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Slowly Digging Out of Its Hole

Digg was once a traffic fire hose for publishers. Now overhauled, can it get its mojo back?

Betaworks CEO John Borthwick

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When the New York tech incubator Betaworks bought the former social news giant Digg for a mere $500,000, there was confusion, but mostly snark and ridicule. “There was a lot of nervous laughter in that first staff meeting when we announced it,” said Digg gm Jake Levine. In the weeks since its July 31 relaunch, the completely overhauled site has garnered some favorable reviews but has a long road ahead if it wants to recapture its once crucial role in the online publishing game.

“We’re all big believers in the slow Web,” Digg editor Ross Neumann said. He is one of three Digg editors who use a combination of user submissions, data from Betaworks companies like bitly and Chartbeat, and their own judgment to curate the revamped site.

“As far as breaking news goes, you can’t do better than Twitter, but the reality is Twitter as a product does not do a good job servicing the people who only consume content 30 minutes to an hour per day,” said Neumann, who scrolls through roughly 2,000 headlines each day.

Going after non-news junkies would seem to be a serious departure from Digg’s tech-savvy heritage. But those people make up the lion’s share of Internet users, meaning Digg may just be on to something. The new Digg offers a simplified design, a far cry from its old, community-centric structure (think Reddit nowadays). For Digg to truly succeed though, it must prove its worth to online publishers as a referral traffic juggernaut the way it was back in the mid-2000s.

Such a renaissance may be under way, slowly. The Atlantic recently identified Digg as a Top 5 referrer, behind social giants like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. TechCrunch, too, recently praised Digg’s traffic prowess.

“We’ve seen a really sharp uptick in traffic from Digg,” added BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith, who noted that Digg exhibited a steep referral decline that began in the summer of 2011. “They’re not at precrash levels yet, but are the highest they’ve been since the beginning of 2012.”

Ars Technica editor in chief Ken Fisher concurred. “There has been a definite increase in referrals in the last two months, double what we were seeing in early August,” Fisher said. “We anticipate Digg becoming a Top 10 referrer soon, perhaps by the end of the year.”

Beyond getting publishers to fall back in love with Digg, the reborn company needs to reestablish its brand (and explain to the world what Digg is now). Visibility may still be an issue for those outside insular Web circles; one media buyer said he didn’t even know Digg had relaunched.

And there’s always the monetization question. The company has yet to lay out any formal advertising plans. “We’re not going to wait years to do this,” Betaworks CEO John Borthwick said. “I think it’s a mistake that monetization is something you do after the fact.”

With 1.7 million visits to the site since its relaunch, Digg is already reaching out to advertisers for revenue-generating ideas. “You’ll see something from us within the next six months,” Borthwick teased.