About.com Zigs While the Times Zags

The New York Times Company’s decision to pump money and resources into About.com, say observers, is motivated both by the need to draw in more premium advertisers and to distance the company from the raging content farm controversy, one that has moved Google to tweak its algorithm and has impacted traffic for several low-cost content companies.

But the move—which involves adding 25 percent more guide sites, twice as much video, and a Spanish-language site—is particularly noteworthy as a sign of the support the Times is giving to the spread of free Web content, especially given how the parent company has trumpeted (and is now vociferously defending itself from critics of) its introduction of a paywall to protect its Times-branded news site.

In fact, while the New York Times Company as a whole reached 66.2 million unique U.S. Web users in February, according to comScore, the majority of that traffic came from the completely free About.com and its subsidiaries, which reached 38.5 million unique users. The newly walled-off NYTimes.com reached just 31.4 million uniques in the month.

According to About president and CEO Cella Irvine, users are at the heart of its expansion strategy—not necessarily a need to improve the site’s quality. But About, which receives roughly 80 percent of its traffic from search, is also looking for more regular visitors—including to the revamped homepage. “This is a year for us to greatly expand our content,” she said. “We have felt for some time that the breadth of About was not expressed as it could be on our homepage…we are looking to reach more users, in more ways, more frequently.”

Sources say that while About.com’s revenue climbed in 2010 to $136 million, the company has had trouble reaching recent revenue goals, and that the Times is looking to extract more value from the under-the-radar property. “There has been no good news out of there for a while,” said an insider.

“This is about ad revenue expansion,” theorized Ken Doctor, a news analyst and author of the book Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get. “They want more video, which is getting really high rates from advertisers. And it’s probably about Google search. I rarely see About.com content anymore the way that I do Demand Media or others. News companies have never been good at SEO. And they’ve got to get more social.”

Asked whether About.com was trying to distinguish itself from search-centric content companies like Demand Media and Examiner.com, Irvine deflected the question. “We consider our content premium and always have,” she said, “But users’ expectations are changing. Because of new devices [like the iPad], they expect to get content wherever and whenever they want it, especially video. And advertisers expectations have changed too.”

Churning out more premium content, particularly video, costs money (the Times has declined to say how much). Might the company be setting up About.com to become its next digital subscription property?

“That’s an easy answer. No,” said Irvine. “We have a very different strategy than sites with a paywall.”

The reason for that is obvious, said one observer, an executive with knowledge of the company’s business and traffic patterns: “Nobody would pay for it.”