When Neil Vogel arrived at About.com as CEO over 3 years ago now, he knew had his work cut out for him. Most of the site's key metrics were going south; while the rest of the Internet changed around it, About.com never changed. And that was the problem. It was designed to be your go-to source for information, "whether it was colitis or Southern cooking," says Vogel. Essentially, it was too diverse in its offering.

Vogel arrived with a simple but aggressive mandate: do what you think is right to get the ship righted. Action was taken swiftly, as the About.com team rewrote most of the site's code and redesigned and reorganized the entire site.

Fast-forward two years, and traffic was going up again and brands wanted to get involved financially. However, About.com still realized it needed a major pivot if it was going to be successful. A year ago, management wasn't particularly excited about the future, and felt they had taken About.com about as far as they could. "We had gotten really good at doing the wrong thing," explains Vogel. After all, the biggest premium publishing brands are now vertical publishers, and it means that they didn't mean much to the algorithms that send them traffic, and advertisers didn't consider About.com a strong enough brand to compete vertically.

"It was unfocused," admits Vogel in an impressive display of candor. "We were the biggest brand on the Internet that didn't mean anything to anybody." It was a hard conversation to have internally, to say "this thing we've been building the last few years, we were wrong."

The solution: About.com would be better served by blowing itself up into unique offerings for specific verticals. But blowing up implies starting over, and this isn't quite that, as About.com has the unique opportunity to launch each property strongly as a result of the parent brand's immense reach.

With health and wellness-focused Verywell, the first such vertical launch under this new strategy, Vogel and his team thought it would take six months to get to where they had been from a search perspective, but adjusting for seasonality, they got back to where they wanted to be in 2.5 months. In fact, they're now 30% better than where they previously were. Advertisers are intrigued, as their sales pipeline is 200% from where it would usually be.

The pivot's second vertical property, debuting as of this writing, is The Balance, a very personally-focused finance site compared to some other finance sites money hacks, careers, small business advice. The Balance is launching with over 34,000 pieces of content written by 70 experts, and has also added Jean Chatzky, the noted financial editor for NBC's, "The Today Show" and author and host of the podcast, "HerMoney" as its first senior editor.

"Specialization is what people want to talk to," says Vogel, referring to both consumers and advertisers. Management is trying to keep their focus on launching other vertical brands that lean into About.com's historical core competency: very actionable, important information, where people really need to learn - as opposed to the fluff that dominates some properties.

Moving from one clearinghouse for various types of content to a collection of focused verticals meant a lot of behind-the-scenes work. Before they built out the new sites, management had to restructure all their internal teams. For example, 35 people exclusively work on health. Same thing with The Balance (20-25 people). It's still one organization, but all of the decisions have been decentralized to the GMs of each vertical.

Modernizing to Survive - and Thrive

Looking at the About.com pivot, one can't help but compare and contrast with Yahoo, which sold to Verizon after years of floundering. After all, Yahoo has largely been a legacy Internet business with a slew of diverse content.

About.com made different decisions from Yahoo. For one, it decided they wanted to be a content company. Management made a commitment to making the very best content that makes people's lives better. "We're going to embrace what we are," says Vogel.

The pivot wouldn't have been possible without taking a hard look at where they were in the brand. Leadership said there are no sacred cows, and everything should be open to discussion.

Like it or not, brands matter. Upon a real world test, About decided that their brands needed to be different. They thought it was confusing to do everything under one brand - for consumers, algorithms, and advertisers.

About.com understood what its weaknesses were, and is now working to turning those into strengths."Let's see what we can do if we build beautiful brands," suggests Vogel. If Verywell and The Balance are any indication, they're off to a good start.

Published on: Sep 6, 2016