How Data Scientists Helped Revamp Info Network About.com

9/4/14Follow @jpruth

Neil Vogel is pretty blunt about the old About.com. “Not only was the site not engaging, it was downright uninviting,” he says.

On Tuesday, the information site introduced a redesign that CEO Vogel says is the result of data science and not just a new coat of paint. “This is a big step forward, but we have a lot to do,” he says.

In the past, he says, many people would get the details they needed from About.com and then just leave. That might include getting tips on home improvements or fixing flats on a bicycle. Now that About.com puts more data to work, Vogel says the site tries to be stickier by anticipating what topics users may want to look up next. Additional content may be found through links within articles, information suggested by the writers of the content, and recommendations generated by algorithms.

About.com has been a fixture on the Web since the late 1990s, and it competes with other information outlets such as Wikipedia. Vogel says part of what makes About.com different is its articles are written by experts, who include consultants and trained chefs, rather than random writers.

IAC in New York acquired About.com in 2012 and Vogel became CEO in April 2013. In addition to running About.com, Vogel is a venture partner with FirstMark Capital and co-founder of Recognition Media, which produces the Webby Awards and Internet Week NY. With new management and ownership in place at About.com, a revamp was set in motion to make the site more appealing. “There wasn’t a focus on design or engagement for the last decade,” Vogel says.

The objective of the redesign, he says, was to give users more interactive ways to discover content—and to provide advertisers additional context when pitching to the public.

“We put together a data science team to really understand how our 3.5 million pieces of content relate to one another,” Vogel says. That also revealed the paths and patterns people typically follow when they search for information at About.com. Furthermore, he says, data science gave the company a better understanding of where and when people exit the site. That led to reorganizing content and categories to make About.com more appealing and easier to use, says Vogel.

Tracking data from the real-time traffic at About.com can also reflect events in the real world, Vogel says. During the World Cup tournament, if a player was issued a yellow card warning by a referee, he says queries about yellow cards rose quickly on the site.

The redesign was driven by data and aesthetics.

The redesign was driven by data and aesthetics.

One of the patterns discovered through data, he says, was that people who look up articles on interior decorating tend to also research mortgage information. “Those were people buying a new house,” Vogel says. Having a data driven understanding, he says, allows for a new type of targeting and sharing of information that might appeal to the reader. “When you really dig into data, you find correlations between different content that you wouldn’t expect,” he says, “or that typical top-down taxonomy would not reveal.”

Vogel believes this approach will appeal to advertisers because it allows for more accurately targeted, contextual ads. For example, a dog food company might want to place ads with articles on dog walking, dog exercise, and the treatment of ailments that affect dogs—while avoiding putting ads with content about hot dogs from Coney Island.

About.com hopes its new methods and look will get people to stick around longer, Vogel says. Part of that means steering users to the information they want to see rather than trying to tease them with click bait. “Users have always liked us, I’m not sure they’ve trusted us,” Vogel says. “We’re trying to build trust with people.”

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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