”
And I’m going to go deep on this one specific, it’s a very north/south experience.
I want to learn about 529 plans, tell me more, tell me more, tell me more.
Exactly. So, what happened was our audience quality is extremely high. Skews pretty young, really good. And then because we had fewer ads on the page, our ads A, performed better ‘cause of audience, and B, performed better because we had three when everybody else had six. And we do no pre roll, no pop ups, no interstitials, none of that. So, all of a sudden on every plan that we’re going on for an advertiser that we sell, we’re like the top performer.
But to back up a second, so when you switched from About.com, well established, decade-plus of search traffic, you’re gonna scrap that and put this brand that literally no one’s heard of-
Yes, five times.
And I assume you can-
Five brands no one’s heard of.
On the back end, you can do some redirecting, right? But still, it’s a scary thing. Google is a faceless thing. There’s 40,000 people who work, whatever the number is.
Yeah, and there’s warehouses full of engineers figuring this out.
But do you go out and say, “By the way, here’s what we’re planning to do. Could you make sure-”
You can’t. There’s no talking to Google.
What you do is you, technically we’re very good, so what you just have to do is you have to say, “Well, here is the old map. Here’s the new map. Here’s the answer key how you get from the old map to the new map. I hope you guys like the new map. We’ll see.”
’Cause there’s a period, right, where the computers go, “We don’t know what Very Well is.”
”We’re not sending you there. We’ve never heard of it.”
You lose all your traffic and then your traffic comes back.
And there’s nothing, there’s no flare you can send out. You can’t get to Larry Page, you can’t get to Sundar.
No, I wish you could. No, you can’t get to anybody. But what you can do is, Google’s pretty good at clawing the Internet and mapping the world. You got to give them the old map and the new map and the key to get from map to map. So, they figured it out, traffic went up. All of a sudden, we had some advertisers that still liked About.com that we port over. All of a sudden, our performance is off the charts. So, now the only way you can have leverage over advertisers today in 2018 is if your stuff works. And the programmatic markets will tell you what works or not, empirically. There’s no content studio like ... you’ll make, that is on the margin. That is not a core business one can be in. Marginally, it can help you.
So, our stuff started to really perform, so advertisers started to really like us. So, now we’ve got traffic growing, we’ve got users growing. Advertisers really like us. And cut to, we did this in ‘16. We’re now... I think Comscore, which we feel the same way that everyone else does, but we were like mid-40s when we started this-
Mid 40s when you came to About?
Mid-40 million a month. No, we were higher than that. We were probably-
So, you came to About.com, they were at what?
I don’t know what we were when we got there.
Give or take.
60-ish. That declines.
We were 40s, low 40s when we started to launch brands.
Then it goes down below that, right?
You know, we bumped around there. If they were measuring properly, it would’ve been below that, but it didn’t really, I think it only ever really got below low 40s. Now we’re over 80.
All in, across our five brands. So, About.com, a quarter of the amount of content on these brands that are really working, with twice as much traffic.
And I have to ask this, because it’s newly relevant again that you’re not rolling up other people’s random sites.
No, zero bot traffic, zero roll up. Oh, that’s not true. We roll up a very, very small health thing called Cleveland Clinic.
Okay. But that’s a real thing.
It’s a ...
I also liked that I fact-checked you live on a podcast.
No, no. But listen, we’re transparent. But it’s not big. It’s small. So, if we’re 82, 81 of it is us. There’s no weird Vice roll up with all kinds of crazy stuff in it.
What have you learned, ‘cause ... I’m old. So, I remember coming to the Internet and we spent a lot of time trying to make Yahoo happy, and then the next phase was trying to make Google happy. Spent a lot of time optimizing for search and trying to figure it out, and a lot of articles about how unfair the Google search results were. Obviously went through the Facebook phase. We’re kind of back to the Google phase? Do you think that Google as a search engine, as a distributor of traffic, has changed in any significant way or is still kind of the same beast?
