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In Defense of About.com

Yesterday while browsing my Twitter stream, I came across the following headline:

It was the first of several headlines I saw throughout the day that spoke of The New York Times’ impending sale of About.com to Answers.com. In the All Things D article, Peter Kafka characterized About as a site that produces “high-volume, low-cost content” and “a precursor to ‘content farms’ like Demand Media.”

I have been a writer for About.com since April 2010. First, I was a contributing writer on Italian Cities, a quasi-apprentice for the site’s long-time guide to Italy travel. Since June 2011, I have been the guide to USA Travel for About.com. While I can vouch for the fact that About.com does prefer a high volume of content from its writers and guides, I take exception to the characterization of About.com as a content farm that doesn’t pay its writers well.

Look around at any popular website or blog these days and you will see that a high volume of content is what drives traffic and conversations. Each day, there are at least 900 guide sites under the About.com umbrella that are able to publish blog posts, evergreen articles, and how-to pieces on everything from Feng Shui to Geography to Thyroid Disease to travel in India. Some writers have been guides for About.com sites since 1997, making About not only the precursor to “content farms” but the precursor to blogs in general.

Being a writer for About.com requires not only the ability to produce a lot of content for one’s respective topic, but to be passionately engaged with the subject and capable of mastering a number of content management tools. In fact, it is a wonder that anyone wants to be a writer at About because it is a fairly grueling process to get through the front door. New writers go through a series of hurdles that include writing samples, developing a site taxonomy, and learning CMS software, a process that can take two to three months to complete.

Why do we submit to such an extended evaluation just to write for a “content farm?” It is because About.com offers editorial autonomy and a chance to make a decent wage as a freelance writer.

After reading the comparison of About.com to Demand Media, I took a look at DM’s “How it Works” page. In Demand’s 7-step process, the writing – or content producing, if you will – is the 4th step. Demand looks at, listens, and analyzes customer demand before producing any content at all. About.com writers are certainly aware of SEO and reader demand, but guides are also given the freedom to write about what they, as experts on their topics, feel is important or interesting or entertaining. I am not saying this to fault Demand Media at all, but to show that the process is different.

As for income, About really does offer the opportunity to make one, which is something that can not be said for most freelance/contractor gigs. I know at least three couples in which both draw incomes solely from their About.com guide sites. Because About pays guides according to a metric based on several factors but largely on page views, a guide who puts a lot of care into his or her site year after year can stand to earn a living solely from About.com wages. I am not quite there yet. But now that I have worked on my site for over a year, I am starting to see the benefits of being an About guide.

About.com is far from perfect, of course. There are internal things that irk me and the company suffers from a lack of pizazz, something I like to call the Yahoo! Syndrome. So I am waiting anxiously to see what happens to About.com in the coming weeks and months.

At any rate, I welcome my new overlords and hope that they will work to help About.com grow without sacrificing editorial freedom, guides’ chances at a fair income, or the guide sites that we have all worked so hard to create.

Melanie Renzulli

Melanie Renzulli writes about travel, food, tech, sports, parenting, and the writing life. She is currently the guide to USA Travel on About.com and proprietor of the Italy travel website Italofile.com. Follow her on twitter @melanierenzulli.

2 Comments

  1. Melanie,

    I, too, am a Fellow Guide, who came on board in late December 2010 to write about the pet industry. I agree with your assessment totally. About.com is not perfect, but I always considered it the gold standard among informational websites. I was very proud to land this gig, and I still am.

    Alissa Wolf

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