IAC, parent company of Ask.com and many other prominent websites, has acquired About.com from the New York Times with a $300 million cash deal, trumping a $270 million offer from Answers.com. Many news sites have reported details of the acquisition, but I want to focus on the implications and opportunities for marketers that much of the news coverage seems to have overlooked.
About has nearly 1,000 topic sites, more than 3 million unique articles and nearly 100 million unique monthly users worldwide. Ask.com has more than 100 million users globally and despite fading from the top ranks as a leading search engine over the years, still remains one of the most popular Q&A platforms on the Internet.
The combination of the two provides marketers with a potentially significant new avenue for capturing traffic and acquiring customers. Both sites are top-100 web destinations, and the combination of the Q&A format offered by Ask with the depth of “curated” content by About.com suggests that there are true “synergies” that are so often touted in these types of mergers but which rarely actually translate into meaningful opportunities for online marketers.
Full disclosure before I get into the details: I was the web search guide for About.com between 1998 and 2001, a position now occupied for years by the estimable Wendy Bosworth. “Guides” are the curators and, in a sense, ringmasters of specific topic areas for About, and one of the “hidden” strengths the site offers that differentiates it from other so-called “content farms.” More on that below.
So, Why Now?
Over the past year or so, Google has focused on changes designed to demote so-called content farms – sites that exist primarily to derive advertising revenue by creating short, somewhat relevant articles that purport to address user information needs, but in fact more often have been crafted to capture traffic by combining some relevant content with sophisticated SEO techniques that match certain types of keywords, leverage link networks and so on. Specifically, Google’s panda and penguin algorithm updates have targeted these types of “thin” content-farm types of sites, demoting or even removing them from high-ranking search results.
But neither About nor Ask have ever sought to capture traffic via the methods used by content farms. Some may disagree with this claim, but I’ll reiterate it based on years of observing both companies. Let’s start with Ask.
Ask.com began life as Ask Jeeves in 1996. Unlike the search engines and “web directories” (think Yahoo) of the day, Ask Jeeves differentiated itself by allowing users to ask “questions” via natural language queries rather than simple keywords. It also offered “results” in the form of “answers” via drop-down menus, rather than the familiar “ten blue links” that we are all accustomed to today.
Behind the scenes, a crew of “jeeviants” created a database of millions of “answers” to the most common questions posed by users. Until Google came along, with its vast index of the web and superior interpretation of understanding user information needs came along, Ask Jeeves was one of the best places to go to find many types of information on the web.
But as Google became popular and pretty much destroyed the other search services of the time, Ask survived by first attempting to become a crawler-based service by purchasing the Teoma search engine in 2001, but ultimately abandoning that approach to become a Q&A focused site with users asking questions and others answering them – a precursor to currently popular sites such as Yahoo Answers, Quora and others.
Today, Ask.com is a shadow of what it once was, but still maintains a respectable position as one of the internet’s top destinations.
About.com was also an early pioneer in helping people find information on the web, beginning life in 1995 as The Mining Company, changing its name to About in 1999. With a model similar to Ask Jeeves, the company employed “guides” who were knowledgeable about specific topics to create directories of web links on those topics – but also to personally interact with users who had questions they couldn’t find answers to on the web, given the poor quality of search back in the day.
In its early days, Ask Jeeves hired many librarians and information professionals to help create its trove of information (our own indefatigable human-search engine and contributing editor Gary Price, was an ambassador for the company for a number of years). By contrast, the Mining Company contracted guide positions to anyone who could complete a rigorous (and speaking from personal experience, I mean rigorous) trial that demonstrated competence with both finding and annotating (now more commonly referred to as “curating”) relevant web content related to their subject matter expertise. Jeeves hired salaried staff; The MiningCo/About paid guides based on the page views their topic-specific guide-sites generated.
Enter Google, The Automated Giant
Humans created the first web directories, but as the web grew (and grew quickly) it was apparent that automated technology was going to be the wave of the future. Search engines like Lycos, AltaVista and Infoseek employed crawling technology to discover and index content on the web with little human intervention. Problem was, in those early days in the mid-to-late 90s, banner and pop-up ads were the only means of “monetizing” this nascent form of search – so most early search engines tried to branch out with other services (rebranding themselves as “portals”) that ultimately weren’t popular with users, and thus they struggled financially.
Google emerged in 1998 with a “laser-like focus” on search, and while it didn’t figure out how to make money until a few years later when it launched its AdWords and AdSense programs, it rapidly gained market and mind-share and its overwhelming popularity among users became a significant factor in what became rapid user-abandonment and demise of the pioneering search engines.
Today, as we all know, Google is dominant in search, virtually everywhere in the world. The company also dictates standards that content providers must abide by to get good visibility in its search results.
Which begs the question of the moment: With Google as powerful as it is, why would a content provider like About make a good match with an also-ran search engine like Ask that’s now primarily a Q&A service? And why should marketers care?
