Fast Chat: Ask.com CEO Discusses About.com Acquisition | Adweek Fast Chat: Ask.com CEO Discusses About.com Acquisition | Adweek
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Fast Chat: Ask.com CEO Discusses About.com Acquisition

Doug Leeds on the $300 million deal and what's next

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The $300 million cash deal made Sunday by Barry Diller's IAC/InteractiveCorp to buy About.com will add some necessary content and authority to IAC's reinvented Ask.com property while making others in the Q&A realm nervous. Adweek sat down with Ask.com CEO Doug Leeds to talk about the deal, what's next for About.com and how this deal distinguishes them from the dreaded "content farms."

Adweek: IAC came late to the About negotiations. Was this deal due in part to the fact that About.com and Ask.com made more sense together than Answers.com? Or was this a pure money play and IAC simply outbid?
I honestly have zero idea. That is all hidden behind the so-called wall of secrecy. That's solely on the New York Times Company. I do know we bid what we did because we believe that About will bring the right synergies to our business and we believe they are worth it. I don't know if they cared about the synergies. Our deal was all cash, which may have helped, but I can only speculate. 

You've said that Ask.com has had its eyes on About.com for a long time. How did you finally come to the decision to buy it?
For us it was about how do we get an answer to content that we can put on Ask that helps you get the whole picture of the story? When we do that, users love us and we have a lot of users. What we don't have is a lot of users who are coming back to us frequently. Our problem is getting people to come back more often, and it became very clear that content was the way to do that. High-quality content, not crap content farm stuff. We started then to look around for high-quality content, and of all the commercial content on the Web, About content is the best. It made a ton of sense to say, "Let's use this content on About and drive that back to Ask while using Ask's users to do the same for About's great stuff."

Do you think this traffic plan will help About generate the kind of revenue we were seeing in the past before it took the hit from Google's Panda algorithm?
About has stabilized their business already. They took some hits from Panda, and most of their business comes from search engines now. But their own efforts and new releases from Google to Panda have driven their traffic back to where it was before. They are growing again, and when you include mobile, there is some incredible growth. They solved the declining problem before they bought them. Had About really been declining, we wouldn't have bought them.

So what's next for About?
We've been working hard to build Ask.com's consumer brand, and I think the same thing can happen for About. One of the things that has really hurt them is that they've been lumped in with these content farms, which they aren't. They're not a content farm; they don't build content trying to reverse-engineer Google's algorithms. They hire experts to write content for users. It's a publishing model. But they haven't focused on their brand. We know how to do that at Ask.

Will there be any merging of the two brands into one comprehensive property?
The brands will stay separate. Ask is kind of like a Q&A library by browsing the stack and looking at the spines and taking a book out whenever you want, but our job at Ask is the place to go for an answer. About is a like a world-class collection of books that we are adding to the library. It makes the library better, but there is still that fundamental difference between the library and the book, which is a reason we're keeping it separated.

It feels like there are still a lot of people who equate the two brands though and feel like IAC and Ask.com are just gobbling up a competitor. What do you say to that?
There has been confusion. The former CEO of About.com who isn't there anymore was telling me anecdotally that every time Ask.com ran TV campaigns, About.com got more traffic because people were somewhat confused about which was which. I think we can do a better job with the branding. Really we haven't done anything yet. The dust hasn't really settled on the closing of this deal yet, but I think this brand has been around for 16 years and over 90 million worldwide users. People just need to be reminded.

With this acquisition in place, do you feel that you are now the most formidable player in this Q&A and content space?
I don't think there is any question we are best positioned to capture people with questions online. Answers and eHow, they don't get any direct traffic. Ask has a huge amount of direct domain traffic and traffic from other channels that don't depend on Google. We can optimize traffic better, worry less about SEO, and in many ways we can deliver what users want while being agnostic about how the content is delivered. 

Yet, folks like Demand Media (eHow) have gone to great lengths to rebrand, and if you ask them, they'll tell you that Demand is anything but a content farm, with plenty of expert content creators and operating as a quality publisher...
All you have to do is take a look at the properties to see the difference. Whether or not they've turned over a new leaf, I don't know. I have no real opinion on that. They came from a content farm approach; they bragged about it and thought they found a new business model. Now, they've hired a lot of very smart people, and they think about monetization all day long. They're excellent at cracking the nut of monetization, but they're not publishing content. It is not the DNA of the company. The thing about About.com is that publishing is in their DNA. We're going to bring some marketing savvy to it, but the core of what About does and what makes them stand out is fundamentally better quality content.