eHow was a lifesaver for many an Internet user during the bubble years. The site offered professionally written articles on how to do anything, with such a medley of entries as how to tie shoes, plan a bachelorette party, and hail a cab in Moscow.
Then it disappeared. It didn't die in some glorious ball of fire like so many others. It didn't even get mentioned in "F'd Companies: Spectacular Dot-Com Flameouts," Philip Kaplan's chronicle of the departed. It filed for bankruptcy in February 2001 and then languished, though still maintaining a fan base. Even when it was a tumbleweed in cyberspace, eHow attracted 250,000 visitors monthly, nearly entirely from people typing in the URL directly or clicking a bookmark in their Favorites tab.
It's on its way back though. Under new management with new content and a new revenue stream, the lights are on again. Though its new owners are operating the site part-time for their own enjoyment (owner Josh Hannah quips the cost to buy it was "nothing like the $30 million that the company spent in 1999 and 2000!"), they have grander ambitions.
"Our dream, which feels a long way off, is that people think to come to our site first when they want to learn how to do something, in the way you might think of going to Amazon to buy a book, or Epicurious for a recipe," said Hannah.
eHow's current revenue model is rather tempered for such a goal, though they're just getting warmed up. On the site, there's a search field powered by Google, and searching brings up a Google-branded results page with "Ads by Google" boxes on the top and bottom. In the middle is a field of natural listings from eHow's library of 15,000 articles. On individual article pages, Google's contextual ads line the right-hand side. Right now, the ads "pay the bills," according to Hannah, and their main goal is to fix up the site.
When Hannah and his partner took over the site in early 2004, aided by engineer Travis Derouin of Ride Shotgun Inc., traffic started climbing to current levels of over 1 million users monthly. Hannah and company added more than 1,000 articles that had been written by eHow's team of professional writers but were never published. Other content was dated and needed refreshing. Page load times were painfully sluggish. There's still more Hannah plans on fixing.
Yet visitors are finding the site, even without eHow engaging in any marketing at all. The site performed admirably in a non-scientific test by running a number of searches. In Google, eHow ranked sixth for "how to fix a flat tire," third for "how to ask someone out to the prom," and first for "how to hail a cab in Moscow." (It wasn't all positive. eHow was nowhere to be found for "how to marry a ketchup heiress" or "how to find weapons of mass destruction.") Note that words such as "how" and "to" don't affect the search at all.
eHow's success from search engines can be traced to one word: relevance. The site ranks first in both Google and Yahoo! for "how to pull dandelions," and going to the page, the keyword phrase is front and center, and it's also in the title. There's no mistake about the page's content, and search engines' spiders reward the page accordingly.
In the future, eHow aims to be a starting point for searching as well as a destination. "How to appreciate country music" gives eHow a No. 1 ranking in Google and Yahoo!, but eHow is essentially invisible for "country music." Going to eHow first to perform a search gets rid of all the clutter. Everything on eHow is a how-to guide, so within the site's boundaries, as long as the content exists, users are likely to find a perfect match. Links to browse related content then sucks the visitors in further.
Hannah's not sure what broader lessons can be learned from eHow's rebirth. "It's probably too early to tell, but we're happy we were able to rescue this site off the dot-com scrap heap!" he said. Hannah adds, "The bottom line is everything we build on eHow gets really appreciated and used by a lot of people, and that makes it worth the time."