How Dotdash Built a Profitable Media Empire From the Ashes of About.com

CEO Neil Vogel decided to start with a clean slate

neil vogel ceo dotdash
The explainer site's transformation is a rare publisher success story.
Sean T. Smith for Adweek

As layoffs continue to plague newsrooms across the country, it’s rare to hear an executive speak frankly about how their company lost steam.

But Neil Vogel, CEO of Dotdash—formerly known as About.com and now parent company to sites including Brides, beauty and wellness site Byrdie, TripSavvy and more—is not your usual media executive. At the first-ever Adweek Nextech Conference, Vogel sat down with media reporter Sara Jerde to discuss how Dotdash changed its business model and what it took to get there.

Respecting the user experience

Unapologetically, Vogel said About.com “sucked,” and as the Dotdash team thought about how to create a more useful online explainer, they decided to “only build sites we wanted to use.” To Dotdash, that meant fewer ads—no pop-ups, no interstitial—and creating content that’s actually helpful.

“We’re in the service of users, not advertisers,” Vogel said. “We care deeply about advertisers, but we have to do it on our terms.”

Part of resetting that mindset meant telling IAC, the company that owns Dotdash, that the brand will make less money than before while ramping up spending on writers. It also meant Dotdash wouldn’t chase algorithms and advertisers; instead, the company focused on creating good content and letting users find them as opposed to relying on social media or search engines.

“All we care about is having comprehensive, accurate, great content on topics that matter to people,” Vogel said. “The problem with media is they build distribution on someone else’s terms, and then they sell ads on someone else’s terms.”

The changes have paid off—Dotdash posted a profit of $21.4 million in 2018. And Vogel said if “every cookie left the internet,” it would be bad for users generally but Dotdash would still function, because the company doesn’t depend on other platforms and hasn’t let them own audience information.

Write the right content, not just any content

At Dotdash, the company’s business model rests on creating content that helps people. So instead of focusing on recapping a TV show or other quick-hit stories, the company doubled down on helpful content—and then developed ways to offer readers targeted related stories. Fixating on quality and relevance is how Dotdash gained back its audience’s trust.

“If we are the very best content, algorithms are going to find us,” Vogel said. “And people are going to find us, and then advertisers are going to find us.”

Media’s problem is the media

Amid layoffs in all parts of the news industry, Vogel said one of the issues media has is itself. He said it’s easy to write about edgy companies like BuzzFeed and Vice, but harder and less interesting to write about smaller, niche media companies like Healthline that are quietly doing well.

In the case of Dotdash, the company took a chance on changing its name to transform into a new company rather than betting on the About.com legacy.

“Learning was better than unlearning,” Vogel said.