About Face at About.com

Blaming the sorry state of the online advertising market, About.com has laid off about 20% of its staff and axed more than 300 of its Guide sites. The company also plans to shift the focus of the portal away from information-oriented niche sites on a variety of subjects to a model emphasizing subscription, transaction and e-commerce revenues.

The move has significant implications for searchers and webmasters alike.

"About is going to be much more based on what users need to know, rather than something for everyone," said About spokesperson Tabatha Sturm. A revamped version of the portal planned for launch later this year, known as About 3.0, will place more emphasis on consumer reviews, ecommerce, and comparison shopping.

"It's a major shift. It's something as large as the original start of About," said William Day, About's new CEO in an interview with Reuters.

For searchers, using About is going to be confusing until the dust settles, since the company is both consolidating some sites and completely eliminating others. For example, sites in the "Education" channel are completely gone, as are most of the sites focusing on Canada and the U.K. Other sites that have been eliminated include Air Travel, Europe for Visitors, Womens' Basketball, Classic Jazz, Animal Rights and dozens of others.

Many relatively low-traffic sites covering niche topics are being merged with sites with a broader scope. For example, the Beatles site will be subsumed into the Classic Rock site, according to About's Sturm.

In other cases, sites with similar topics will be merged, such as anthropology and archaeology. But the consolidation process is largely being left up to the Guides running the surviving sites, and will take time to fully implement. Some of the changes won't be immediately obvious, either. For example, the Pro-Life site will become part of the Conservative Politics site, and the Pro-Choice site part of the Liberal Politics site.

It's important to realize that these merged sites may not contain all of the content previously available on both sites. While About owns all of the annotated links created by Guides in the subject categories on each site, the company has released the rights to original content created by terminated Guides. This includes feature articles, "how-tos" and other information-oriented content.

Although terminated sites are no longer accessible, About hasn't yet changed its menu structure to reflect the changes. For example, a link to the Education channel is still available on About's home page. Within a channel menu, clicking a link to a site that's been taken down will either refresh the channel page with no error message, or redirect your browser to About's home page.

Links to some of the sites that have been consolidated redirect to the surviving site. Since most Guides haven't had time to integrate content from a terminated site into their own, you won't necessarily find what you're looking for, at least in the short run.

Making matters more confusing is that About also terminated some Guides for sites that it intends to keep on the service.

How do you know if a site is still actively being maintained by a Guide? If an "Apply Now" link has replaced the Guide's name, the Guide is gone, but the site is likely to be maintained. Another telltale sign that a site is either going to be consolidated to taken down is when the Guide's photo has been replaced with a stock photo labeled "Photo coming soon."

Some sites appear to be gone, when in fact they're not. About has recently adopted "roadblock" ads that display a "sponsored by" ad page before allowing you to view some sites. Clicking a link for any site in the "Autos" channel, for example, displays a virtually blank page with an ad in the center. After about 10 seconds, your browser automatically loads the page you initially requested.

Since there's no message telling you to wait, you may think that the site you've clicked on has been taken down, especially if you're impatient and too fast with your "back" button. There is a "Continue on About" link that takes you to the requested content, but until you venture to try it the function is not at all obvious.

There are also concerns for webmasters. The best advice in the short run is to "be patient," said Marshall Simmonds, Director of Search for About.

For Sprinks users, About is moving rapidly to move sponsored links from sites and newsletters that have been taken down to alternate, relevant sites, according to Simmonds. If you have concerns about this process contact Sprinks directly.

For non-sponsored links, remember that About owns all of the annotated links created by Guides, and these links are not necessarily being removed from the service. If your site is linked from a Guide site that has been taken down, it will likely still turn up in About's internal search function. The link may also reappear on the "subject" pages of a site that remains on the service, if the Guide running the site feels it is relevant.

If you feel you need to contact a Guide about a former or potential link to your site, here are a few tips to help you work with Guides so that everyone benefits.

