Answers and About.com
[Update: In a repeat of the Dictionary.com acquisition five years ago, Answers.com was the first to reach a tentative agreement, but Ask.com closed the deal.]
I have fond memories of the Mining Company, which changed its name to About.com. They may have been the first big quality reference site on the web. They also may have been among the first to really understand how Google was changing the web.
Pre-Google, most of us used search engines to find a web site. So we’d search for a site about Health. Once on the health site, we’d look for the information we needed. But Google was very good at finding web pages, so we’d type in a specific phrase and Google would send us directly to the page that had the information we needed. A colleague once talked to About.com’s CEO about how neglected their home page seemed. About’s CEO mentioned that the vast majority of their visitors never hit the home page, they went directly from Google to a results page. Sure, we all know this now, but back then it was a shift.
At the time, Answers.com (where I worked) was still GuruNet, a subscription-based client application. Our marketing pitch had been focused on how hard it was to find information on the Web, and how long it took. You had to open your browser, go to your search engine, wait for it to load, type in your search query, hit enter, wait for the results, choose a result, wait for it to load, look for your information on that site, and then usually go back to the search results and try again.
Free, quality sites like About, faster internet connections, and Google destroyed our old model. We followed About’s lead and became a free destination site. We understood that people just Googled for information, and that essentially we were serving Google’s users. It was a good, though highly vulnerable business. It relied on Google organic search for traffic, and on Google AdSense for revenue. There were rumors that other search engines and other pay per click advertising providers existed. We had little evidence to back that up. A month later (February 2005) the New York Times purchased About for $410 million.
About continued growing, but the model was vulnerable. Wikipedia was growing and ranking very high on Google for most reference terms. Wikipedia’s site was clean and fast. And their content was excellent. I have to admit that I didn’t see that coming. We would start viewing Wikipedia, not About, as our model when we started growing our Q&A site, WikiAnswers.
Companies kept creating new niche sites targeted at the most lucrative topics, leaving broad reference sites with the least valuable traffic. Click through rates throughout the AdSense network dropped.
Google’s Panda update didn’t help. Too many sites had adopted About’s basic model but were putting out crap, and Google responded. I still think About got a raw deal there. Some well connected interested parties who were threatened by eHow did a good job demonizing “content farms.” So About, which had been lifting New York Times’ numbers for a while, was now dragging them down.
Meanwhile, Answers was bought by Announce Media last year, and Announce then changed its name to Answers.
And now the story just took a new twist. Answers apparently just signed a term sheet to acquire About.com from The New York Times for $270 million. The combination should make Answers a top-15 site.
It’s been an interesting journey for Answers.com. We started as GuruNet, a small pop-up window that displayed quick information about a word or name. Then we went enterprise, providing large businesses quick access to their internal info. Then we went back to being GuruNet, but in a larger window, and with more info, and you had to buy the application. Then we gave the application away but you had to subscribe to the content. Then we became a free web site, rebranded Answers.com. Then we acquired a Q&A site that justified our name. The Q&A site was wildly successful. Then we were bought, but our acquirer took on Answers’ name for the whole business. Now they acquired About.
Answers has come a long way. I wonder what’s next.