Search Lessons from a US Publishing Giant: The Fall of About.com and the Rise of DotDash
Posted by Tom Yates on February 12, 2019
Before the internet, knowing how to choose and raise a turkey would have been difficult, perhaps you’d know someone who’d reared fowl in the past, or maybe you’d stumble across a book in the library. Now, thanks to a guide on The Spruce, a seven-point checklist, including information on breeds, housing, and disease prevention is a few clicks away. From here, a reader can move onto raising rabbits for wool or how best to fence pigs and before long, you may end up on a partnered website ready to purchase their top rated fertiliser of 2018.
Since its launch, thespruce.com has become a goldmine for this kind of home and lifestyle content, reaching 32 million users in the US each month and filling SERPs for an enormous range of queries. This property, along with The Balance, Verywell, Investopedia, Lifewire, Tripsavvy, Thoughtco, Byrdie and MyDomaine make up the publishing empire of DotDash and cover a variety of verticals from finance to travel and cookery to mental health.
Despite their huge mass of content and reported 130 million US users each month, 5 of the 8 websites did not exist before 2016, and those that did are strategic acquisitions. However, DotDash did not appear from thin air. The publishing giant owes its heritage to About.com, a former staple of online search whose unceremonious decline was arrested by a so-far successful rebrand. This article will briefly discuss About.com until 2017 before examining the details of the DotDash turnaround. Their example presents a number of key lessons for search marketers.
A brief history of About.com
For two decades, About.com paid writers to pump out material on a variety of topics, against which online adverts could be leveraged. Their proposition played to the mechanics of search in the early to mid-noughties, a time when a paucity of online content and the primitive algorithms of search engines combined to grant unscrupulous publishers significant online visibility.
As the technology of Google and other search engines steadily evolved, About.com began to suffer. The Google Panda updates of 2011 targeting thin content, content farming and sites with a high ad-to-content ratio, hit especially hard. By this point, however, the New York Times, who oversaw the domain from 2005, had already allowed About.com to slide, using the site’s steady revenue stream as a financial scaffold in an unsteady climate post-2008.
By 2012, however, it was surplus to requirements and represented an additional liability requiring maintenance. Eventually InterActiveCorp (IAC), a huge US holding company managing 150 online media brands, parted with $300m to acquire the domain, realising a net loss of $110m for the NY Times. Their first decision was to promote Neil Vogel to CEO, sparking an initial PR drive and a much needed internal shake-up. Yet, despite his efforts, About.com’s visibility didn’t budge.
It became clear that more than just incremental change was required, and so, the board took the bold decision to rebrand in May 2017. This went far beyond a change of name; instead it involved splitting the domain into separate websites and dumping masses of pre-existing content.
Their subsequent success offers an interesting case study into the current state of online search, particularly in the market of information.
Lesson 1: Content needs to be packaged correctly
For many years, About.com had been a jack of all trades and master of none. Articles on knee surgery sat alongside advice for pet owners and bakery tips. In an increasingly saturated marketplace, this lack of focus throttled search traffic as the origin of information emerged as a key differential for users. In a recent interview with Recode, Vogel discussed how changes to the market meant About.com lost out to dedicated, topical websites such as WebMD or Epicurious.
The fall in consumer trust coincided with the dissociation of online advertisers from About.com to established, written publications which had started to cultivate an online audience. Clearly, About.com had struggled to keep pace with changes to the way that online information was being consumed, so rather than fight a losing battle, the About Group chose to dump their name.
Leveraging brand and creating topical authority
Repackaging information under new branding has undoubtedly boosted entrances to the website. In a blog post for Blue Array, Dylan Yates discussed the positive relationship between establishing a brand and earning clicks in an increasingly crowded SERP, concluding that ‘brand recognition is key for exposure in search engines, and generating a click to your website’. Ditching the rotten About.com name has surely had a positive impact on CTR as users are more likely to click on a site dedicated to a particular vertical as opposed to a catch-all with a bad reputation.
However, this does not explain improved organic visibility. To some extent, this relates to the creation of coherent content hubs which give the mystique of topical authority. Neil Vogel describes this in his own words, arguing that ‘if you have ‘how to fix a flat tire’ content in the same place as ‘how to make a chicken pot pie’ or the same place as ‘how to unclog a drain’… algorithms can’t figure out what you’re good at’, instead, DotDash built focused subdomains which could be considered authoritative on a target subject.
