Want to grow crops? Fertilizer helps. Want to grow mounds of online content? Discovery Communications believes fertilizer has no place in the process.
As Google tries to penalize the thinly reported, quick-hit web posts proliferating across the web, Discovery -- the Silver Spring, Md., nonfiction-media concern best known as the backer of cable networks including Discovery, TLC and OWN -- is putting more emphasis on HowStuffWorks, an operation that tries to marry large-scale content generation with the rules of fact-checked journalism.
Where web-content operations with similar goals build their info empires on the backs of hardscrabble freelancers who, in some cases, have little quantifiable expertise in the subjects they discuss, HSW has steadfastly taken the opposite tack. The company works with a regular set of staffers and freelancers to shepherd their material from conception to web-publishing. HSW will update articles again and again so they remain relevant and current, as it has with a relatively old piece on hybrid cars.
And deadlines can be stretched to make sure the job gets done properly, said Conal Byrne, HSW's editor in chief. Editors "will give someone as long as two weeks to get it done right," Mr. Byrne said. "We're not oblivious to cost, but at the same time, we are laser-focused on quality."
Discovery says the strategy is working. When the company acquired HowStuffWorks.com for about $250 million in 2007, the site had about 12.5 million monthly unique visitors. By October, 2010, the site had 20.3 million, an increase of about 62%, according to internal figures Discovery calculated using data from ComScore.
"All around us, we're seeing people trying to take short cuts to try to get there quicker and cheaper," said Gabe Vehovsky, exec VP-strategy and client solutions at Discovery Digital Media. "We just stuck to our plan and said we'd chip away one area at a time with a lot of evergreen content."
The HowStuffWorks strategy could gain more attention now that Google has tweaked its algorithm to send web pages with "low-quality" content (often loaded with tons of advertising) lower in its search results. The change is supposed to affect about 12% of all searches, but it's evidence of the effect so-called "content farms" -- the label given to such freelance-driven, high-volume content generators such as Demand Media or Yahoo's Associated Content -- have had on the still-developing action of seeking out information online.
HSW "definitely" has "a quality standard that would make me happier as a person," said Jeff Marshall, a veteran media-buying executive who now works as senior VP-managing director of LiquidThread, a content-creation unit that is part of Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Group. "It's a safer way to get information or instruction."
HowStuffWorks operates with a staff of about 50 people, Mr. Byrne estimated. Writers "are tasked with being in their space and knowing their specific spaces, knowing their beats really well, going to conferences, reading constantly," Mr. Byrne said.
Their job is to know what will trend months before the average person does, he added. HowStuffWorks topics range from "How can I erase my identity and start over?" to "10 Historically Inaccurate Movies."
Advertisers in the mix
HowStuffWorks.com has more in common with its brethren than it might like to admit, of course. All of these outlets want to create a burgeoning empire of topic briefs and articles that rise to the top of the web heap when a consumer goes looking for information on the subject. By linking advertisers to specific topics, all the companies hope to woo advertisers looking to get their pitches in front of just the right audience, whether they are home-improvement hobbyists, history buffs or science geeks.
Indeed, HowStuffWorks sometimes seeks to build out its content empire based on advertisers' needs, executives said. The site might help a maker of beauty products figure out which skin-care-related topics are trending online, or help a gardening product's marketer figure out how various niche topics -- vegetables or perennials, for example -- are driving pay-per-click behavior.
At the same time, the content on HSW isn't of the "advertorial" variety. Editorial workers may be asked to create new series of articles, but they have no interaction with any clients, and advertisers have no oversight over content creation or editing.
"It's done with complete church-and-state respect," said Mr. Byrne. "The editors and writers don't know who's going to be sponsoring the content."
That wall between the different areas of the site presents an unknown for the advertiser, Mr. Marshall said. "There's complete separation from what their editors write and how they write about it," he said. "If I was a client, that's a little bit of a risk out there."
Even so, said Mr. Byrne, the HSW staff remains attractive because of its independence and knowledge. Paid staffers who are encouraged to be accurate and reliable are key to the site's success, he said. By understanding "what is trending in search, what keywords matter to users, what keywords are trending in the cultural zeitgeist," employees can best answer the question, "What would people want to consume more of if we created it?"
Anyone who can answer that question about online content might well want to write an article for HowStuffWorks.com.