If you have followed the history of Wellsphere.com you have probably heard accusations that the website used unscrupulous tactics. There is no shortage of bloggers on the internet telling stories of how the company’s Chief Medical Officer, Geoff Rutledge, employed equal parts flattery and lies to get medical bloggers to part with their content for free.
Today, an attempt to find Wellsphere.com delivers the following message: This site can’t be reached. The last time that Wellsphere.com web server was spotted online was in January of 2016. We looked into what happened to the site.
The Business of Wellsphere.com
Wellsphere.com was an online health information service provider. At its peak, the boasted of around 1200 active bloggers. It was a community-based website and comprised of medical experts, patients, and other health professionals who contributed to the growth of the website by providing different types of content.
Wellsphere.com had over 4 million monthly unique visitors. The success of the website was clear to anyone who looked at its numbers: over 300,000 articles; 250,000 images, and nearly 20,000 videos focusing on various health issues (Source).
The Man behind Wellsphere.com
Wellsphere.com was founded in 2005 by Ron Gutman. Before establishing the website, Gutman was the leader of an interdisciplinary research team at Stanford University, focusing on personal health (Source).
Like his website, Gutman was no stranger to controversy. In 2018, he was elbowed out of his position as CEO at HealthTap by the board of directors. In a letter written to employees explaining the decision to fire Gutman, the board indicated that it had received too many complaints about his behavior.
The true attitude of the HealthTap board towards Gutman is captured in the letter it sent to him. The board starts by explaining that he “committed acts of intimidation, abuse, and mistrust and that [he] repeatedly mistreated, threatened, harassed, and verbally abused employees.” The letter concludes: “This leaves us with no choice but to fire you. The toxicity you introduced into the workplace ends now.” (Source).
Dogged by Controversies
It didn’t take long for some of the bloggers who shared their content with Wellsphere to conclude that they had been duped. Many felt betrayed and “freaked out”. Many tried to opt out of their agreement (Source).
Those who tried to retrieve their content also discovered that they had granted a copyright to Wellsphere for the use of their content. This was a provision contained in the fine print that many bloggers had overlooked when they signed their agreements. This situation meant that Wellsphere still had the right to use, reproduce, and sell their content. Frustrated, some of the bloggers went online to tell their stories.
In an article published on Healthcare IT Today, John Lynn agrees with other bloggers about the unscrupulous tendencies at Wellsphere but disputes that he was a sucker. “I knew what I was getting into. All that was suggested was getting more exposure for my blog and possibly more credibility and visibility for my name,” says Lynn. “My blog, being about Health Care IT, I didn’t see the promised traffic, and so I pulled my blog. No harm no foul”, he concludes.
In his article, All Is Not Well(Sphere) Rob Lamberts writes that he felt flattered to be invited to contribute. For him, this indicated that he was “an expert blogger” and “a true medical expert.” Lamberts reports that as his articles started to be published, he was allowed the “nifty advertisement” placed on the sidebar in his blog (showing that he is an expert). He reports that after sending four months of his content to Wellsphere, there was no significant increase in traffic from his efforts. Hence, he decided to leave.
Acquisition by HealthCentral
In January 2009, the HealthCentral Network announced its acquisition of Wellsphere through a press release. This announcement caused a stir among healthcare bloggers with some calling it a damp squib. (If, like me, you weren’t familiar with the term “damp squib”, just know that it means that something failed to meet expectations).
Much of the controversy following the acquisition had to do with the fact that many bloggers felt that the terms of their agreement with Wellsphere had not been clear. They felt that Wellsphere had tricked them into agreeing to an “irrevocable, perpetual license.” The license allowed the owners of the website to do whatever they wanted (including selling) with the content that bloggers had posted on the company’s website.
The amount of money that changed hands when HealthCentral bought Wellsphere was never disclosed. However, an anonymous intern, who had been engaged by Wellsphere before, could not hide their surprise at the sale: “I feel that whoever closed this deal was a very good salesperson as the average post value of any of the community members is marginal at best.” They continue, “Wellsphere is just a list of curated sites and could be best thought of as an aggregated blog search.”
The Gutman misfortunes
After selling Wellsphere, Gutman went on to start HealthTap, a medical advice resource company. However, he would not last as the Company’s CEO. He was shown the door for unacceptable behavior, including staff intimidation.
Gutman denies the allegations, terming the move harmful to the company and a violation of his rights as the CEO. He promised to fight HealthTap for what he termed its illegal acquisition by the directors (Source).
What then happened to Wellsphere.com?
There is little other information about why HealthCentral eventually pulled the plug on Wellsphere. Considering the controversy that dogged the site for most of its life, it is conceivable that someone eventually saw the website as more of a liability than an asset.