The requirement for topical authority has been highlighted by official Google literature. In their most recent publication of the ‘Search Quality Rating Guidelines’, raters are consistently told to consider the authority of a website (see pages 18-19) before scoring the quality of its constituent pages. Surely, it is far easier for a domain to be recognised as a topical authority if its content is focused on the subject area, by contrast, would a website producing material on turkey breeding be considered an authority on heart conditions?
On Verywell, DotDash’s ‘health and wellness’ domain, topical authority has been further cultivated by creating separate sites for fitness, family, physical health and mental health in February last year. So far, results appear to support the break-up, as overall entrances to Verywell domains rose by 205% between January and December 2018 to 53.6m, with 27.9m reaching verwellhealth.com alone.
VerywellHealth’s rapid climb also defied the so-called August 1st ‘Medic Update’ which some believed to target health and YMYL website’s deemed low in ‘expertise, authority and trust’ (E-A-T).
DotDash have boosted E-A-T in other ways too. On every article a detailed profile of the author is provided including their experience, education and a link to their social accounts, while ‘About Us’ pages clearly define the site’s core purpose and candidly discuss commercial models and advertising partnerships.
On TheSpruce, for example, users are told ‘our writers create original, accurate, engaging content that is free of ethical concerns or conflicts’, while a separate page discusses the ‘editorial guidelines and mission’ of partnered product review pages. Verywell has taken these considerations even more seriously by employing a medical review board made up of experienced health professionals, who oversee the publication of any health advice on the domain.
Through placing greater emphasis on brand and message, DotDash have moved with the changing face of online search as users, advertisers and search engines continue to pin more value to the sources of content in what has become a crowded and, sometimes, shady space. However, as well as repackaging content, they have elevated their brands by producing better quality.
Lesson 2: Users and search engines are discerning
From the outset, DotDash represented a transformation in more than just name. Following the rebrand, 900,000 of their 1.2m articles were discarded leaving a core of pages to build from. Many of the remaining 300,000 articles were enriched with updated information, new images and original videos, costing IAC in the region of $45million.
Again, increased competition forced their hand. In an interview given in March 2018, Vogel was perspicuous on the matter, claiming ‘the sources of traffic that delivered for doing low-quality things are evaporating. Ultimately, there isn’t really a place on the internet for mediocre and crappy content’.
Google’s search quality guidelines substantiate his point. On page 20, for example, we are told, ‘the quality of the main content is one of the most important criteria in page quality rating’. In their view, high quality online content requires ‘at least one of the following: time, effort, expertise and talent/skill’, and the judgement of a page depends on its defined purpose, for example an informational piece ‘must be factually accurate for the topic and must be supported by expert consensus’.
Of course, as Google’s search algorithms have become more intelligent, these kinds of qualitative assessments are an increasingly important ranking factor and certain sites have languished because of sludgy material (the demise of Demand Media is a good example).
Within the SEO community, there has been significant reaction to the changing requirements of webpage content, notably Rand Fishkin’s ‘10x content’ Whiteboard Friday and subsequent blog post (Forbes have also commissioned an excellent article expanding the idea). Essentially, publishers should look to create content that can be considered ten times better than competing webpages by considering factors such as user experience, emotional responses, problem solving and, most importantly, originality.
DotDash have taken these factors seriously. To go back to The Spruce’s article on turkey breeding, the depth of information is impressive, including instructions on the optimal length of feeding grass and an average hen’s daily water consumption, among other nuggets. The guide is also structured clearly as a 7-point list and written by an experienced small farmer from rural Vermont. If a user wants further information on poultry farming, including deep dives into breed selection, where to buy the best poults and how to slaughter turkeys on a small farm, guides can easily be accessed beneath the main content.
DotDash push for quality in other ways too, often at the cost of potential revenue streams or additional outlay. Since rebranding, for example, a significant number of on-page ads have been removed with interstitials and video ads sacrificed altogether in the hope of boosting page speed and user experience. The style and information of on-page content is also updated on a regular basis, in keeping with new data and evolving design capabilities. On VeryWell’s platforms, we are told that no article is older than a year.
