Interview With Digg CEO Matt Williams On Future Of Digg

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I spoke with Digg CEO Matt Williams today about the departure of founder Kevin Rose to work on a new startup, and where Digg goes from here.

Williams is extremely bullish on Digg. Traffic stabilized in January, he says, at about 20 million unique monthly visitors. The company has just 35 employees, he says, after 40% layoffs late last year. With the decreased burn rate the company is approaching cash flow positive, he says, and should get there this year. This is clearly a big priority for Williams, who is about to celebrate six months with the company.

But he also has big product plans for Digg, he says. “A year from now Digg will look very different. It will have a fantastic zeitgeist of the news product but it will also be many other things to news readers,” he told me.

That’s pretty vague and Williams isn’t saying much else about where Digg is going. But it’s clear that he’s planning yet another relaunch in the near future. Digg will remain a news aggregation site, he tells me, and notes that people still visit 4-6 sites per day for news. That’s an opportunity for Digg, he says. People today get a lot of news from people they follow on Twitter and Facebook, but that isn’t the whole solution.

He then spoke about the use of social networks and interest graphs to assist in finding news relevant to the user, presumably beyond just what your friends are digging or retweeting.

A customized news site has been a pipe dream for many failed startups. It’s just really hard to do. Partly because people consider news the stuff that everyone else considers news, so they know what to talk about around the water cooler. But also because it’s just really, really hard to figure out what people want to consume, and when.

If Digg gets this right, it’s a huge opportunity. If they don’t the show is probably over for them.

I also asked Williams about the difficulty in growing a startup when constrained by the competing goal of becoming cash flow positive. Former CEO Jay Adelson has told me that Digg became hyper focused on profitability during the recession a couple of years ago, and he probably cut too much fat and into the muscle. It was that period that Twitter grew dramatically and Digg lost status as an important news site.

Williams isn’t concerned, though, saying that cash constraints force good decisions. Once Digg figures out the winning product they can raise more cash to grow, if they want to.

I’m hoping to get Williams, Rose and Adelson in our studio next week to talk about the past and future of Digg at length. Would make a great show.

Update: Williams has a blog post up talking about the future of Digg as well:

The Digg Goes On

Got some love from a longtime Digg user at SXSW: “If I don’t start my day with Digg, it’s not a good day.” We’ve had some great comments like this from many of our users, and several questions at the same time.

We’ve been hearing a lot about how Kevin Rose is launching something new. Everyone knows Kevin is an entrepreneur at heart, and he’s had many projects in the works over the past several years. We’re excited to see what he comes up with next. Kevin continues to be committed to Digg’s success; his role as founder, Board member, and Diggnation host remains unchanged. When I took over as CEO last September, Kevin stepped back from the day-to-day decisions. I’m proud of the great team we’ve got at Digg, and they’re the ones to credit for the changes you’ve seen and the new direction we’re pursuing.

On behalf of the entire team, I’d like to highlight a few facts about Digg and then share some details about where we’re going.

When I joined Digg, we had just released a product that was not ready for prime time. It really upset our users. Over the first few months we dropped in the number of daily visitors and page views. But through this crisis, the lines of communication between Digg and our users opened to unprecedented levels. We received tens of thousands of comments and suggestions from the Digg community about how to restore the site they loved.

Since hitting a low point toward the end of 2010, our traffic has stabilized, and we’ve seen site engagement increase significantly: Diggs up 20%, time on site up 20%, and the total number of comments submitted per day is up nearly 50%. These strong numbers reflect both the passion of the Digg community and the tireless work of our engineering team. Longtime Digg users have been overwhelmingly positive about our ongoing improvements.

All told, we still have close to 20M monthly unique visitors worldwide, just about 1M unique visitors each day. We also have over 6M registered users, growing by hundreds of thousands each month. Depending on your favorite measurement service, Digg is ranked in the top 100-150 U.S. web sites, and our traffic puts us as one of the top news web sites in the world.

But even more interesting than where Digg is today is the role we will play in the years to come. Last week I presented at SXSW on the future of news. The amount of content published is growing by leaps and bounds over previous years – on a path to increase from hundreds of thousands to millions of major articles, blog posts, and media items published daily. A major factor is citizen journalism, set to explode with increased adoption of smartphones and content-sharing apps.

Meanwhile, it takes time and effort to find the news most relevant and interesting to you, given the overwhelming number of options. The average U.S. adult relies on multiple web sites for their news each day, and around 60% of Americans rely on both online and offline news sources. When we surveyed a sampling of our Digg users, we cataloged over 100 different web sites visited for the explicit purpose of reading the news.

In other words: massive opportunity. More news produced in a day than one can read in a year, yet no one has truly solved how to filter the news that each of us cares about individually. Digg’s community of users helps to curate what’s interesting – but even in our example, it’s just one crowdsourced view of the news. We must head toward a future where the crowdsourced view can be combined with news pertaining to your own interests and news shared within your own social circles. As a company that has been focused since day one on finding the most relevant and popular news online, we have a unique advantage in the industry.

So where is Digg going? Reinvention. Over the past 6 months, we’ve been rebuilding our team and restoring the web site to a stable, great experience for our community. We’ve made some recent changes in management, welcoming on board VP Engineering Ben Folk-Williams to replace our outgoing VP Product/Engineering Keval Desai. As importantly, we’ve hired some great engineers into Digg since the beginning of the year and our hiring continues. If you have a passion for news, join us!

Moving forward, we’ll continue to invest in making Digg.com better, and we’ll invest in innovative ways to discover news and share in the conversation beyond anything that exists today. Thanks to all of the active Digg users that have stood by as we continue to rebuild, experiment and innovate. We’re making a better Digg – and as you’ll see, we’re determined to deliver the news most relevant to you from the communities you trust. Stay tuned.