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Nick Denton knows most people in media view his remake of his stable of Gawker Media sites three months ago as an unmitigated disaster. He just thinks they’re wrong.
The stubborn founder of Gawker Media says that after some early hiccups with the company’s much-discussed (and much-derided) redesign, traffic has stabilized, while advertising has taken off. And despite ongoing criticism and a clear rejection by some users, Denton does not plan to take Gawker back to its popular, blog-oriented publishing layout, which posted stories in reverse chronological order.
“If we were going to backtrack, it would have been a couple of months ago when we hit bottom,” said Denton.
Indeed, Denton shared Quantcast data showing that Gawker Media’s page views have returned to about the level they were last year after tumbling in late February and early March. The traffic story is a bit less sunny,according to comScore data. Gawker Media’s unique-user base abruptly plummetted from a high of 19.8 million in January to 14.7 million in March. Compared to the same month last year, the March figure was down about 750,000 users. Individually, sites like Gawker.com and Gizmodo.com lost about 2.3 to 2.4 million unique users from January to March of this year. However, compared to a year ago the declines are less severe, with Jalopnik (down 700,000 uniques) and Kotaku down one million) taking the biggest hits. Gawker.com actually showed growth. As for page views, while Gawker properties absorbed an initial blow, by March they had returned to near average levels, backing up Denton’s argument. Data from Hitwise reveals similar stabilization.
According to Denton, Gawker’s bottom wasn’t reached because users didn’t take to the new format. It was rather based on search engine optimization and technology problems, which have since been addressed.
“Traffic back up where it was,” he said. “Uniques are just starting to come back now that we’ve fixed the search issues. Pageviews are already back to normal levels. [The site] wasn’t very stable when we launched.”
One theory as to why Denton pushed for the design changes was to please advertisers, as the site is looking to grow its revenue base among more traditional brands. Yet some argued that under Gawker’s old format, users were drawn to the site’s homepage more frequently to see the latest posts, creating more opportunities for premium home page ads. Still others contend that Denton was far less driven by ad concerns than a desire to break the site’s bloggy reputation and be recognized for being on the forefront of Web publishing — as laid out in his lengthy diatribe when the redesign went live.
Whatever the motivation, Denton claims that advertising revenue has surged by nearly 35 percent through the first half of the year. That growth is likely attributable to the site’s overall momentum, not design, said Denton. The company is soon to roll out new video and interstitial offerings designed to appeal to brands.
Dave Martin, svp of media at ad shop Ignited, guessed that Denton’s redesign was motivated more by advertising than he let on. “I can’t say that prettier versions of these blog sites matter to advertisers, but I can say that bigger better ads always do. I have to imagine that Gawker had advertisers in mind when they started their redesign, but not from a content perspective. I think it was probably more about the types of ads they wanted to offer their clients.”
“Anytime you redesign your website you’re going to see some immediate attrition,” added Martin, who recalled a poorly received redesign by Digg a few years ago. “If the bleeding of uniques continues, it will definitely scare off advertisers and agencies, regardless of how nice the site and ads might look.”
The perception remains that Denton made a big mistake in drastically overmaking his stable of properties. As of last week when one typed the words Gawker redesign into Google, the first four suggested phrases that popped up were “traffic,” “horrible,” “failure” and “fail.”
Denton said that the recent flurry of huge news stories, from the royal wedding to Osama bin Laden’s death, have helped boost traffic. That points to one of the main thrusts behind the new redesign: keeping big stories at the top of Gawker’s sites. Under the old model, a huge story about Lindsay Lohan, for example, might get pushed off the Gawker homepage in a matter of hours by some lesser blog posts, given that site always listed the last-published story first. Denton cited a scoop by Kotaku last Friday on the latest version of the popular Call of Duty game franchise, which received top billing much of the day.
”In the old days, a sensational story like Kotaku’s would have fallen off the page in a few hours,” said Denton. “Now we can splash it properly.”
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