Domain splitting as a solution to core update hits?5 min well spent

Back in 2014, about.com had over 75M monthly visits in the US alone. One year later, the domain lost over half of its traffic. Three years later, in August 2017, about.com had no organic traffic left. Google’s Panda update annihilated about.com‘s organic search performance.

As a result, and smart move as it turns out, about.com rebranded as Dotdash and split its domain into a portfolio of high-performing sites:

Searchmetrics was the first one to write about it. In 2018, DotDash added Investopedia, followed by Byrdie, SimplyRecipes, Serious Eats, TripSavy, ThoughtCo, MyDomaine, Brides, liquor.com, Treehugger, and more.

about.com's homepage in 2014
about.com’s homepage in 2014

Keep in mind that about.com was purchased by the New York Times in 2005 for $410M, then almost bought by answers.com in 2012, and snapped away last-minute by IAC for $300M in cash.

Today, DotDash is a similar beast to Red Ventures (I wrote about their Growth playbook before) with over $200M in revenue and over 100M organic sessions a month in 2020 (Dotdash’s revenue was $170M in 2019 according to their quarterly report).

The December Core update

When I wrote about Google’s core update in December, I noticed that DotDash’s sites gained traffic across the board. And not too little.

Here’s a list of all sites and the organic traffic they gained month over month in December:

Most domains see steady SEO growth, but some struggle with Google’s core updates.

An example is verywellhealth.com, which is seeing a rollercoaster trend since February 2019.

verwellhealth organic traffic in semrush
Verwellhealth organic traffic in semrush

Another example is thebalancesmb.com, which lost about 30% organic traffic in the May 2020 core update and regained 44% in December.

Thebalancesmb organic traffic in semrush
Thebalancesmb organic traffic in semrush

Google struggles to determine the right relevance and authority for some sites but most of them grow up and to the right.

Verywellmind's organic traffic in SEMrush
Verywellmind’s organic traffic in SEMrush

Why does it work?

Why does domain splitting seem to work? There are specific reasons but keep in mind that there are not many known cases of a large domain split into several smaller ones.

Topical Relevance

The net DotDash brands have a much better topical focus. A site about everything is a site about nothing. Google can understand and measure authority and relevance in many ways.

DotDash pays a lot of attention to content quality: “Dotdash’s emphasis on human-created content makes it almost the anti-Google. Everything is designed to empower the content creators. ‘The work we do at Dotdash is highly specialized, requiring a subjective understanding of quality and substantial subject matter expertise,’ Ellerson says. This emphasis on quality editorial, Dotdash executives say, has powered the turnaround.” (Source)

They have tons of writers: “More than 1,000 remote, part-time contributors across the brands use tools built by Ellerson’s team to help identify story ideas that resonate with audiences.” The company seems to not hold back when it comes to spending money on quality: “Dotdash claims to have spent $100mm on content since the turnaround began, including $35 million in 2019.

Relevant links

More content focus on a specific topic also leads to a better brand profile, which matters greatly in organic search. Google gets stronger and clearer signals from internal and external links.

Better UX

In 2021, Google pushes user experience more in the foreground by making Core Web Vitals a ranking factor. DotDash embraced the connection between SEO and UX a while ago:

The sites load very quickly, and the company’s proprietary content management system is designed for efficiency: Designers and editors can choose from fast-loading templates that include images, video, and interactive applications. And there’s an emphasis on creating the kinds of detailed, informative articles that turn up in search results. At Verywell, for example, each article is updated at least once every nine months and reviewed by medical professionals.

One important thing right that many publishers forget is ad relevance. Highly relevant ads are not as detrimental to the user experience as random ones. It’s not just the ad load that matters, but the context as well.

Traffic to the sites has increased from 45 million visitors per month in 2016 to more than 90 million in August of last year, according to Vogel. Dotdash sites run fewer ads, with no pop-ups or takeovers, and because the ads are relevant to each article, they perform better. At a time when digital ad rates have continued to crater for most online publishers, Vogel says the company’s ad rates have increased nearly 20 percent each year since 2016, and 25 percent of 2019 revenue came from affiliate marketing fees (bonuses paid to the publisher after Dotdash visitors made purchases via ads on the sites.)

Bottom line

As always, SEO success is the result of multiple factors, not just one. DotDash figured out how to build a content engine that scales across sites with quality Google rewards. Splitting the big about.com domain into many smaller but more focused ones led to higher topical relevance from an SEO perspective and stronger brand profiles from the user perspective. The two go hand in hand.

Domains that cover a broad range of topics might suffer under topical irrelevance and might be more successful when split into several parts.

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