I don’t know. I’m gonna come back to something you said, you used the word “unfair.” And the concept that publishers think people or entities, or platforms are being unfair to them in any way is insane. And we’ll talk about that in a second. Now, Google I think, it’s super simple. The best way to look at Google is they want to give the best answer to someone’s query. If it’s a simple query like, “What day is Christmas?” They’re just gonna do it themselves. If it’s a more complicated-
More and more, right?
More and more, increasingly.
So, “When does the Super Bowl start?” People are still gonna write that article in January of this year ...
But if you write that article, are you really providing value to the world?
No, it’s terrible and ...
But the point is Google also says, “We know when the Super Bowl starts, we’re gonna tell you that.” And more and more they are putting that stuff in that box, and maybe it’s their own stuff, maybe it’s Wikipedia, but there’s more and more sort of keeping you on the site, which I assume would be for someone like you, who’s in that business of providing an answer, particularly tricky.
Anything any of these guys do is tricky. I think, call it answer box or it’s got a million different things they call it, penetration has gone up massively in the last four or five years as our traffic has doubled. So, if you’re providing-
So, even while Google is keeping more people on site, providing more answers on site-
If you have diabetes and you need diabetes information, just because Google gives you some symptomatic answers on their page, you need real information about diabetes. If you’re really a chef and you really wanted the recipes, you’re not gonna do some recipe they clipped in their box. You’re gonna go deeper on that. So, the other thing is it’s incredibly dangerous now to try and guess what Google wants. You’re never gonna know. It’s like you’re always gonna be guessing what they wanted yesterday, not what they want tomorrow, and you’re going to do the wrong things. So, what you empirically have to do is look at your content and look at everything else out on the Internet that covers the same thing, and is yours better? And if you can’t say that yours is better, undoubtedly, you’re not gonna win.
Google has said this publicly that says, and I think this is true for Pinterest and I think it’s true for Apple News, and I think it’s true for Flipboard, and I think it’s true for human behavior. If we show up with Very Well and WebMD is there and HealthLine is there and Everyday Health is there, and we are not materially better than them, no one’s gonna use us, because they’re good enough. So, we’re now the third biggest health site on the internet. We’ve passed Everyday Health, which is a crazy thing considering we launched less than three years ago. It’s because we spend so much time on making our content great and making it easy to understand that people are latching onto it.
Do you think Google is harder to game than it was a few years ago, that they’ve gotten better at sort of spotting the equivalent of a Demand Media now and going, “This is bullshit”?
I think so. But look, someone, it’s like any algorithm. You’re always gonna be able to find, there’s always gonna be some arbitrage where it can play. Maybe some weird arbitrage with content marketing and Google ... there’s always some. But the loopholes close very quickly. Now, we don’t really pay attention to that. We’re much more concerned with is what we’re doing better than everybody else, is our site faster, do we have fewer ads, do people like us. And our challenge now is I think technically our processes to make this content. We update everything on our network at least once a year, the most popular stuff once a month. We’re now, it’s all flipped. We have softer challenges. We have to build brands. The Spruce needs to mean something to people in home and food. I think it means a little bit if you’re a cook. Very Well needs to mean something to people who have health issues. I think that means something.
Are you limited here? Is there a finite number of these verticals you can do? Are there stuff you don’t want to do because it’s not on brand? Or if you can make good content and there’s an audience that advertisers like, you’ll get there?
I think the filter for us is we want intent-based audiences. We might think we can make great sports content but we’re never going to do it. It’s a different kind of audience, different kind of sell, different kind of value, different kind of ad deal you sell, different kind of way you set up your programmatic stack. It’s a whole different monetization.
We’re very much into people that have a specific intent to build something, make something, cook something, diagnose something, eat something, get some inspiration for a project, all that. That’s our very narrow focus. There are a couple of other areas that we like and we’ve looked at where, I think, if you look at us now, we’re still, what? 25 percent of the size of WebMD, we’re still 20 percent of the size of Allrecipes. We have so much growth in our verticals. We’re looking to add some things to our verticals, and we’re looking to add some things outside of our verticals, to new verticals.
