SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA — Looking for the latest news on Dell or Hewlett-Packard, or trying to figure out whether to buy yourself an Apple iPad or one of its competitors in the tablet category? If you are, there’s a good chance you’re going to end up on CNET.
CNET is a technology news website that offers tech product reviews, news, price comparisons, free software downloads, daily videos, and podcasts. Founded in 1992, it made its first splash in 1994 with CNET TV. With help from backers like Microsoft’s Paul Allen and USA Networks, CNET TV produced cable shows such as The Web, CNET Central, and The New Edge, which aired on channels such as USA and Syfy. American Idol host Ryan Seacrest first rose to prominence as a host of The New Edge.
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In 1996, CNET became a public company, and the website began to gain more attention as America entered into the first dot-com boom. Today, the website attracts about 19 million unique visitors each month, according to Compete.com data.
Scott Ard is CNET’s editor in chief. He joined the website as a part-time contributor in 1996, around the time of the launch of CNET News, and was then a reporter and a weekend editor for the site before being promoted to his current position in 2008. Ard was a technology reporter before he came to CNET, and even started the technology section at The Oakland Tribune. He says he was interested in coming to CNET because it would allow him to work in a new technological medium.
[UPDATE: Since being interviewed for this profile, Scott Ard has left CNET for Yahoo!, becoming editor of the company’s heavily-trafficked homepage. Jim Kerstetter, Senior Executive Editor of CNET News, and Lindsey Turrentine, Editor -in-chief of CNET Reviews, are now in charge of CNET.]
“I personally thought the newspapers weren’t doing enough to seize the new [online] medium,” Ard says. “The Internet wasn’t going to go away. It was really just another medium to do journalism.”
Ard says the first time he realized the potential of online news sources like CNET was in 1996. Late on a Friday afternoon, he came home from his full-time job and logged onto CNET to see a story about Steve Jobs returning to Apple–a story complete with photos, video, and audio. Ard knew that newspapers wouldn’t be publishing the story until the next morning; CNET and other websites were able to report the news twelve hours faster than traditional sources.
“It really struck me that the web was for real,” Ard says. “Not only did they have this content, but they had it at 6 p.m., ready to go.”
Fifteen years later, CNET has continued to grow, as the technology industry has done the same.
“When CNET News just got going, technology was a fairly finite space,” Ard says. “You had some of your big companies–like Apple and HP–and e-commerce start-ups, like Amazon and Pets.com. But as tech has grown to be so ubiquitous with people, we’ve expanded.”
When Ard was first hired, CNET was just in its third year, and still somewhat of an unknown commodity. In fact, its relative obscurity was an office joke among reporters. “It was kind of a joke that when you called sources and said you were from CNET, they’d think you had said CNN,” Ard says.
But it wasn’t long before CNET started making an impact on the online journalism landscape. Many of the reporters for the company had worked at newspapers such as the San Francisco Chronicle, so they were familiar with sources in the Silicon Valley community. The company prioritized hiring skilled journalists who were able to report informative pieces thoroughly and quickly.
A core part of CNET has always been its product reviews. Initially, computers were the main products that CNET reviewed, but that has since expanded to include products such as cell phones, GPS systems, home audio equipment, and digital cameras. The goal, Ard says, is to get the products reviewed and posted online as quickly as possible. The products are also tested within CNET’s labs, with videos of the tests often posted alongside the reviews.
The rest of CNET Networks has grown, too. The website now offers podcasts, video first-looks at products, how-to guides, and other resources. You can find videos on CNET covering everything from how to transfer your music from your iPod to your computer to a first look at the 2012 Honda Civic. CNET also offers downloads for things such as browsers, games, office tools, and security software. Ard says expansion into those areas was necessary for CNET to continue to grow.
“We can’t really live off of people who are just researching products alone, because they buy a TV once every three years,” Ard says.
CNET has also become more visible since its acquisition by CBS Interactive in 2008 for $1.8 billion. Ard says being associated with CBS has allowed more people to see CNET segments on local newscasts.
“We’d always been quoted by media, but CBS gives us a little bit more of a consistent voice,” Ard says. “For example, we have people who create three or four video packages a week on technology to put out for distribution to CBS affiliates.”
Ard hopes that user-generated content will eventually become a bigger part of CNET. The website currently features forums and user reviews, but he wants to see even more user participation. Ard says having content from users creates a perfect balance with the reviews and advice from CNET’s experts.
Ard cites an example from last year, when users told CNET experts that some Panasonic TVs were losing their deep black color capabilities over time. So CNET tested the product again and adjusted its ratings.
“Both product reviews and user reviews are very good to a point. Editorial reviews offer a consistent voice, and they’re going to be able to compare things to other products,” Ard says. “But users can figure out what happens six months down the road with a product.”
Ard also wants to see more coverage of tech startups and better aggregation of news on CNET. And of course, he says, they will need to stay ahead of the competition on new technologies, such as Internet-capable cars and appliances.
“That’s the hard part, is trying to keep up with the new categories and products that are coming out,” Ard says. “And adjusting.”
City: San Francisco