Sociologist Duncan Watts helped come up with the idea for the Huffington Post

Here an interesting sidelight to sociologist Duncan Watts career: he helped create the Huffington Post.

The origins of the now famous Huffington Post began at a lunch in 2003 between AOL’s Kenneth Lerer and author and sociologist Duncan Watts. The two met to discuss Watts’ book, and left with the beginnings of the Huff Post.  The Columbia  Journalism Review recently gave its own take on Watts’ book, Six Degrees, that inspired Lerer from the get-go and on the history of The Huffington Post as we now know it. According to CJR, before AOL’s purchase of HuffPost in 2011, the company was not known for revenues or breaking news stories. However, the website had managed to master social media integration and search-engine optimization.

Here are more details from the story in the Columbia Journalism Review cited above:

He brought the book with him and Watts would recall that the copy was dog-eared, the flatteringly telltale sign of a purposeful read. Lerer had a plan and he wanted Watts to help him. He had set himself an ambitious target. He wanted to take on the National Rifle Association.

He told Watts: “I know the answer to this is somewhere in these pages.”…

Ken Lerer listened, and he was not deterred. Networks did, in fact, occur—vast networks through which previously disconnected people suddenly found themselves joined together, perhaps to share an idea, a song, a sentiment, a cause. Why not then try to create a network that could challenge the vast and powerful and sustaining network of the NRA?

“I know the answers,” Watts told him. “I am confident they are not there.” Then, having deflated Lerer, Watts threw him a lifeline: “Maybe my friend Jonah can help you.”

An interesting read: in order to fight the NRA and counter the DrudgeReport, people wanted to make the Huffington Post both viral and sticky.

However, from his Twitter account, here is Watt’s Apr 18 take on the CJR piece:

Six degrees of aggregation: A fascinating (in my biased opinion) take on the origins of the Huffington Post.

Is search engine optimization key to Huffington Post’s success?

This article suggests the Huffington Post’s value (exhibited in its recent sale to AOL) is based more on search engine optimization than on news or citizen journalism:

In addition to writing articles based on trending Google searches, The Huffington Post writes headlines like a popular one this week, “Watch: Christina Aguilera Totally Messes Up National Anthem.” It amasses often-searched phrases at the top of articles, like the 18 at the top of the one about Ms. Aguilera, including “Christina Aguilera National Anthem” and “Christina Aguilera Super Bowl.”

As a result of techniques like these, 35 percent of The Huffington Post’s visits in January came from search engines, compared to 20 percent for, according to Hitwise, a Web analysis firm.

Mario Ruiz, a spokesman for The Huffington Post, said search engine optimization played a role on the site but declined to discuss how it was used.

Though traditional print journalists might roll their eyes at picking topics based on Google searches, the articles can actually be useful for readers. The problem, analysts say, is when Web sites publish articles just to get clicks, without offering any real payoff for readers.

This is an ongoing issue with online news providers: simply producing good journalistic content doesn’t get the same number of clicks as celebrity and gossip-laden stories. And as the article suggests, some search engines, such as Google, may fight back by reducing the rank or placement of pages or sites that rely heavily on popular keywords.

But aren’t these sorts of practice inevitable when making money on the Internet is based around page views and clicking on advertisements? The goal has to be simply getting the most viewers rather than providing the best or more complete or most useful content.