First, each topic-specific Guide site is run by a professional -- someone who is paid to create and manage the site -- not a "volunteer." One part of the job is to create a directory of links relevant to the site's topic. Guides are eager to list high-quality sites -- but ONLY those that are relevant to their topic. If you want to be listed in a Guide site directory, spend the time first to identify the appropriate Guide site(s), and then look for the appropriate category where a link to your site belongs. These are called "Subjects" and are listed in the left column of every page.

Tip: Be sure to click the "Subject Library" link at the bottom of the subjects list. The design container for a Guide site only allows up to 30 top-level subjects. But some sites have literally hundreds of subjects that you'll only find by clicking the "subject library" link or by searching.

Remember, Guides are often swamped with email. They greatly appreciate it if you help them to help you by suggesting an appropriate place on their site for a link, along with a one or two line description of your site. Don't make a general request, don't over-hype your site, and don't request a link from a Guide who's running a site that has nothing to do with your own topic.

Remember, too, that the subject links are just one part of what every Guide does. Guides also regularly write articles about their topic, and love to use links to relevant sites in these articles. Guides also run message-boards for their topics. You'll get a lot of favorable attention from most Guides if you participate in a forum relevant to your site's topic. It's totally cool to include a short sig file in your posts with a link to your site, as long as it's not a blatant ad (Guides have editorial control of their forums and have total discretion to delete inappropriate posts).

As you see, About offers several opportunities for getting your site linked. Just remember that you when you contact a Guide you're dealing with a real person, and that person feels a very high degree of "ownership" for the site, as part of a larger federation of sites that make up the About network. Approach a Guide with a helpful suggestion that's a win-win for both of you and you have pretty good odds of getting linked.

It has been a difficult year for the large web search services. With the demise of Infoseek/Go, AltaVista's cutbacks, and Excite's future in grave doubt, it's fair to ask whether About's survival is in doubt. As part of the Primedia media empire, About no longer has the total financial freedom it had as an independent company.

"I've been told that Primedia, About's parent company, now has a valuation lower than About's market cap was at the time of the February, 2001 merger," said Durant Imboden, former GoEurope Guide for About. "Primedia's credit rating has been downgraded. Right now, Primedia needs a sugar daddy as badly as About does--a fact that doesn't bode well for About's future."

On the other hand, company officials naturally express optimism. "Certainly no one has figured out how to do it, but the work we are doing right now is going to help us figure it out before the other guys," About CEO Bill Day told Reuters.

The move will also cut expenses, and potentially increase the revenue share going to surviving Guides. This isn't the first time About has gone through a major upheaval, and Guides who remain with the service tend to be both passionate and highly committed. A Guide who runs one of About's most frequently visited sites expressed "guarded optimism" about the changes -- a sentiment likely shared by those still on board.

When About started life as The Mining Company in 1997, executives expressed the then-audacious goal of becoming one of the web's top twenty properties. For the past year, it has consistently been in the top ten, holding the #6 position in August, according to Jupiter Media Metrix.

About may be down, but given its track record and the tenacious enthusiasm of its remaining staff and Guides, it would be utter folly to count it out.

About - The Human Internet

Be A Guide - Application Information
"Dozens" of sites are available for people desiring to become About Guides. Though the "Available Topics" link isn't functioning as of today, check back later this week for a full listing of available sites.

About.com Cuts Jobs as Shifts Toward E-Commerce
More on the new direction at About, with comments from newly-named CEO Bill Day.

About.com cuts 300 sites, increases e-commerce focus
Describes the reasons for the cuts and gives a good overview of the business issues related to About.

About.com slashes Canadian content

About the author

Chris Sherman is a frequent contributor to several information industry journals. He's written several books, including The McGraw-Hill CD ROM Handbook and The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See, co-authored with Gary Price. Chris has written about search and search engines since 1994, when he developed online searching tutorials for several clients. From 1998 to 2001, he was About.com's Web Search Guide.