I do want to ask you about video.
A little bit more.
At one point everyone was supposed to talk about their video strategy. Everyone stopped talking about their video strategy but I’m assuming you-
No one asked us.
But you had to keep doing it, right?
Yeah, well, so, we don’t have, it’s an insane thing for someone who produces content like us to have a video strategy. We don’t. We have a best content strategy. For instance, we have a lot of traffic very well around yoga poses. People love doing yoga, they want to know how to do poses. Turns out that we put a lot of videos on these things and no one liked them. You know what they liked? We started to make GIFs or JIFs. I don’t know how to say it.
GIFs, people like GIFs. Our video strategy is that needs a GIF, or that needs a chart, or that needs a screen grab animation, or that needs a video. Same crew at our place ...
The difference, right, is you can’t put pre-roll in the form of a GIF, I guess.
But we don’t put pre-rolls in front of any of our videos.
But it’s much harder, there’s a business for, even though it’s diminished or less big than people thought it was going to be, for taking a video and putting ads around it.
No ads in our videos. We found that human beings hate ads in front of videos or in the middle of videos, so we just don’t do it. We just make videos. When I said before we’ll spend 400, 500 bucks on an article because we know what it can yield for us, part of that is the cost of making a video. We have our own team, it’s like 15 people. We have our own studio, right by our offices. We have our own green screen. We have our own kitchen set up. We have our whole thing.
Who’s doing the yoga poses? Do you?
No, it’s not me. Nobody wants to be near me, dude. I’m very sweaty, no one wants to be near me doing yoga. No one ever wants to watch me doing yoga.
I’m nodding, I’m nodding knowledgeably but I’m just taking your word for it.
But, yeah, so we’ll make, I don’t know, I’m going to get the numbers slightly wrong, someone will get mad, but I think we’re going to make 3,000 or 4,000 videos this year that will be specifically targeted to one or two articles each because it enhances that experience.
You have a video operation and you do not monetize video directly?
I think that is very unusual.
But for us it’s so, when we look at yield, we don’t break down the elements. Let’s take a, and this is an IAC thing, like a lot, sort of like the unit economics of what we do. If we have an article that costs an amount of money to make, how does it have to monetize it? How much traffic does it have to get to make that article? Video is just a cost bucket unit. We’re not saying, well, Levity will cost us $1,000 to make, we need to get this much. It doesn’t work that way.
I’m just saying that I assume people who have other, come into your company or people like Barry Diller said, “Why don’t you put ads in front of that video?”
No, no we used to. We used to do everything. We used to put ads in front of the video but no one liked it, and the ads didn’t perform. Here’s the other thing with us and pre-roll is we could never compete with the CNN or YouTube anyway, so it was always a throw-in for a sale. Now we will make branded content videos for partners, we do a lot of. But we run those as branded content only, not as a pre-roll. We’ll make for home guys or for a big home retailer, we’ll do a big series for them. But we’re not into the traditional pre-roll monetization. We don’t do a lot of stuff other people do. We don’t do pop-ups, we don’t do interstitials. We don’t do any of that crap. People don’t like it.
So you made Barry Diller happy?
Uh, I think so.
Yeah, he tells you?
He’s not going to talk ...
What I would say is-
Is he talking about you at a cocktail party? My guess is he’s not.
Is he talking about me specifically? Absolutely not.
Is he talking about Dotdash? I actually think he is now and he wasn’t for a long time. I think it was in, IAC has announced in the fourth quarter of this year they’re breaking us out as our own segment. So the world is going to see our financial performance and all kinds of metrics. We’re, obviously, pleased and it’s gratifying that we’re now like a material piece of this public company. Probably took a little bit longer to get here than we would’ve like but, whatever. I think the outcome is pretty good.
So you can tell me with a straight face today, “I took an aging internet brand that was in decline,” to pull us back where we started, “And I have revived it/turned it around?”
Yeah, we have, we have.
