About.com has been in the news lately for two reasons:
• It's for sale by The New York Times Co. (indeed, there's something of a bidding war going on)
• It lost a fair bit of web traffic awhile back after Google tweaked its search algorithm to return more "high quality results." The resulting drain in ad revenue probably prompted the sale.
I'm irritated that Google didn't think About.com represented quality, and that the digital nerds who think Google can do no wrong have lately lumped About.com in with other johnny-come-lately content farms.
So let me offer a thoroughly biased but spirited defense of this site, beginning with a little background:
About.com was not started last week but in fact has been around in one form or another since the primordial days of the Internet. It's actually comprised of hundreds of separate topic sites run by "guides" who offer their expertise on everything from cooking to parenting and, yes, journalism.
A key difference between About.com and content farms is that guides are required to have expertise in their subjects (my credentials can be found here.) They are expected to keep current on their topics and continually produce new content.
In other words, when I write an article I'm not picking from a list of random, computer-generated topics designed to snare hits from Google; I'm writing about the thing I've done my entire adult life.
And yes, we sprinkle the SEO pixie dust to try to make our content search engine-friendly (who doesn't?) but no one's telling me to insert the phrase "Salma Hayek in a tight red dress" into my article about writing a great lede (although, come to think of it, there might be a certain synergy there...)
And yes, I'm paid for my work. Not enough to buy the Ferrari Jeremy Clarkson's raving about on "Top Gear," but apparently more than they get paid at some other places.
Now, I don't know what Google means by "high-quality content" but when I enter the word "jazz" (the only other thing in life I know much about), the third link that comes up is the website for the basketball team in Utah. Just sayin'.
In fact, I find About.com incredibly helpful. When I need a quick chicken crockpot recipe or am wondering what to feed my cichlids, it's the first place I go. Snarky web writers may sniff at this kind of thing, but I have a couple of kids and a tankful of fish to feed, and this kind of prosaic, everyday stuff is important to me. To a lot of people, in fact.
Here's the thing: A few years ago the digital media nerds were raving about citizen journalism. They said it would revolutionize and democratize the news business. When that didn't happen they quickly moved on to something else.
My point is, About.com was an example of citizen journalism long before anyone dreamed up the term. And to my mind, it's citizen journalism at its best: Smart, well-informed people who aren't Internet trolls, who aren't regurgitating secondhand opinions on some sorry blog somewhere, but who are writing about something they actually know about. And getting paid to do so.
Of course, there are larger issues at stake. One need look no further than Facebook's recent stumbles to understand that digital advertising, which was never very lucrative to begin with, appears to be decreasing, not increasing, in value. The ominous dilemma here is that digital advertising is the supposed bedrock upon which Facebook, About.com and many other sites are built.
I don't know what's going to happen with About.com. Obviously, I hope it survives, and isn't carved up into a skeleton of its former self. To the site's next owners I say this: There's something very much worth preserving here.