Think back five years. If they had made a feature film then about a hot social networking site, it would have been MySpace. Instead, it's the founding story of Facebook that's dramatized—some say made up—in David Fincher's The Social Network. The movie's success—it led the box office with $23 million on its opening weekend and is expected by many to earn Academy Award nominations—is emblematic of how ubiquitous Facebook has become in popular culture. What's more, the company has quietly become an advertising juggernaut, on track to pull in $1.6 billion in ad revenue this year, per estimates by Cowen and Co. That figure is expected to hit $3 billion in 2011, which would make Facebook one of the Web's biggest ad sellers. And it's done it without plastering its pages with flashy, intrusive ads, a mistake MySpace made that helped usher its own slow-motion decline. If Facebook can navigate the thorny privacy issues that have bedeviled it at times, it has a shot at becoming a digital media force on par with Google.
• 500 million registered users globally
• 148 million U.S. visitors, up 60 percent from a year earlier
• 34 visits per visitor per month
Last year's rank: 1
Yes, tweet was 2009's word of the year, per the American Dialect Society. To some, that was an abomination. The standards editor at The New York Times, for one, sent out a memo admonishing journalists not to sully the paper of record with the colloquialism. That's probably a losing battle. Twitter has defied tech glitches, critics who say it's just a forum for discussing your lunch and challenges from heavyweights like Facebook and Google to make strides forward. Its audience keeps growing, and it has smartly crafted its ad products around how people use the service, forcing advertisers to create messages that people want to share rather than take the easy way out with homepage takeovers. The trick will be to keep comparatively high ad-interaction rates (Twitter says ad tweets get an average response rate of 5 percent) once the novelty wears off.
• 160 million registered accounts
• 370,000 accounts added per day
• 90 million tweets per day
Last year's rank: 3
In 2007, when Dodgeball founder Dennis Crowley left Google, which had bought his company two years earlier, he broke the news with a photo on Flickr showing him and fellow conspirator Alex Rainert giving the thumbs-down sign and explaining how Google went on to mess up the acquisition. Now, Crowley is back with a souped-up version of Dodgeball that lets people find new things to do and share their location with friends. Foursquare has grown to more than 3 million users, and its declaration that it could crack the lucrative small-retailer market enabled the 30-person company to close a $20 million funding round in June. The path ahead won't be easy. (Facebook, for one, introduced a location-sharing feature in August.) No matter the result, Crowley is intent on continuing his idiosyncratic ways. He took the company to see The Social Network on opening day with four backpacks of beer.
• 3.8 million registered users globally
• 200 million total check-ins, 1.5 million per day
Last year's rank: New
4. HUFFINGTON POST
At a recent media industry conference, a provocative moderator accused the Huffington Post of trying to add too many features. Stirring the pot, the moderator sarcastically asked the HuffPost exec on the panel: "Have you seen your site?" The exec replied, "Have you seen our traffic?" Touché. In August, HuffingtonPost.com reached a record 24.4 million unique users, per comScore. Those users posted more than 3.4 million comments during the month. Clearly, the audience likes the site's experiments with social publishing tools. HuffPost was among the first sites to integrate Facebook Connect and to publish a Twitter-only edition. The site has also embraced the earn-social-currency phenomenon with the launch of HuffPost Badges. New content sections on travel, religion, the arts, education and even divorce have broadened its appeal. Advertising is heating up, too, with revenue expected to double this year, netting out at $30 million.
• 24 milion unique users in August, per comScore > 3.4 million comments in August
• Estimated $30 million in revenue, up from $15 million last year
Last year's rank: 6
What do most Americans want for Christmas this year? Rhoda Alexander of market research firm iSuppli calls the iPad the "Tickle Me Elmo" of the 2010 holiday season. Since Apple's tablet computing device arrived last April, most analysts have been forced to increase their sales estimates as the device has flown off shelves at a faster rate than the market-making iPhone. But beyond serving as a consumer electronics marvel, the iPad has helped to reinvigorate the print and Web publishing industries. Plus, the iPad has sparked creative ingenuity from the developer world that will further benefit publishers—like the much-hyped social reading platform Flipboard. Advertising on the iPad is still hit or miss, but publishers are hopeful they'll be able to command a premium once the install base reaches a significant threshold—which doesn't appear very far away.
