Since its founding in 1996, the portal model for about.com had been just fine — 130 experts going deep into topics ranging from style to parenting, automotive to money, religion to tech — and several others that helped build about.com into a powerhouse. A wide swath of knowledge, coming from people on the ground who really know their stuff, with a beefy audience. According to comScore, about.com had north of 66m unique visitors in February 2016 for both desktop and mobile.
The big news last week at IAC-owned about.com revolved around its first major foray into verticals: a health site called Verywell — a departure from the staid, clinical and decidedly overwhelming feel of incumbents like WebMD. With its bespoke illustration and clean, simple user experience, Neil Vogel, about.com CEO, knew that while everyone “zigged,” Verywell needed to “zag.”
“The simple story is that we decided to do a vertical and that’s how people want to consume content now,” said Vogel. “But the bigger story is ‘how do you go and do this?’”
It’s not so much about aggregating content. That’s seemingly easy. The hard part is how to keep the scale and quality of the content while making it more accessible and friendlier. Additionally, what were the motivations to go in this direction and what research was done to ensure that Verywell could stand out in a somewhat cluttered field?
Getting away from "clinical and scary"
The “tried and true” portal model of the 1990s and early 2000s are not the ones “that are winning,” according to Vogel, an ebullient born-and-raised Philadelphian. Stepping out from what worked for so long constituted a risk, but the company was committed to its evolution. Moreover, creating an entirely new brand presented both challenges and opportunities. about.com had one distinct advantage: a tremendous amount of health content, written in a more accessible way.
“The big health sites are clinical and scary,” said Vogel. “Turns out, our content is a little bit more as if your best friend were a doctor, written from the peer point of view — people who really cared about results. That led us into understanding what our brand was. We have content that is friendly.”
about.com found out that behavior, the visceral reaction people have to health-related content, was telling.
“What we found out was that when someone goes to look at health content on the Internet, they're generally in some degree of crisis,” said Vogel. “If you had a checkup and your doctor said, ‘You've got to lose five pounds, I don't like what I'm seeing.’ That's a very low degree of crisis — that’s a solvable thing. If your mother gets a diagnosis of something that's pretty scary, that's a high degree of crisis. What we found out is that the mindset of the health user is in some amount of crisis. When you match that up with the experience of a lot of the leading health sites, people leave those sites feeling worse than when they got there.”
Setting a course for simplicity
The “friendliness” side of the health content equation, however, was not exactly the main goal. There was a much more pragmatic reason to build something that was different, and addressed the stress involved with health-related research.
“We didn't set out to build a site that's friendly and easy to use,” said Vogel. “That's actually hard to do, because there are a million ways to that. What we wanted to figure out was, when we build this, when are people comfortable on the Internet? Well, they're comfortable when they're reading the stuff that they like. Whether it's, reading The New York Times, or ESPN, or Mic, or OZY, or Mashable — or reading whatever makes people at ease.”
Design cues and functionality inspiration came from other sites. It was literally as simple as “freestyling” things the staff loved on the Internet, and seeing how (and if) it made sense for the new venture. Riffing on other ideas sometimes unearthed more questions than answers, but the exercise proved to be valuable. Verywell is not specifically a Millennial-centric site, but sites like OZY and Quartz resulted in the realization that some of the more popular executions around the web were, in fact, appropriate for a health-related site.
“At the end of the article we have a thing that I called the "Adventure Nav". Where you can either go to the next thing in the stream, or there's four other things you can switch to,” said Vogel. “Our team riffed (on OZY) and came back with that. This feels great and appropriate for a health site. It came off of something that's made for something like, going deep on music content — but we thought it was a really good user experience.”
The classification of content, was another important consideration to help users avoid confusion and is also steeped in clarity and simplicity. Vogel pointed out that most people are directed to the site via external referrals (i.e. - social media) and not necessarily coming in through the front door — making it necessary to determine a way to keep people exploring.
“You land somewhere, smack in the middle of our taxonomy. It's very hard, and it gets people stressed out. They don't know where they are in the content discovery process. They don't know where they are on this website. So we made the taxonomy as part of the design in making it really easy,” said Vogel, a Penn graduate.
“If you're on any article, and you go to the left, you're going to see the category you're in. It's going to be represented visually with an illustration. You're going to see all the topics we cover on that category. If you click on that, that illustration follows you around,” said Vogel. “We’ve tried to take everything off the page that was noise. When we did all these things, and we user-tested what we built, we had a little bit of a “wow, people love this" reaction. When people want health content, they're not browsing. If you come in on diabetes content, you don't want to be shown other content you might be interested in. You just want as much on your topic as you can get. It's the opposite of food content. If you have 75 things to click on, nobody knows what to do. They click on nothing and they go nowhere. If you just have a couple of very clear things, people are so much happier.”
Ads are OK (as long as they're relevant)
Ad blocking, and all its related conversation, is something that Vogel acknowledges and is vigilant about, but doesn’t see it as an “existential crisis apocalypse.” He points out that the number of people using ad blocking on the site is up a little but has “barely moved.” To him, content/advertising coupling can be additive to the overall user-experience, by not flooding the content with ads and exploring capacities for native content.
“Here's the thing you learn in your research, users do not resent advertising,” said Vogel. “In many cases, users, if you have good advertising, will find your page more credible. Which is really interesting. What they don't like is when advertising is everywhere, when it is confusing to them, and when they don't know what is content and what is advertising. It's very clear what the ads are and where they fit. Users aren’t wondering what's content and what's ads. They know what's content and what's an ad. It turns out, it makes the ads perform better.”
Though it’s early, Vogel said that Verywell’s click-through-rate (CTR) is 3 times higher than it was on the original about.com site.
"The best product wins."
Verywell is the first foray into the vertical world for about.com, but there are plans to evolve more of its content into single entities. Travel (“we're kind of the anti-Trip Advisor, because we have actual experts in all these places that write about what you should do when you're there), tech (“it’s a little bit more like fix your computer, than the 18 different traits of the new iPhone), home and finance seem the most ripe opportunities.
No matter what direction about.com explores, there is one thing that Vogel is adamant about: quality.
“For awhile maybe the best product doesn't win. The best product might not always be what you think it is. Amazon is the ugliest commerce site in the world, but it's also the best. It's really effective for them,” noted Vogel. “We started from scratch but ultimately, I believe — and the Internet has proved this over and over and over again. The best product wins.”