We’re materially above 100 million of revenue this year. We’re profitable. I think I see in the third quarter earnings, we were up 35 percent year-over-year in revenue.
So let’s say Hans Vestberg from Verizon/Oath came over and said, “This Oath thing that used to run by Tim Armstrong. We paid $10 billion for it, we wrote off, $5 billion. We still think we’d like to do something with it. Can you help us turn it around?” Is there, forget that you’re always going to work for Barry Diller, but is there a way to turn around a Yahoo/AOL to things that are massive like that?
I don’t know, I don’t know. We’re much more concerned to look at all the other assets in the space and see which ones fit us, than to try and figure out how to fix them. I don’t know how you fix that. This is my first publishing gig. I’ve never been a publisher before and I think we, out of arrogance or whatever you have when you run things, I showed up and thought this was going to be an easy thing to fix. It took us a while to figure out what is our real value to the universe here? I think a lot of these properties, there’s no value in the universe for them. If they departed from the internet tomorrow, does anybody care? If the answer is no, then I don’t know that it’s fixable.
Yeah, you can do the harvest model but-
You can do the harvest, look, there’s money to be made if you have traffic. You can always do the harvest model.
People are making money from landline telephones, still.
Yeah. And AOL, whatever, you make money from dial-up or whatever.
Right. Shout out to my mother-in-law who is not listening to this but does pay AOL 10 bucks a month-
For security reasons, she says.
Well, whatever. But look there is always a way to win with content. Here is the enemy of publishers, there’s a few enemies of publishers. One is raising too much money because you lose discipline.
I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Two, that was not, I didn’t mean it that way. Two is-
These are fake plants, by the way.
They really are.
It’s a nice studio. Two, is by being too beholding to legacy things. We never had too much money but we did have a lot of patience, so we were able to mess up some stuff because we had too much patience. We were a little too wedded to a legacy thing that we’re like, ooh, this is not right. The world, the internet waits for no one.
People who are complaining that Facebook changed, we’re like, guys, Facebook is not a public utility. Their interests are, Google is not a public, I mean, one could argue they might be, but they don’t think of themselves as that. So to the extent you’re helpful to them, you’re helpful to them. To the extent you’re not, you’re not. So you need to be ready for the days when maybe they deem you less helpful. If you’re not, don’t complain about it. Do something about it.
Yeah. So prior to this, prior to the guy who ran Dotdash at the cocktail party, you were known as the Webbys guy.
I was The Webby Awards guy. That’s correct.
If you love the Webbys, thank Neil?
If you think the Webbys are kind of silly, talk to Neil.
No, come on. Well, I think the beauty of the Webbys is-
If you’re not familiar with the Webbys, let’s just explain it for this audience.
The Webbys is, we are the Oscars of the internet.
The Oscars of the internet.
I think that-
The big secret of the Webbys is you have to pay to be in the Webbys.
Every award, you have to pay. You have to pay for every award in the world. No one’s like, maybe not like in Nobel Prize.
But the Oscars business model is not built on Warner giving them money, right?
No, but they have an eight gazillion dollar TV deal.
I’m just saying, that, right.
They’re making money somehow.
Right, but you’re, the Webby business model is Mashable and Mic and Vox Media and everyone else.
I knew you’d bring up Mic.
That’s true. I’m sure at one point they wrote a check and they said, “Every time you submit you…”
The model is that interviews are definitely a part of the model but also a big part of the model is they aggregate an audience of people that a lot of companies want to get in front of because it’s a big sponsorship business.
And this was a thing that existed but was in some corner and no one touched it.
The Webby Awards were, they were owned in a prior life, The Webby Awards were owned by IDG and they had been part of, there was, at one point in the ‘90s, a magazine called “The Web,” a print magazine about what websites to go to. And the Webby Awards-
There was a Yahoo magazine, I remember that.
There’s a lot of people that claimed to have founded The Webby Awards. I don’t know, I actually have no idea who did.
You did not?