Why The Ask/About Combination Makes Sense
Let’s start with the official, PR point of view:
“The About.com acquisition is completely in line with IAC’s M&A strategy of acquiring, at disciplined valuations, companies that are complementary and synergistic with both our existing businesses and our areas of expertise,” said IAC CEO Greg Blatt in a company issued press release.
Yeah, sure. We’ve heard similar essentially meaningless blather before, a million times from a million companies doing these types of deals. But count me in the camp that actually believes this marketingspeak for a change, and allow me to explain why I not only think it will work but why it’s a rare opportunity for online marketers to get in on something before your competitors do (more disclosure: I have no connection in any way with either IAC or the New York Times other than channels of communication with many key players – no financial or other interest than as an observer).
When you deconstruct the generic blah, I believe Blatt is correct. About is a rich source of mostly high-quality content that has existed on the web for years. At first, it was created by a group of people who really cared about directing people to the best information on the web. Then, under the ownership of the New York Times, it was also known for producing world-class content that lived up to similar standards of one of the most recognized sources of authoratative news in the world.
Through most of this time, the search engine marketing/optimization efforts undertaken by About were overseen by the capable stewardship of Marshall Simmonds, who was Chief Search Strategist for About.com/New York Times Company from 1999-2010, and someone many of you will recognize as one of the most respected experts in the field from the very early days of search marketing (even before it was called search marketing). I asked Marshall what he thought about the deal, and he replied in his characteristically diplomatic way:
“About.com is a pioneer in the online content space. Some of the smartest people I’ve ever met worked, and continue to work there. Throughout the massive changes in strategy online About has continued to persevere. Early on we successfully honed an approach that always focused on users first and promotion second. They were the first online company to integrate SEO deeply and throughout the organization and truly make it part of a daily workflow. Management was always at the forefront of innovation fully embracing recommendations and promotion strategies. Definitely looking forward to seeing where this new transition takes About.”
Bluntly: About isn’t, and never has been a content farm. It’s been a high-quality source of web-based information, overseen by an ethical and very skilled SEO and management team from the beginning. I realize some may take this as cheerleading – but it’s not – it’s an objective observation drawn from many years of observing what the service has created and provided to web users.
Net: IAC has purchased a gem – and one that’s vastly underutilized by online marketers. This is a significant opportunity for marketers, especially for those pursuing niche or specialized areas where it’s difficult to garner significant traffic via more conventional methods.
Advice For Marketers
There are two primary channels you should be considering to leverage the About/IAC combination.
Advertising Options. Ask offers display advertising, claiming to be “the 10th most trafficked site daily that accepts graphical advertisements” (according to 2010 data from comScore). Ask is also part of the Google Search Network. By default, your ads will appear on search network partner sites when you create a campaign – but to be sure your text ads may display on any future Ask/About combination, be sure to check that the “Search partners” option on your campaign network settings is selected.
About.com (at least for now) also has advertising options, using Google’s Dart system .
Social Media/Direct Contact. Because Ask is primarily a Q&A based service, it’s highly social. Register with the service, and Ask will keep an ongoing count of the number of questions you’ve asked, answered, and how many “thumbs up” votes” you’ve received from the community. As with any community-based site, be careful to be helpful, relevant, polite and use all of the other common-sense online hygiene rules for engaging with people socially.
With About.com, remember that each specific topic area is overseen by a “guide” who essentially owns the topic area (put another way, a tightly focused group of people who are passionate about a subject, product or service that are optimal people for you to be considering reaching out to). There are two ways you can interact with these communities.
First, similar to other social media, via the forums that are associated with each topic area. About has a convienent drill-down category guide that makes it easy to identify the “communities” that make the most sense for you to be intereacting with. Once you find a particular guide site (for example, Tech Careers), navigate to the forum, familiarize yourself and start participating.
About also makes it easy to interact directly with guides. Remember – these people are not only curating links to relevant web content – they are also creating original content, and like all journalists or other publishers are looking for helpful, relevant sources of information that make their jobs easier.
Most guides publish regular email newsletters, and also tweet and are active on facebook, so sign up, follow and make friend requests. You can do all of this through a guide’s bio page (here’s David Weedmark, About’s Tech Career’s guide bio page as an example).
Then, slowly, thoughtfully engage with the guide. Don’t take a PR approach – remember, these are real people who are passionate about what they’re doing, not journalists who are jaded and tend to discard or pay little attention to a majority of the slick pitches sent their way. If you engage with a guide on a personal level it’s possible you’ll be getting a fair amount of attention from them – and attention that’s going to mention you on highly trafficked sites, again to highly targeted audiences.
Bottom line: Until IAC acquires and integrates About it’s impossible to predict whether this will become a truly valuable resource for marketers. But if you are looking to explore new alternatives to those you’re currently using, don’t delay – start exploring your options now before everyone else catches on.