Nolo Press, the Berkeley-based publisher of books and software on the law for laypeople, announced this week that the company has been acquired by Internet Brands, an internet company that builds verticals. This news should be seen as another one of those things happening for the first time that will almost certainly happen repeatedly in the years to come.
What I’ve been trying to get across aggressively for at least four years, since my “End of General Trade Publishing Houses” speech at the 2007 BEA, is that the world will move to vertical community organization and that publishers have natural advantages to lead those communities. But “natural advantages” are not the same as “divine right”; publishers can also license their content to or be bought by the community creators. That’s what the Nolo purchase underscores.
Taking a look at the web sites for “Internet Brands” (which I hadn’t done before today but I’ll bet not too many others in publishing had either) shows a very impressive array of content and audience development across a wide range of subjects. In fact, the Internet Brands web site provides a bit of a roadmap for a 20th century publisher trying to make it through the 21st.
IB organizes its universe into eight overall headings: automotive, careers, health, home, licensing, money, shopping, and travel. There is a lot of diversity under each heading: verticals within the verticals.
“Licensing” is a bit of an outlier. That appears just to be an outlet for them to sell proprietary technology and under it they have only two offerings. One is software that obviously comes from their automotive vertical which parses information about cars myriad ways to enable sales and fleet licensing. The other is called vBulletin, forum and user-generated content management software for online community creation. These two software offerings would appear to be at the heart of IB’s own business but, like Amazon, they are making money helping other people make money with the capabilities that they required to make money!
The other seven headings are divided into dozens of niche sites. There are more under “automotive” than I care to count — scores — for every car, it would seem, and for certain sub-interests as well. There are 13 sites under “careers”, including dedicated ones for airline, aviation, health, freelance, and work-at-home moms.
There are 13 sites under “health”, nine under “home” (including sites for crafting, gardening, do-it-yourself, and real estate), nine under “money”, 13 under “shopping” (including several different flavors of bargain and coupon sites), and 24 under “travel”.
Diving deeper into the verticals is more than I’m going to do for this piece, but it would seem likely that certain content nuggets could be employed within more than one of their sites.
Under IB’s “careers” heading is a site called experthub.com and it is within that niche that Nolo’s legal information for consumers will fall, although one suspects that Nolo can create content that could apply to many of IB’s sites.
Internet Brands started out in the late 1990s as an array of car-focused sites, which explains why that vertical is so thoroughly built out. After they had been in business for several years, they saw the merit in “scaling” their technology outside the automotive niche. Their sites appear to be a hodge-podge — some are clearly directories to help consumers find resources and to help resources find customers. But others seem to present real services to consumers.
One very law-focused blog covering the transaction notes that Nolo is a much classier content aggregation than the ones IB had acquired previously in that niche. They mistake IB’s Expert Hub brand to be law-focused itself; it isn’t. Expert Hub is also verticalized and includes lawyers, dentists, chiropractors, and accountants among the professionals it will help you find.
It appears that IB is an ad-driven play, not primarily focused on creating community value in the ways we think will ultimately be necessary in addition to user-generated content and curation: sales of a variety of goods and services and real opportunities to connect with others who share your interests and challenges. But they also appear already to be profitable and generating healthy search traffic with their focused aggregations of content. Right now the forums IB has appear to be bolted on, rather than core, but perhaps the Nolo purchase signals a new stage in IB’s growth where there will be an even greater focus on content generation.
Unfortunately, some of the further information links on IB’s site (“press releases”, “SEC filings”) were dead, perhaps because investors took the company private in a $640 million deal last September. But I think we publishing types will want to learn more about IB and any other companies like them because they’ll be investing in us, buying us, competing with us, and becoming us in the years to come.