This Chicago website is one of the most trafficked in the world. Here’s why you’ve never heard of it.

August 15, 2016

Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter and BuzzFeed may be the gaudy kings and queens of the web, but one Chicago company has stealthily joined their ranks as one of the nation’s most-visited websites.

Chicago’s top-trafficked site is... online obituary provider Legacy.com?

A head-scratcher at first glance, the placement makes sense when you understand how the company works: Legacy partners with more than 1,500 newspapers and 3,500 funeral homes across the country to host their obituary sections and help power their online memorial services. Those aggregate views help launch the company to the top of its heat.

According to Quantcast, a tool that helps publishers measure digital audiences, Legacy was recently ranked as the 38th most trafficked site in the U.S. That means they edge out certain internet standards like Reddit, Craigslist, Apple.com, CNN and the New York Times in terms of sheer view count. Meanwhile, Legacy counts companies like Walmart, PayPal, and WordPress among its closest peers.

A support network’s tech support

CEO Steve Parrott once told Bloomberg that about half of the 200,000 Americans who die each month end up being featured on Legacy in one form or another. All of that traffic demands a solid tech framework.

“We use a unique mix of custom software solutions and manual reviews to display in the proper branded templates, with all key information, including identification of duplicate obituaries and creation of database references so that a single unified guest book for each person is available for friends and family to build from multiple points of entry,” said Legacy CTO Mark Castrovinci.

Legacy’s staff screens more than 40,000 guest book entries daily, blocking all inappropriate or malicious material from making it into a comment section or guest book. The Evanston-based company employs about 200 people, including sales, content, advertisers, support members and engineers who all help power the site from a tech standpoint.

“Many other things happen behind the scenes, such as building the overall infrastructure and provisioning machines in a data center to respond to requests from browsers, deliver content and images and retrieve user generated content such as guest book entries to enable the internal screening process as well as external display,” Castrovinci said.

To be sure, the site itself garners its fair share of direct traffic, with daily blogs, columns, and featured obituaries populating the front page. But where Legacy really thrives is in its partnerships with newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times and The Boston Globe.

“We are one of the largest sympathy flowers portals and enable memorial giving for a wide range of charities,” Castrovinci said. “Our goal is to provide an exceptional experience for our partners and end users, so that they can focus on comforting the families that are suffering the loss.”

According to one of the company's case studies, the Legacy platform helps digital publications keep readers on their obit sections 80 percent longer than sites that don’t use it. In an age when more than one stalwart publication has begun to falter, having a reliable (and profitable) section of a news site can be — excuse the pun — a life saver.

Unlike many tech companies, Legacy’s operating in a vertical whose product/market fit has long since been established as part of many people’s daily or weekly routines — with the internet only making it easier to check in on connections lost and hometowns abandoned. Where older readers tend to go directly to their local newspapers and search for names, younger, more internet-savvy users often turn to Google, trying any combination of names or places to find the information they need on the recently deceased.

Life after death, thanks to the internet

Like almost everything, obituaries have changed since the dawning of the digital age. Today, obituaries enjoy a sort of online eternity their newspaper-clipped cousins never saw coming. Memorials and guest books can be accessed anytime, anywhere, by anyone.

The internet has amplified an obituary’s voice and proliferated its reach. It's a phenomenon we’ve all experienced before: the death of a celebrity that spreads like wildfire via Twitter, the loss of a high school friend you learn about on Facebook. People care about death — about having a community to grieve with, about having a forum to remember and memorialize and mourn.

That’s at once mission-critical and validating for a company whose ultimate mission is to celebrate the story of life.

“The writing of the life story isn’t just from the person who wrote the obituary,” Parrott said. “Any single life story is told by all the people they touched. It’s from the 4th grade student that fondly remembers the time Mrs. Jones took to sit down with her and tell her she was going to be a great writer. It’s from the older friend who never thought they would outlive the bright shining light of a life cut down too soon. It’s from Uncle Ed, who cracked one last joke on behalf of his brother. It’s all those bits of the impact of a life that come together on our site. It’s really cool to be able to be a part of that. I want my grandkids and my great grandkids to learn about their great grandparents on our site.”

Images via Legacy.com.

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