Combining SEO with design, content & UX capabilities
It seems obvious to suggest that the quality of a web page is a ranking factor, however, misunderstandings and miscommunications between SEOs and UX designers, graphic designers and copywriters often means the requirements are not effectively articulated in terms of search engine ranking. By taking the need for quality seriously and by interweaving these four vital aspects of content creation, DotDash’s websites are able to fulfill the needs of an increasingly discerning user base and more sophisticated search engines.
However, aside from generating good quality content on authoritative domains, DotDash have consistently met demand for the right topics and expanded into the flushest markets.
Lesson 3: There’s huge opportunity with informational searches
In many ways, the DotDash rise has been a tale of opportunism. On seeing the decline of social referrals in relation to search, they have concentrated all of their efforts on the latter and disregarded the former. This can be seen most clearly in their rejection of ‘perishable’ verticals such as sports, current affairs and fashion in favour of evergreen topics with clear online demand.
The level of online demand is highlighted by monthly keyword search volumes within each vertical. According to SEMRush’s US index, The Spruce hits 2.5m non-brand keywords, The Balance, a personal finance domain, hits 1.6m and VeryWellHealth hits 3.9m. The types of queries include huge volume ‘head’ terms and highly specific queries in the ‘tail of searches. For example, a Spruce Pets guide titled ‘sugar gliders as pets’ is visible for 585 queries, 73 of which rank in position one on Google. These high-ranking keywords range from terms such as ‘sugar gliders’, receiving 301,000 searches per month, to questions such as ‘do sugar gliders make good pets’ receiving 390 monthly searches. The scale of visibility is enormous for a seemingly throwaway article.
Keeping track of demand requires plenty of creativity and commercial awareness from publishers, especially given the proliferation of viral trends. Investopedia, an IAC brand now housed in the DotDash family, has performed exceptionally for in-demand subjects. This could be seen most clearly during the Bitcoin boom of 2017 when their informational articles on cryptocurrencies, ICOs and blockchain technology topped SERPs for the influx of related queries.
Targeting intent-driven audiences
The beauty of targeting these informational searches is that they attract intent driven audiences. Consequently, DotDash sites have become gems for online advertisers and e-commerce partners who can assess a user’s purpose based on the page they visit, as opposed to gathering data sets and figuring it out otherwise.
In Vogel’s words, DotDash ‘figured out that contextual targeting is better than trying to get 800 data points on somebody and trying to prove what they want. If you’re on our site trying to figure out if your child has a fever, that’s all we need to know’. This approach seems more sustainable in the long-term as users and legislators push back on the exploitation of personal information by adtech.
What’s more, syphoning users with intent gives DotDash the option for expansion into ecommerce or direct sales to users. Although this is not currently on their horizon, the recent acquisition of Byrdie, a beauty website, presents a move into another commodity-focused vertical. Initially, they may look to draw closer ties with related ecommerce sites before taking a more direct approach.
Of course, this is speculation, however, it highlights the value that informational search queries can hold. In a recent Google article we are told how intent is redefining the marketing funnel as ‘people now expect to be assisted everywhere’ and they ‘respond to brands that understand their needs’. In this landscape, organisations which can create sufficient responses will have a significant impact on user journeys and, ultimately, conversions.
This article has looked to explain the recent eruption of DotDash’s websites in relation to Google literature and guidelines. Overall, they have constructed authoritative, domains with focused branding which users value and Google deems trustworthy. The sense of authority is boosted by the quality of on-page content which is produced by topical experts and updated regularly.
Clearly, there is room to gather empirical evidence to support the SEO value of these strategies. For example, analysis of the types of web pages displayed for certain search queries, whether or not an article has a named author with sufficient expertise, or a qualitative assessment of the top 10 web pages displayed for certain informational search queries. This data could be used to inform content strategies with an SEO focus.
Going forward, the market for informational search queries will become even more competitive as organisations understand and harness their commercial value. Traditionally, top spot was won by out-muscling competition or by manipulating loopholes, however, as Neil Vogel articulates, ‘there is no business in gaming someone else’s algorithm in the long-term’.
Instead, Google’s output is becoming more closely aligned with the priorities of its users who require expertise, authority and trust, as well as high quality content. Consequently, SEO campaigns will be fought in close conjunction with user experience, publishing and web design capabilities. DotDash are showing how this can be achieved, others should take notice.