Search for the subject of a breaking news story these days, and there’s a decent chance the top results will include a post from a site called Heavy.com. Often the headline will include the phrase “5 Fast Facts You Need to Know”—as in, “Preet Bharara Fired: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know.” But what is Heavy.com, and how did it come from seemingly nowhere to dominate your Google results? Why don’t we start with five fast facts.
- It might be the biggest national news site you’ve never heard of. According to Comscore, more than 9 million people visited the site in January, giving it roughly half as many online readers as the Atlantic or New Yorker websites and about the same number as Salon. Alexa ranks it as about the 800th most popular website in the United States. But Heavy’s own traffic claims are much higher: 35 million monthly uniques, according to its LinkedIn page. And last year it added a Spanish-language sibling, AhoraMismo.com.
- It’s been around a surprisingly long time. Heavy.com was founded by entrepreneurs Simon Assaad and David Carson in 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom, as a video-focused entertainment site aimed primarily at young men. It quietly rebooted in 2012 as a news site, and by mid-2014 it was reaching 4 million readers a month. It has more than doubled in size since then.
- It fills a very specific niche. While Heavy.com publishes other types of content, the site specializes in “5 Fast Facts” posts, which quickly aggregate key facts about trending news topics and people—especially topics and people that have not been widely covered in the media before.
- Its journalists are not famous—or even internet-famous. Whereas many other websites heavily feature their star writers and promote them on social media, Heavy.com relies largely on paid freelancers, many of whom contribute regularly.
- Heavy.com doesn’t want to talk about Heavy.com. For a news site of its size, it has attracted very little press or public attention in recent years, and its editor in chief, Aaron Nobel, declined Slate’s requests for comment on this story.
You might have already seen or even read a Heavy.com story without knowing anything about the site that published it. The site covers crime, celebrities, viral videos, and gaming, along with politics and general breaking news, and many of its posts make little attempt to distinguish themselves as anything more than handy sources of information. For instance, if you searched for something like “New York snowfall totals” during the recent winter storm, you might well have landed on Heavy’s post, “New York Snowfall Totals for Winter Storm Stella: How Many Inches So Far?” There you would have been treated to a brief introductory paragraph, followed by a recently updated list of the latest totals for various cities, with a link to the National Weather Service.
For one thing, Heavy.com has a bit of the look and feel of a content farm—a site stuffed with a large quantity of low-quality information, designed to appeal more to a search engine than to human intelligence. Many of its headlines appear plucked from some dashboard of trending Google search terms. But a closer look reveals something more than that. It’s an outlet that has managed to thrive in a hypercompetitive era by combining some old-school news virtues with a tight strategic focus that runs counter to many of the prevailing trends in online media.
It’s worth mentioning a couple of old-school news virtues to which the site does not aspire: original reporting and storytelling. Heavy’s writers and editors may do some reporting of their own, but mostly they aggregate information from other sources. (For what it’s worth, the site seems to be generally scrupulous about crediting and linking to the sources it cites, many of which are local news outlets.) And the writers appear to spend little time or energy crafting a narrative or styling their prose.
Rather, the goals Heavy.com seems to strive for are clarity, speed, and ease of reading, with accuracy and comprehensiveness sometimes emerging iteratively as more information comes in. When big news breaks, particularly around a person or topic that was not previously in the news, Heavy seems to make it its mission to dig up, verify, and neatly package the relevant background information more quickly than anyone else. The site often manages this within hours of a big story breaking; sometimes it does it within minutes. For example, when people were shot at a Quebec City mosque in January, Heavy’s story—“Quebec City Mosque Shooting: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know”—was among the first to be published on an English-language site. Heavy.com started with the basics of what was known at the time, then updated the story multiple times throughout the night and next morning until it ran nearly 3,000 words. When word broke on Feb. 6 that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would hear a challenge to President Trump’s travel ban, Heavy was quick to post backgrounders on the three judges involved, including one headlined, “Michelle Friedland: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know.”
What’s interesting about Heavy’s approach is not only what it does but what it doesn’t do. It never really attempts a “take”—the veneer of opinion or commentary that many other websites apply to the day’s news in an effort to distinguish their coverage from that of their rivals. Nor does it typically adopt a snarky or knowing tone or attach provocative headlines meant to induce clicks and shares on social media.
With just 17,100 Twitter followers and 117,000 Facebook likes, Heavy’s social media presence is tiny for an outlet of its size. And while it often embeds video in its posts, it seems to produce little video of its own these days. It is, in other words, something of a throwback in an era when other new media companies view social virality, reader loyalty, and original video content as the paths to profitability. Meanwhile, at a time when rivals such as BuzzFeed, Vice, and Refinery29 are trying to develop fresh business models centered around custom advertising products, many of Heavy’s ads are your run-of-the-mill, programmatic display ads, placed on the page automatically by third-party ad brokers.
So what’s behind Heavy’s rapid growth? Without the participation of its editors in this story, it’s hard to make any definitive claims as to where its traffic is coming from. A 2006 New York Times profile of the site doesn’t help much, because it was entirely different back then. But it isn’t hard to guess the biggest secret to its resurgence: search engine optimization. In this respect, too, Heavy is something of an anachronism.
An earlier era of online journalism—let’s call it the SEO era—was ushered in by the Huffington Post in the mid-to-late-2000s. Before people found their news through social media, web search and variants such as Google News represented a path to large readerships for fledgling publications looking for an edge over more established rivals. Back then, you could game Google’s algorithm to some extent through techniques such as stocking your posts with popular keywords. But as these techniques became widely known, and as Google moved to counteract them, SEO became an increasingly difficult way to attract readers. The emergence of Facebook as a major news source further limited its relative importance, and sites refocused on producing stories that were likable and shareable rather than searchable.
When you see Heavy.com’s posts appear above those of more established rivals in Google results, you might assume that it has found some new loopholes in the search engine’s algorithm. But that isn’t necessarily the case. Rather, its success on Google may simply be a product of the relevance, timeliness, and relative reliability of its content—exactly the things Google’s algorithm is supposed to be optimizing for. To the extent Heavy.com is optimizing for search traffic, its secrets may lie more in story selection, presentation, and timing than in any kind of technical trickery.
Editorially, it does not aim to be comprehensive. Rather, it seems to focus on a handful of broadly popular topics that many elite, national publications tend to overlook or eschew—along with straight news and politics. It focuses especially on people and stories that are just entering the public consciousness from a state of relative obscurity—a sound strategy, insofar as there tends to be less information readily available about these subjects when the story breaks. In those respects, it seems to be filling a genuine unmet need—or at any rate, an unmet want—among large swaths of the news-reading public. That’s what distinguishes it from a content farm.
So why won’t Heavy talk about any of this? The answer, alas, is not discoverable via basic internet research. But the shyness is in keeping with its ethos of keeping the focus on the stories’ subjects rather than their authors. Nobel’s background is in local newspapers, and the same appears to be true of many of Heavy.com’s regular contributors—which helps to explain their speed and fact-finding dexterity, along with the dryness of their prose. Perhaps he and CEO Simon Assaad are afraid that talking about the site’s apparent success would jinx it somehow or that they’d invite competition by publicizing their strategy. Maybe they simply feel the site, whose inelegant home page features a sometimes-incongruous blend of posts that include video game trailers and viral celebrity videos along with news explainers, isn’t ready for its close-up.
The subjects of Heavy.com’s stories didn’t always choose to become famous, but it happened to them anyway. If Heavy.com keeps growing like this, it won’t fly beneath the radar much longer, either.