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Glam Media overtakes AOL

It may have taken a while, but the age of web portal dominance is finally starting to show visible signs of erosion.

For the first time, media and advertising startup Glam Media now has a higher global audience reach than old-school web portal AOL, according to the latest comScore report on the top 100 media properties worldwide (PDF). I also think it’s worth pointing out that VentureBeat editor-in-chief Matt Marshall accurately predicted when Glam would overtake AOL back in 2010.

“To be bigger than the last of the top three (web) portals is actually a very big deal,” Glam Media Chairman and CEO Samir Arora said in an interview with VentureBeat yesterday.

For anyone who wasn’t paying attention to Internet trends during the ’90s, web portals like AOL, Yahoo, and MSN were among the largest media properties on the web, responsible for attracting millions of unique monthly visitors. But as people slowly upgraded their slowpoke dial-up Internet connections to faster alternatives, those web portals lost their usefulness.

Fast forwarding to the present day, AOL is attempting to convert itself from a web portal that offers content distribution and web services (email, instant messenger, etc.), to a company that primarily relies on producing original content to generate audience interest. But AOL’s strategy is unlikely to keep pace with the steady growth that Glam Media is experiencing.

According to the comScore report, Glam had a total of 244,243,000 unique visitors in May 2012 to become the 14th top global web property. During the same month, AOL saw 215,645,000 unique visitors,which placed it as the 18th top media property worldwide.

The report also shows that AOL remained virtually flat on unique visitor growth when compared with the previous month (215,274,000 visitors in April). The company also showed a 9.7 percent drop in unique visitors year-over-year. Glam, on the other hand, saw a significant jump of over 20,000,000 unique visitors from April to May 2012, and a 14.4 percent boost in unique visitors year-over-year.

“Glam actually exceeded AOL in content reach long ago,” Glam’s Arora said. “But because of the way comScore determines its measurement, we’re only recently showing up as being bigger.”

Arora explained that roughly a third of AOL’s monthly unique visitors can be attributed to its email, dialup, and communication services, with the rest coming through its content business. Glam’s unique visitors are entirely derived from its content, he said.

If you need more evidence that AOL won’t be able to keep up with Glam Media’s rise to the top, look no further than its valuable content properties. AOL publications such as The Huffington Post are generally perceived as having higher quality content when compared to Glam’s content properties and affiliates. But Glam is winning when it comes to audience reach, due in part to integration with its Ning social media platform. Meanwhile, most of AOL’s unique visitor gains came after purchasing popular web publications.

Obviously, AOL can’t just keep dropping tens of millions of dollars on new web publications to keep its unique visitor numbers steady. Rather than branch out into social network monetization (like Glam is doing through Ning), AOL is building a strong stable of original web video channels to grow its audience. Whether this strategy will prove successful remains to be seen.

AOL also seems to have given up on its communication services as a way to drive audience growth. Not only did the company lay off over 200 employees in its email and AIM divisions, but it also sold valuable communication patents to completely wash its hands from ever becoming a web portal again. The other two old-school web portal giants — Microsoft and Yahoo — seem to have gone the opposite route by revamping their communication services. And while comScore ranks Microsoft and Yahoo as the second and fourth top media properties worldwide, both companies’ portals are experiencing flat or declining unique visitor growth.

The bottom line? It’s no longer useful to gauge Glam Media’s success by comparing it to AOL’s audience reach. But overtaking the tired old web portal could help create a healthy buzz for Glam as it prepares for an inevitable initial public offering.

Data table via comScore (Click image to enlarge)

comScore top 100 global media properties

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