About.com’s Neil Vogel: Taking a Fresh Look at Everything

Neil Vogel, known in the advertising world as the guy behind the Webby Awards (the Internet take on the Oscars,) in April took over as CEO of About.com, replacing Darline Jean, who stayed in the company after IAC bought it from the New York Times last year. Vogel, whose main task is to overhaul the site’s look and user experience, spoke to Laura Martínez, Portada’s Senior Correspondent, about the opportunities -and challenges- of the site and what he plans to do with its Spanish-language content vertical.

An edited transcript follows:

Laura Martínez: For those who don’t know what About.com is all about… Give us a quick walk through, the big picture if you will of the property.

Neil Vogel Neil Vogel, CEO of About.com: “About.com is the largest network of handcrafted expert content channel in the Internet; we have 21 content channels and cover everything from how to make an apple pie to how to fix your car. I joined over 2 months ago, and what we’re doing is, we’re taking a fresh look at everything of what we’re doing here. What people know about us: We’re really big. We have 85 million to 87 million uniques a month; we do a 100 million page views a month, and a lot of that comes from search traffic.”

LM: What would you say are your most immediate challenges?

NV: “I think we don’t look as great as we should. What you probably know is that our UX and UI definitely have much room for improvement. We have huge opportunities in social and in mobile, so we want people to interact with our content better. We have this awesome content (950 plus guides) and because our content is really good, we have the challenge to build something more engaging.”

LM: I was looking for a ceviche recipe on the Internet and when I typed “ceviche” in Google, I got an About.com page on how to make ceviche. Yet, I would have never gone to About.com to look for it… Aren’t you guys too dependent on search engines?

NV: “For many people, Google is the front door to the Internet. So showing up first when you look for something in Google is actually a great thing. The challenge, for us, is that once you’ve found your ceviche thing, we want you to have a great experience: Perhaps watch a video, see some pictures, read about other people’s experience making ceviche…. Your experience has to be so good, that next time you see a link from About.com, you will want to click on it again.”

LM: And how do you plan to do that?

NV: “We are going to focus our site a little more domain specific and build things in that people want, whether it’s more social or things people expect in a modern content site.”

LM: You talked earlier about challenges in User Experience and design. Can we expect a radical redesign soon?

NV: “If you look at About.com a year from today vs. what it looks like today, you will say: ‘Wow! this is one big redesign.’ But the truth is that it’s not going to happen from one day to the next. It’s going to be a lot of small changes that add up to big changes. It’s going to be a thousand small things, not one thing.”

LM: How much of your traffic comes from mobile?

NV: I think a little more than 20% of our traffic comes from mobile, not including tablets.

LM: Do you guys plan to have an ‘app?’

NV: “Not really. Because the way people find us [mostly through search engines] we’re working on optimizing our mobile web.”

LM: Let’s talk a bit about ‘Español.’ Right now, you treat About en Español as yet one more channel under About.com. Is this the way to go? Have you thought of making it a separate, independent page?

NV: “We’re looking at our Spanish content the same way we’re looking at everything we do. Before I got here, that’s how it was treated [as a vertical.] I cannot tell how -or why- that decision was made. I cannot tell you either if that was a good decision or a bad decision. What I can tell you now is that we’re looking at ways and see if that’s the right way to look at it. All I can tell you right now is that I’m not so sure a language should be a category.”

LM: Can you tell us a bit more about how you plan to address the Spanish-language part of About.com?

NV: “We need a comprehensive strategy on how we’re going to address this market [Spanish]. I can tell you we have 50 open jobs we’ve created since I got here, and some of these jobs will address tech issues, some content issues and some the Spanish-language site.”

LM: Can you give us some more specifics?

NV: “If we’re going to do it, it probably will have to be more than just one channel. Or maybe one channel that is very, very robust and then we’ll sell it differently. We’re looking at it right now. Organizationally you will have to committ yourself to do it… or not. I think [Spanish] is a very interesting asset, and we need to figure out something that serves the market well.”

LM: eHow is launching a Spanish-language service, currently in Beta. What would you say is your competitive advantage?

NV: “I don’t know anything about what [eHow] is doing. But I can tell you our competitors are anybody offering interesting reference content in the Internet.”

LM: About.com advertises itself as an ‘interesting vehicle for brands.’ What is it that you guys provide to marketers and how does that work?

NV: “All our traffic is intent-based traffic. So we can deliver a marketer a scale of audiences that look for very specific content and deliver an audience that is ready to make decisions. That is a core thing we can offer marketers! Historically, we haven’t done the best job doing that and I think our product needs to look a bit different to work better for brands.”