• Apple sold 2 million iPads in just two months on the market
• Experts predict 7 to 10 million sold by the end of 2010
Mark Pincus, the 44-year-old founder of Zynga, saw something that larger competitors like Electronic Arts missed: Social platforms like Facebook were poised to alter how people amuse themselves. Thanks to the meteoric growth of games like FarmVille, which boasts 62 million players, Zynga is in line to become the next great Silicon Valley empire. What's amazing is that the company generates an estimated $500 million in revenue mostly via sales of virtual currency. With EA adding Playfish and Disney scooping up Playdom, Zynga faces increased competition as it tries to diversify from its dependence on Facebook. It's also trying to implement an ad model catering to brands to complement its high-margin virtual-goods business.
• 360 million users
• 65 million daily active users
• 30 million virtual farms in FarmVille
Last year's rank: New
7. DEMAND MEDIA
Google the phrase "cook salmon on a grill," and eHow.com ranks high on the listings, appearing long before anything from Food + Wine or the Food Network. eHow, a property of Demand Media, and its flood-the-zone content model is eating traditional media's lunch when it comes to harnessing search traffic. Indeed, the freelancer-centric publishing model has emerged as one of the hottest trends in 2010. Demand's sites reach nearly 60 million unique monthly users. It's now prepping for an IPO that some estimate will be valued at $125 million. The company has brought on former Yahoo sales vet Joanne Bradford to reach out to traditional brands—and, so far, advertisers like Chevrolet are buying. Coming soon: another high-profile project, this one with Tyra Banks. And Demand is expanding into traditional media, syndicating travel content to USA Today. Not surprisingly, traditional publishers are not so welcoming. Some have even turned to Google to complain.
• 58.8 million unique visitors
• 17th largest property on the Web in August, per comScore
Last year's rank: New
Think music videos went the way of the VJ? Lady Gaga would beg to differ. Her videos are now as hotly anticipated as her music. Yet they hardly register on MTV. Rather, Gaga's "Alejandro" video has since garnered 87 million views on Vevo.com. The site, which launched last December, is a joint venture between Universal Music Group and Sony Music—with a major assist from Google—and is now the default music video channel on YouTube, where its content is syndicated. Traffic has soared, reaching 49 million unique users in August, per comScore. And unlike YouTube, which initially struggled with monetization, Vevo's brand-friendly content has been an immediate hit with advertisers. American Express, Ford, Heineken, McDonald's and Lionsgate have all run campaigns. There's already talk of distribution deals with cable networks and even a stand-alone Vevo network. Maybe the VJ is back.
• 49 million uniques in August 2010, per comScore
• Up 40 percent versus December 2009
• Since December, total visits have surged by 93 percent
Last year's rank: New
In June '07, when former Amazon executive Jason Kilar signed on to lead the online video joint venture that came to be called Hulu, he had his share of doubters. But Kilar forged ahead. He's held together the less-than-ideal ownership structure at Hulu while keeping focused on the user experience. The result: Hulu has emerged as the No. 1 destination for TV dollars migrating online. Kilar addressed pressure from News Corp. to develop a premium service by rolling out Hulu Plus, which gives users the option of paying for access to full seasons of shows. He's been smart to keep advertising loads light and experiment with innovations like Ad Selector, which strikes a balance between repurposed TV creative and the user choice that defines the Web. Ad-buying giant VivaKi, the Publicis unit, validated Ad Selector by naming it the best model for online video after studying various formats over 16 months. Kilar's balancing prowess will be put to the test again when Hulu gets a new corporate owner in Comcast once the cable giant's deal to acquire NBC Universal goes through.
• 19 million U.S. visitors, up 28 percent from a year ago
• 158 minutes per user
• 783,000 video ads served, most of any provider
Last year's rank: 2
10. DOUBLECLICK AD EXCHANGE
Advertisers are abandoning traditional buying models on the Web in favor of buying specific audiences all over the Internet using a wealth of data. Nearly every ad agency worth its salt has established a trading desk to purchase this highly targeted ad inventory at scale in real time. Ad exchanges are at the heart of this macro trend, with Google's DoubleClick Ad Exchange having emerged as the clear leader. The exchange, which rolled out last fall, trades inventory from 50-plus ad networks that represent thousands of Web publishers large and small. Naturally, individual publishers also come to the exchange to directly unload leftover avails. Per Google, those publishers enjoy prices for their ad space that are an average of 130 percent higher than those achieved by ad networks. As inventory becomes more abundant across the Web, the importance of exchanges will only expand. Google's competition in the space will grow too, as independent exchanges like OpenX gain traction.
• Hundreds of thousands of advertisers
• Number of transactions tripled over past year
• Average CPM lift of 136 percent compared with standard ad inventory, per Google research