NEW YORK Social networking. Video sharing. Music downloads. Celebrity gossip. The hottest trends on the Web owe much to the indomitable sites on our third annual Digital Hot List. Among the millions of purveyors of online content, these select players are those that have, over the last year, grabbed the attention of consumers, marketers, the press and pop culture—generating explosive growth in closely watched metrics even as they make headlines for technological innovation, mega ad pacts and buzzworthy content.
Poring over Nielsen//NetRatings audience-tracking data from June 2006 to June 2007, we homed in on sites with the most impressive, consistent growth. (We did not look at portals or content aggregators like Yahoo and Google, although we did consider channels such as AOL News and Yahoo Sports.) While growth in key categories was a principal consideration, the numbers are only part of the story. We gave preference to destinations marketing and media insiders were most bullish about—the real standouts in the way of technological innovation, ad execution and user engagement. (While there's no denying celeb-skewering Perez Hilton is on fire—his uniques exploded 277 percent to 2.3 million in the last year, drawing advertisers like ABC TV—his juvenile, graffiti-scarred shots of caught-with-their-pants-down stars and banners pushing gay sex sites isn't an environment every marketer cottons to.)
The no-end-in-sight momentum of a handful of powerhouse sites made their selection for the list a no-brainer. At No. 1, moving up from No. 10 on our 2006 list: founder Mark Zuckerberg's wildly popular, three-year-old social-networking site Facebook. With uniques surging 110 percent to 16.5 million, Facebook is the very definition of "hot." Other giants making our rankings: the other leading player in the social-networking arena, News Corp.'s MySpace (No. 2), and the video-sharing phenom YouTube (No. 3). AOL's fallen-star-gazing TMZ makes the list (No. 4), as our thirst for news about bimbos-in-crisis Britney and Lindsay remains unquenched. Newcomer video site Veoh (No. 6) and humor destination Funny or Die (No. 7) are hits, along with content-sharing site Digg (No. 9).
While relative newcomers dominate, online properties of two solidly established media and entertainment brands, Disney and Discovery, also rank, the result of sizzling performance in building traffic and innovation that's caught the eye of marketers. In his story, "The Evolution of Engagement," Mediaweek senior editor Mike Shields considers the hit-or-miss digital prospects of "old media" companies, singling out some of those making—or aiming to make—a splash at a time when Web 2.0 hype doesn't necessarily translate into traffic growth or a flow of ad dollars. Though few come close to matching the monumental growth of a Facebook or YouTube—and while they may not be considered the "hottest" Web destinations—it is interesting to note the number of sites from old-line content producers, including Time Inc.'s People.com, The Boston Globe's Boston.com and Dow Jones' Wall Street Journal Online, bagging double-digit audience gains. So, even in a field where the heat continues to come from comparative neophytes, it looks like experience still counts.