The other day, a company called About.com took out a full-page ad in the New York Times bragging about some new marketing alliance or other. The form of the ad was a fanciful mini-screenplay in which the CEO of About.com announces this new deal to an audience of media buyers. "As you may know," the he says, "we're already huge. Last month, one out of five people online visited About.com." This made me interested not so much in About.com as in what it takes, exactly, to be considered "huge" these days.
Julia Roberts is huge. Puff Daddy is huge. Nascar is huge. The New York Times is huge. AOL is huge. About.com is huge? I called About.com to ask where their 20 percent-of-the-online-population figure came from, and they steered me to Media Metrix, whose numbers actually show that 13 percent of the Internet population visited About.com in February, down from 14.5 percent in January and 16 percent in December. (It's trended down in real numbers, too.) Asked about this, About.com replies that the figure in the ad refers to visits to About.com properties, meaning that if you go to Northsky.com or ExpertCentral.com, that counts for About.com--which strikes me as a little like arguing that if you are watching ESPN then you are watching ABC.
But whatever. Even 13 percent of the Internet population is a pretty big number--9.3 million visitors. Of course, a "visit" is a squishy concept, and can last an hour or three seconds, so 9.3 million visitors to About.com is not the same as 9.3 million viewers to a television show. In another stab at hugeness-gauging, I relied on the magic of e-mail to ask about 40 Web-using friends if they had been to About.com in the last month, or ever, or if they even knew what it was; I think my sample was actually pretty skewed in About.com's favor, with an unusually high percentage of employees of Web magazines and tech journalists and so forth. There's nothing scientific about this, obviously, but the most interesting thing that emerged was the disconnect between how many people had heard of About.com (roughly 28) and how few had bothered to visit (6). Awarenesss of About.com was almost universal among respondents in New York City, where About is apparently running a subway-placard campaign, though only a small fraction of New Yorkers had visited the site. As one respondent there said: "I know what it is because I have no idea what it is."
Perhaps that's a good definition of the new "hugeness." Media Metrix numbers are useful for comparing trends in a Web site's traffic, or comparing like sites (by default--we don't have a better measure yet). But they say very little that is concrete about the size, popularity, or cultural impact of a Web site in any broader sense. Still, they can sound good on their own, and that helps with hype, and if your hype is huge enough, then people will think they ought to know all about you even if they don't. And maybe that's all that matters. Maybe a claim to hugeness is really just a defensive maneuver--you have to do it because all your competitors are. I guess it's also one way to justify a market cap of $1.5 billion when the most recent quarter brought in revenue of about $13 million, which is roughly a third of what the most recent Julia Roberts movie grossed last weekend.
So what exactly is About.com? Oh, come on, I don't have to tell you that. It's huge!