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3 year later, AOL Weblogs Inc is thriving with brilliant numbers

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It only seems like yesterday that Jason Calacanis launched the blog network Weblogs Inc. I can still remember him pitching me at The Blog Herald, asking me to cover his new network. It took a couple of months after September 2003 for me to be convinced that Calacanis wasn’t selling snake oil and I should actually start covering what he was doing with the company.

Fast forward to 2005 and Weblogs Inc became the biggest acquisition of a blog network, being acquired by AOL for a reported $25 million. Weblogs Inc’s success was an inspiration to many of us in the blogging space, and although we never directly competed, Weblogs Inc’s success (pre acquisition) was deep in our minds when I founded b5media with Darren Rowse and Jeremy Wright in May of the same year.

The third anniversary of AOL’s acquisition of Weblogs Inc is today, and I had the opportunity to speak with Marty Moe, the current head of operations at Weblogs Inc prior to the third anniversary, and the figures he shared with me are nothing short of staggering. Here’s a walk through on the presentation he sent me, and my notes from it.

Weblogs Inc Circa October 2005

The key figures: 1.7 million unique visitors on 6.5 million page views. 4 employees.

Weblogs Inc Circa October 2008

The numbers speak for themselves. 19 million unique visitors, 13 million in the United States vs 2 million at acquisition. Page views up from 6 million to 81 million in the US, 106 million globally.

Weblogs Inc has also started a shift away from the low cost freelance model that Calacanis championed, to full time employees. The number has gone from 4 to 26. I specifically asked Moe the exact makeup of the full time employees, and where they reside. His response is that most of them are editorial/ writers for the Weblogs Inc blogs. He noted that AOL believe it is important that key staff work primarily on Weblogs Inc blogs, and not as a hobby. He clarified this in saying that freelance bloggers will always be an important part of the mix, but they believed that their key bloggers should be full time employees dedicated to their sites alone. He also said that AOL would be looking to increase the number of full time employees.

I asked whether the full time employees had to report to an office in a central location, and Moe was quick to jump on this. Most of the full time employees in Weblogs Inc work from their own location; Moe said that it would allow them to employee someone from New Zealand as an example, who couldn’t check in to a central office.

The flagship: Engadget

As it was in its pre-AOL owned days, Engadget remains the flagship of the Weblogs Inc network. Interestingly the site now gets significantly more international traffic than US traffic. The Engadget sites outside Engadget itself have grown strongly.

I asked Moe about branding: in particular, the occasionally confusing branding statements out of AOL that included Engadget. At one stage, Engadget was the AOL Tech Channel, but now it seems to be a brand in it’s own right.

Moe admitted to some experimentation in the past, not all of it successful. He claims that the days of confused branding are behind the network, and that AOL now fully understood the benefits of brands within the network.

Broader network

There were a number of other slides I won’t share, mostly because they deliver the same positive message. The notable parts: The Joystiq network is doing numbers that are close to the Engadget network. WowInsider in now nearly as big as Joystiq itself. The Autoblog network is seen as a huge growth opportunity for AOL. The existing network is pumping 14 million page views a month, and Autoblog will offer country sites for the UK, France and Germany before the end of the year.

What is impressive is the influence of the blogging culture over AOL as a whole

The Blogsmith blogging platform in the center of this push. The slide says 700 blogs, but this includes closed blogs (but sill live) and internal blogs, so the total number of actual blogs being updated publicly today is less than half that figure.

But the mix of sites is telling. TMZ, which isn’t usually lumped in with Weblogs Inc is actually part of the network, and is doing huge numbers. There’s a range of other sites, some obviously blogs, some not so much, that are being powered by Blogsmith.

I asked Moe whether the Blogsmith platform may one day be offered outside of AOL, given rumors in that direction over several years. He said that it had been discussed previously, but no decision had been made.

The biggest and the best

This slide speaks for itself.

Conclusion

I have been harsh of AOL’s treatment of Weblogs Inc in the past, but I have since corrected the record. AOL is using the Weblogs Inc setup as a consumer play, and it is delivering in traffic for them. I asked Moe whether the network might one day go niche again (particularly in tech), and he didn’t rule it out, but confirmed that their strength was in consumer sites, and that’s their current direction.

The growth numbers are staggering in terms of the broader blog network scene, and credit where it is due, AOL has done an amazing job with the company they purchased.

As a last aside, I asked Moe about the economic crisis, and Weblogs Inc’s exposure to it. Moe told me that they intend on increasing their investment in blogs during this time to make sure they remain on top in terms of traffic and reach. Advertising may decline, but sites with growing traffic are better able to counter the decline.

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