But recently there have been signs the company is starting to wake up. In October it shed its underperforming Webshots brand to American Greetings, and this week it introduces a liberal content-syndication model, taking to the next level the kind of posting and linking to CNet content that blogs and social networks already have been doing.
CEO Neil Ashe has called 2007 "a transition year," and one of his biggest changes is to create a more open philosophy around his company's content.
"We were too closed," he said. "The old model was consume our content on our site. Now you don't have to come to our site to view our content."
CNet, which owns the eponymous tech-news site CNet.com as well as gaming-news destination GameSpot, business-news site BNet and foodie haven Chow, among others, was founded in 1993 and weathered the dot-com storm. But it's had a rough couple of years, marked by an options-backdating scandal that saw its previous CEO resign, and Wall Street hasn't been kind to the company, perhaps also reflecting the current distaste for online content companies. At $7.59, the stock trades at half the price it did two years ago.
Recently, analysts have been critical of page-view stagnation. "While we recognize a mix shift toward video and Flash content makes it increasingly difficult to predict a growth outlook using only page views," wrote J.P. Morgan's Imran Khan, "we remain concerned that CNet's below-industry page-view growth rate may signal market-share losses." Mr. Ashe said he hopes the new syndication strategy will goose the company's audience.
He recounted the old way to do syndication -- it happened only among the big media players, and there'd be fights over user attribution and contracts. By contrast, CNet will package its content into programmable, ad-supported units that can be picked up by anyone and run anywhere. While it has struck some formalized partnerships with companies such as AOL, Monster and Wikia, it is also offering a self-serve model.
Mr. Ashe stresses this is markedly different from how major media companies are already "widgetizing" their content -- it won't be just headlines and summaries packaged into a widget but full content, meaning those reading it will never have to jump to CNet's sites.
"Lots of people are building an ad network," Mr. Ashe said. "We're building a user network that's ad-supported."
35 million visitors
The effects of the move are relatively unknown; Mr. Ashe ventured a guess that the open-content syndication could be as much as 10% of CNet's traffic. In October, the company attracted 35 million monthly unique visitors, according to ComScore.
Separately, Mr. Ashe is betting on a build-out of its New York office and an increased emphasis on Madison Avenue to jumpstart its ad-sales effort. It hired longtime Time Inc. executive Jack Haire as chief client officer, former Dennis Publishing President-CEO Stephen Colvin as exec VP-entertainment and lifestyle properties and former Entertainment Weekly Publisher Dave Morris as senior VP-network sales.
"We've lived in San Francisco and dabbled in New York, and we need to expand our footprint," he said. "We have right and title [to do so]."