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Conde Nast has identity problems online. The publishing house announced on Monday that its online male fashion coverage would be folded into the websites for magazine properties GQ and Details. I wrote about the decision here.

In the piece, I wrote about how the change could effect Style.com. I thought of Men.Style.com as a subdomain of Style.com. But Conde Nast actually considers Men.Style.com to be its own property. GQ.com and Details.com are currently linked to the site, and they are all considered to be distinct properties from Style.com, which is "the online home of Vogue." 

All that parsing is rather confusing. And I'm not the only one who failed to note the distinction between the two Style.com properties.

In my post Monday, I quoted Conde Nast's Digital president Sarah Chubb, who had told AdAge of the decision: "GQ's brand strength is the strongest at Conde Nast. It made sense to us to consolidate under GQ because we had a hard time branding it on its own away from Style.com."

It looks like the branding for Men.Style.com was difficult on its own as well, considering that staffers refer to it as Style.com. But this gets to a larger point. Conde's websites were created through a piece meal process that has left a lot of varied properties online and in print with a muddled sense of where the titles overlap and interact.

They're often confusing, redundant and diffuse.

After I wrote my original post, a Conde spokesperson took issue with my comparison of GQ to Style.com, which is the women's site. But she also thought it was unfair to criticize the overlapping coverage at properties like Gourmet, Epicurious and Bon Appetit. I think the sites all have terrific content, but for a reader, it is hard to see where their editorial focus differs. For example, someone looking for a recipe could find a different, but similar, answer at each of the sites. The person I spoke with doesn't think redundancies between the sites could cause problems with readership: "The three web sites are doing well so not sure where this is coming from."

The problem is they're not doing that well. Traffic at Epicurious is down 22% since 2006 and 20% since June of last year, according to web monitoring firm Hitwise. Gourmet's website wasn't active in 2006 and while traffic is up 200% since last year, its readership is still a fraction of that at Epicurious. (Bon Appetit's URL is aggregated back to Epicurious and is not separately tracked by Hitwise.)

It's impossible to know what those numbers would look like if Conde was putting all of its resources into one consolidated food property. But the publisher, like many others, is suffering from the diversity of the online space. Offline, magazines properties compete with a finite group of publications for authority and advertiser partnerships. But online there is far more competition and it's harder to establish brand dominance.

"It's the tyranny of too much," says Yankee Group media analyst Carl Howe. "The big peril for everyone in the Internet space is that new properties are showing up very rapidly and diluting the value of any single property."

Conde's magazine sites are competing with a plethora of smaller, newer and nimble sites online. For instance, Style.com is one of the most popular fashion destinations online (regardless of men.style.whatever distinctions), but new fashion sites crop up every day and Style.com has seen traffic plummet 40% since 2006 according to Hitwise.

And it's not helping that Conde has similar properties that overlap and cover similar categories. Says Howe: “The more choice you get past a certain point, the lower the consumer’s satisfaction.”

Moreover, it's confusing for advertisers.

"Advertising is still an efficiency game," says J.P. Batson, VP of publishers at Rubicon Project. "In magazines, if you want to reach an affluent savvy group, you can go to a property like Vanity Fair. But there are tons of places online to reach a lot of people who fit that demographic. Conde Nast has great assets and an incredible brand. But they need to scale to attract the same advertisers online."

Many of the company's publications weren't ready to ramp up online when Conde started making its digital push. Vogue became Style.com, Gourmet and Bon Appetit were rolled into Epicurious.com, and Conde Nast Traveler became Concierge.com. Their brand URLs were move of a placeholder for magazine content than active sites focused on original content. But now that they have the staff and content to produce online, some consolidation seems inevitable. 

“Vogue is one of the best names in fashion." says Batson. "Why shouldn’t it be the destination for fashion online? Ultimately it will probably make sense for them to fold some of their properties back together again."

The decision to bring Men.Style.com content into GQ.com and Details.com was made before Conde brought in management consultants McKinsey and Co. to help grow revenues and optimize the business. McKinsey's strength is not in the online space, but in the process of "enhancing.. brand assets," they shouldn't forget to optimize the digital properties.

I worked at Conde and the logic of the online properties still evades me. But more importantly, it's confusing to readers. And advertisers.

Meghan Keane

Published 23 July, 2009 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

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