I did not, I did not. It came out of “The Web” magazine. It was a very San Francisco event in like the ‘90s, and then it wasn’t around for two years. So we, my partner, Roger, and I thought the internet needed its award show and they’ve done some really cool things. The one cool thing they had is they had this five-word acceptance speech concept that you only get a five word acceptance speech which has been sort of like the calling card.
We bought the intellectual property. We relaunched this award show thinking that this could be something really great. Then we had, like all businesses have moments of, whatever. People are like, “Well, there is no luck. It’s just ...” It’s a lot of luck that our very first Webby Awards had about 1,000 people enter. I think the most recent one had about 15,000 enter. We had about 1,000 people enter, and we did it in New York. Somehow or another, we gave Al Gore an award for, a lifetime achievement award.
For being awesome at the internet.
Right. For being awesome at the internet. Al Gore came to The Webby Awards and was, we were like, I cannot believe Al Gore’s at The Webby Awards.
“You shouldn’t be here, sir.”
This is like 12, 13 years ago. It was his first public appearance after going dark after the election. His five word speech on stage was, “Please don’t recount this vote.” And it was like the first viral moment on the internet. It was on, I remember it was on “World News Tonight,” it was on “60 Minutes.” That was the thing that launched us, is like, whoa. The Webby Awards is this interesting, it’s like the Clio Awards, industry award, but it had this pop culture thing. Years after that we ended up, we’ve had Prince there and the Beastie Boys and Jimmy Fallon and all these guys. It turned into this zeitgeisty thing.
And the publishers all ask their readers, fans-
Whomever to please vote so it becomes this thing where more people get invested in it.
It’s like a fun program.
Was there a time where you thought, oh, this has moved from novelty to this is a recurring business and-
There was, yes. Our third year doing this, “The New York Times” in the Arts section did a very big profile of The Webby Awards. When that happened, we’re like, oh, this has arrived. I think the Al Gore moment and “The New York Times” moment were the two things that sort of catapulted this into, in the creative awards space. It’s still like a B2B thing. There’s the Cannes Lions, there’s The Webby Awards, and there’s sort of the Clio Awards. Then there’s a bunch of other things that are small and around it.
You build this thing that becomes a successful thing, it’s a once a year thing. I’m assuming there’s a natural thought like, well, all right, I built the thing, it works. Make more of it, or it’s only once a year and there’s a lot of risk. What else can I do with this?
Well, the company is called Recognition Media that own The Webbys. We actually ended up running nine different awards programs. So something called the Telly Awards which is a video awards program, something called the Communicator Awards. We use sort of the same, it’s actually not that different than what we do now, the same backbone to run all the awards. But each one has its own sort of vertical. Architecture awards.
So you did do that. Let’s build it out.
Yeah, we built it out and then we sold it to a private equity shop. Then I was sitting around and that’s how I ended up here. They threw me out. They didn’t want me anymore.
Now you’re here downtown.
Now I’m here downtown, Vox World HQ.
Yeah. It’s a 2HQ thing just like Amazon.
Oh, I didn’t know that.
We’re split between DC and New York.
Oh, I didn’t.
This is the second HQ.
That makes sense.
That makes sense. I mean our politics stuff has to be ...
So you’re going to build, you’re going to buy.
We’re going to build, we’re going to buy.
You can do Barry Diller shops and not pay top dollar.
You know, I don’t, that’s the, there’s this conception.
Although you did win the bid for About.com?
Yeah. There’s this conception that ... IAC is very disciplined and smart and they’ll pay for value. I think we’re just going to be really disciplined and smart. We want intent-driven brands. Again, I think the problem with our business now, if I could put a finger on it is, our brands are just not, we have the opposite problem of every other publisher. Our business is much bigger than our brands. Everyone else has, like if you’re, whatever, Conde Nast, your brands are much bigger than your business at this point. We’re the opposite of that. We’re trying to find some brands that we don’t have to teach people and see what we can do with those.
Excellent. That’s good thinking. That’s an excellent plan for 2019.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.