If you wanted to know about stuff, there used to be this website whose mission was, well, all about that. It was called About.com, and on Tuesday, it vanished from the internet, replaced by a rebranded, decentralized media site called Dotdash.com.
Whereas About.com aimed to be a repository for information on virtually any topic you could be curious about, Dotdash positions itself as a collection of "content destinations," an umbrella media brand of six distinct sites about how to do stuff. It launched the vertical Verywell (about health), then The Balance (about money management), followed Thoughtco (about learning stuff) and Lifewire (about using technology). The business model for these sites__ __is the same as About.com's was: Experts write how-tos and explainer stories for specific audiences. Dotdash's sites will be about all the same things, but they'll stay separate, taking the best of the old evergreen About content and moving it over. You'll come upon these sites when you're searching for "how to install drapes" or "do i have osteoporosis," and you probably won't realize that you're reading what used to be one of the internet's oldest, most visited sites.
About.com didn't die of natural causes. It was killed by its CEO despite still being profitable. The story of why it had to die in order for this new thing to be born tells you a lot about the way the internet has changed since its earliest days.
About.com launched in 1997, and if you surfed the web in the past two decades you likely visited it at some point. You likely also have little to no memory why. An informal poll of WIRED folks bore that out. Everyone I spoke to remembered looking at About.com now and then, but only one person could remember a single specific page he had visited. Personally, I thought I could remember an About.com page I had repeatedly visited over the years, but when I checked my bookmarks (yes, I use those), it turns out it was a WikiHow page. (This one, about how to get wax off your clothes, which is a thing that happens to me a lot for some reason?).
This omnipresent neutrality, this ever-present immemorableness, this comforting blandness has served other sites well in the age of fragmented media, when brand awareness is at an all-time low and what matters instead is the shareability of the content. Viral sites like Uproxx, Ranker, and even Buzzfeed have all at one point traded in this kind of "can't place your finger on it" ephemerality, cashing in on the phenomenon of stumbling across their content by chance.
Even as recently as 2005, About.com and its business model were highly valued: the venerable New York Times bought the company for $410 million that year, betting that a general-interest information site would never go out of style. In 2012, the Times sold it to IAC---the company that owns Match.com, Tinder, and the Daily Beast, to name just a few---for $300 million.
"When I got there, the site was so ugly and it was so difficult to use. I thought, 'Why are we even in business?'" says CEO Neil Vogel, who IAC tapped to run the site in 2013.
The reason was because a lot of people still used it. Back in March 2014, About.com was still the 16th most-visited site on the internet, according to Comscore. About.com wasn't necessarily entertainment or news, but rather it trafficked in educational content, or what Vogel calls "learn something, do something" stuff. That's not the kind of thing you browse. You go to an About.com (or you did) to answer a very specific question. The one WIRED employee who remembers why he visited the site often used to go to get answers about physics and geography. It was a popular site for answering coding language questions. You don't stumble on that kind of thing. You seek it.
This is why About.com thrived for so long; its legacy dated back so far, its pages ranked high in search results, and this toehold served it well long after Google search changed the internet forever. But in the late aughts, when the web started to change and user behavior shifted more toward social and mobile, About.com didn't keep up. Under the Times, About.com did not have social share buttons---those icons that sit near the top of articles and encourage you to share it with your social networks. Neither was it optimized to look good on a smartphone screen. When IAC finally invested in making those changes, it was playing catch-up in a game others had stopped playing. Vogel cleaned up the tech and optimized the site, and it didn't change anything.
"About.com had good search-engine traffic back in the day, but then it got worse and worse," Vogel says. "We confused Google, because you just can’t be an expert in diabetes and how to stain a floor." Same thing for Facebook and Pinterest and all the sites that now bring information to readers: the algorithms, as far as Vogel could tell, didn't value the generalism of About.com.
"We had this brand everybody knew. If you asked people if they'd heard of About.com, 100 percent said yes, but if you asked where do you go for health advice? Nobody said About.com," Vogel says.
After Vogel spent two years at the helm, About.com was still big and still profitable---but not growing. And he had to tell his bosses at IAC. "Guys, everything we’ve done was wrong," he says he told them. The right thing to do, he told them, was to break the site into smaller bits, cut out the old content that wasn't good, curate the best of it, and present it in separate verticals. Verywell, launched last year, took about half of About.com's existing health articles with it, after being edited and updated.
"And then we put it out in the world, with the hopes that humans would respond and, more importantly, that algorithms would respond," Vogel says. At least for that vertical it seems to be working. Vogel says About.com's health content was getting about 12 million uniques a month before Verywell launched; Verywell got 17 million last month.
So the name change to DotDash is not just a last-gasp attempt at rebranding, like when Radioshack became just The Shack a few years before it sputtered out of existence. This is more like Tribune Media becoming Tronc; an actual substantial change in the business structure encapsulated by a weird new name.
"We want to turn Yahoo into Condé Nast," is how Vogel explains the change. (It's the line he used on IAC execs when he first pitched it in 2015.) What it means is that About.com, like Yahoo, was a big portal site---like AOL and MSM were too; the behemoths that worked at the start of the internet era and which are now slowly dying in this world.
It very well may not work. Vogel himself gives it a 25 percent chance of failure. But what isn't in doubt is that yesterday, a site you may never have realized you visited quietly died, and with it one last vestige of the old web.