The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Huffington Post-AOL, a marriage made in SEOland

February 7, 2011 |  1:42 pm

Jkimkardashian Arianna Huffington remade the media landscape this morning when she became content leader for AOL, which purchased her 5-year-old Huffington Post website for $315 million.

That may have been the top news story at Huffington Post. But the other headlines attracting bundles of clicks there Monday were: “Kim Kardashian Loves 'W Magazine' Nude Photos,”  “Christina Aguilera Totally Messes Up National Anthem” and “Jennifer Aniston Wears Bra Vibrator on 'The Ellen DeGeneres Show.' "

Those who know Huffington mostly from television will focus on her liberal politics, support of health care reform and opposition to America’s two wars. Conservative opinion makers quickly slammed AOL, saying its credibility as a news source would slip away thanks to its union with Huffington.

But as the previous headlines demonstrated, government and politics take a backseat at Huffington Post to the real traffic drivers -- features, celebrities, gossip and other "verticals" that are pieced together and presented with brilliant aggregation and search engine optimization (SEO).

As pioneering blogger and web designer Jason Kottke tweeted, "HuffPo sold to AOL for $315 million. Is that the biggest exit ever for an SEO company?"

Others who work in the online news and information space agreed that what AOL got, at a high premium, was an operation brilliant at creating a water hole and drawing the animals in to drink.

Huffington Post has led most other sites by smoothly incorporating social media so that friends can use Facebook and Twitter to find out what friends are reading. It’s not uncommon to find stories replayed on HuffPo getting far more traffic than they did at the originating site, though links connect back to the source.

“I watch the way they put it together and they are just way ahead of the pack,” said an executive at another Web operator, who asked not to be named because his owners prohibit talking about rivals.

It’s not uncommon for posts to draw thousands of comments. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s withering takedown of Sarah Palin (who he dubbed a “phony pioneer girl”) and her TV hunting expedition lured in more than 700,000 readers, was "liked" more than 100,000 times on Facebook and drew 7,800 comments.

Other sites only dream about that kind of traffic. And much of the content comes from friends of Arianna. Like Sorkin, they don’t get paid.

The charming HuffPost doyenne is herself one of the most valuable assets AOL has acquired. At every one of her myriad media appearances, she’ll now be introduced as the guru of content for AOL and all its sites — which include TechCrunch, Engadget and many others.

That sort of buzz and relevance has escaped AOL in recent years. It will be invaluable to an operation that thrived in what now seems like a long-ago time — when most computer users relied on dial-up connection for Internet access.

But what about making money?

Huffington has made only a little so far. Her operation has mostly been propped up by venture capital. It reportedly brought in $30 million in revenue in 2010, breaking into profitability for the first time. In its announcement Monday, the company said it hopes to increase that to $50 million this year and to lure more premium advertising as the AOL-Huffington Post combo expects to attract 117 million unique visitors a month.

That may all happen. But there are many skeptics. Among the questions: Can Huffington, known as a storyteller and promotional whiz, manage a complicated business amalgam? Some of those who have worked for her question her organizational abilities.

Do ad “synergies” really emerge, or is this just another Web deal that is not greater than the sum of its parts? Steve Case, the former AOL chief executive involved in the famously unsuccessful merger with Time Warner, was among the immediate skeptics of the new deal.

 "Tim Armstrong says 1 + 1 will equal 11. Really? That wasn't my experience," Case tweeted.

-- James Rainey


Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: The Huffington Post website draws a lot of traffic with celebrity titillation, such as a headline about nude photos of the pictured Kim Kardashian. AOL bought the website for $315 million, hoping to benefit from its aggregation and search engine optimization. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

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