This past weekend, Arianna Huffington was in San Francisco for a little tech tour. On Friday, she visited Twitter’s home base, where she noshed on tacos and vegan cheese with co-founder Biz Stone. Later, she palled around with Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg at the social network’s Palo Alto headquarters and discussed HuffPo Social News, a new feature on her “Internet newspaper” that allows users to connect with Facebook friends and see which HuffPo articles they’re reading and commenting on. On Sunday, Ms. Huffington popped into the birthday soiree of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, where ladies in LBDs kicked off their heels and danced.
Ms. Huffington made her trip around town with Jose Antonio Vargas, the former Washington Post national political reporter who recently moved to New York to edit the Huffington Post’s new technology section, set to launch on Sept. 21. After their weekend of shmoozing, Mr. Vargas wrote in a blog post on the site that the new vertical (to use Web parlance), titled HuffPostTech, will cover “technology as anthropology.”
“Facebook is no mere social networking site; with more than 250 million users, it’s a democracy of its own, with a population that rivals some of the world’s biggest countries,” he wrote. “Sure, HuffPostTech will feature the biggest stories and storied rivalries in tech, in addition to rising start-ups and new, gotta-have-’em gadgets. But it will always keep in mind that the gadgets we use, the apps we download, the social networking sites we belong to, tell us something about who we are.”
Certainly, Ms. Huffington’s plans to boot up a technology section, along with previously announced books and sports verticals, tell us something about her intentions to create the ultimate destination for every Internet user—not just the political scandal gossip mongers and celebrity news junkies addicted to the popular aggregator, but gadget-wielding tech freaks, baseball fans and book bingers as well.
“The plan was always for the site to cover all areas of interest and to cover them with a very engaged community,” Ms. Huffington told The Observer by phone, post-trip. “It’s an inevitable progression.”
Ms. Huffington isn’t the only online publisher evolving shiny new content to grab eyeballs and advertisers. New York magazine’s online home, NYMag.com, recently launched a vertical for sports, lead by former Deadspin editor Will Leitch, and a TV blog run by contributing editor Emily Nassbaum, spun out from Vulture, NYmag.com’s entertainment vertical. The New York Times has 69 blogs dispersed among 12 main verticals on NYTimes.com. Even The Observer is launching a newly designed Web site in mid-October that will have more tightly focused verticals for easy navigation.
The advantage to adding verticals ad infinitum to general-interest Web sites is simple: They make it easy for Web designers to mimic that familiar feeling of pulling out the business pages or flipping to the top sports story in traditional print newspapers. Drilling down on one topic at a time and carefully tailoring content by subject makes it easier for visitors to read what they want to and for advertisers to reach a specific, targeted audience.
“Because you’re not physically manufacturing this product, you’re just producing it electronically, over the wire, you can produce as many sections as you want,” said Jakob Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen Norman Group and top consultant on user experience design. “So not just a sports section but a baseball section, then you can break it down to teams—a Yankees section, and go down to the individual pitcher, and so people who are fans of that one particular player can go to the deepest level of understanding about that one pitcher. That’s what the Web is good for.”
If the theory is that users are reading in bubbles, composing their own, customized “general interest” daily reads by clicking through a bunch of finely focused blogs, how can one site become their only must-see destination, and provide spots for the kind of focused advertising that brands are looking for? Launching more verticals with concise content seems to be the answer … for now, at least.
WHEN MICHAEL SILBERMAN joined New York magazine as general manager of digital media in the spring of 2007, he was mainly concerned with developing the New York and NYMag.com brands in New York City. But over the past few years, he and his team have been thinking about verticals as a means for reaching a national audience that might want news from a “New York frame of mind … to use the title of a cheesy song,” Mr. Silberman said. “I think about it in terms of, how big can [food blog] Grub Street get?” he explained. “How big can [fashion blog] The Cut get? What can be built beyond the size limit of New York?” NYMag.com’s restaurant listings will likely expand to other cities, for example, he said. And launching a sports vertical? That’ll bring in Mr. Leitch’s enthusiastic following, get some lively discussions going in the comments sections and aid advertisers looking for a male audience, he said.
“We know that we won’t be the first stop for people looking for sports news; they’ll go to ESPN,” Mr. Silberman said. “But if we’ve got the guy that people like and has a smart take on what is happening and can occasionally break news from the people he knows in sports, there’s real potential to gather an audience that maybe we could then introduce to [news blog] Daily Intel.”
As for the Huffington Post, they already have their eye on the national horizon—and a big, broad audience.
The Huffington Post books section will launch on Oct. 5 and be edited by Amy Hertz, who will continue editing books for the Dutton division of Penguin while running the site. The New York Review of Books will be an official partner, Ms. Huffington told The Observer. “The Huffington Post is about having the best of the old and the best of the new,” Ms. Huffington added. “We have the traditional way of covering books with the best of the reviews from The New York Review of Books, and then the readers can interact,” by posting their own reviews, she said. Ms. Huffington will also be launching her own book club on the same day. She is still debating between three titles for her first choice, she told The Observer, and is working out further details on the frequency of her picks.
The sports section will debut at the end of October, with Brown University graduate Whitney Snyder, an associate editor at the Huffington Post, as lead editor and ESPN as a partner, with more to come, according to Ms. Huffington. She’s recruiting some celebrity friends to get in on sports commentary for the site as well.
Of course, the more verticals you launch, the harder it becomes to do them right. Web designers are already constantly tweaking online layouts and codes and features to keep up with the latest user experience trends, while editors fiddle with delivering content through different types of media.
“These are small segments, and you can kind of scoop up the people who have these interests and maybe lure them into other sections of the site, across a much broader area,” said Mr. Nielsen. “But you’ve got to kind of deliver.”