Those F%#&!ng Content Links
“Ad Market Collapse Imminent!” warns whiny Twitter user
Salon recommends a story that will reveal a “Biblical Money Code” at the end of a light-hearted story about Dave Matthews. The liberal Think Progress site absurdly promotes a “Conservative Talk Show Host” who will help you “stick it to the IRS.” And long trusted news brand Time refers me to an irresponsible “90% Stock Market Collapse Imminent” report.
If you actually click on these you quickly discover that the content being recommended is not only unlikely to be related to the story you were reading, but is also just a sales pitch. The “story” about the pastor whose investments are guided by the Bible is actually a lengthy effort to get you to sign up for expensive financial newsletters. The video portion of this pitch starts with a telling line: “Imagine if you had a secret code for making money…”
JFC. Snake oil.
Most of us know enough not to click on these silly headlines, but they often appear wedged in with legitimate stories that might be interesting or relevant. And they aren’t always obvious gimmicks. This means they have to be mentally sifted through, cluttering up our brains with noise when readers just want to browse actual stories.
So when Contextly creator Ryan Singel tweeted that Salon had begun using Taboola — one of the most popular services that provides these promotional links — I replied with a screenshot of ads I had seen on Salon and complained like the whiny consumer I am.
A small flurry of tweets from others and myself pinned the blame squarely on Taboola, and I even used a quote that boosted competitor Outbrain’s standing in their turf war against Taboola. The next morning my friend David Hirsch, a VC in digital media, called me to the mat, tweeting that Taboola’s business results are excellent. He soon agreed to set up lunch between myself and Adam Singolda, founder and CEO of Taboola, so we might better understand each other.
“I was just surprised to know you were a real person,” Singolda said as I sat down in his office. After all, it turned out everyone else commenting on Twitter seemed to have some connection to his competitors. Singolda very graciously answered all of my questions and disarmed a few presumptions I’d made.
For one, delivering related links is of course a more challenging task than I at one point had suggested. Contextual links like Adwords often fail because people don’t want to see a hundred ads for guitars just because they searched for a guitar, so Taboola, Outbrain, Content.ad and others are working on deeper methods of big data interpretation.
As Buzzfeed, The Daily Mail and others are proving, people don’t just spend hours looking at kittens or news or sports; they look at kittens and news and sports, flitting between them. So the best content promotion has to recommend kittens to the right person at the right time, even while they are signaling an interest in sports. Higher paying ads will surface more often but, at least in theory, Taboola succeeds when they are able to closely match content to a reader’s actual but complex interests.
Some of this is art, some is science, and much is experimental. Sometimes atheistic Dave Matthews fans are going to repeatedly be pitched Biblical secrets to getting rich. Sometimes that is going to happen over and over and over and over to the same person for no apparent reason. But, Singolda assured me, they are always improving the results based on user behavior.
More importantly though, he confirmed that Taboola gives publishers the power to manage the ads that are shown on their sites. So when a sponsored link tells you “Russia Plans to Nuke World Economy” or “Billionaire Warns Americans to Prepare for Financial Ruin” (both of which lead to manipulative sales pitches), it’s the publisher’s choice to associate those fear-mongering headlines with their own brand.
The same is true of the presentation, and smart publishers are taking control of this. While Time and Salon label these headlines “related” or “recommended” (stripping those words of much meaning), The Atlantic declares in bold print that these links are sponsored. The Atlantic is also one of the seemingly rare brands that limits these content promotions to actual news and entertainment stories, apparently blocking alarmist pitches from sources like Newsmax.
Many publishers use a variety of services, and sometimes one undercuts the other. On many sites you can directly compare the results from Outbrain and Taboola links, which often show up right on top of each other.
Many sites struggle with the distinctions between advertising, sponsored stories and promoted content. For instance, Venture Beat has been employing a variety of services and presents each differently. On a single page you could recently see “sponsored” links, managed directly by Venture Beat, and Taboola links listed as “More from the Web” with no mention that they are paid promotions too. It’s somewhat reassuring to know that Venture Beat seems to be experimenting with these, as three different content promotion services have appeared at various times over the last several days.
But if they are experimenting, it’s not for the sake of appearance or editorial clarity. When I asked Dylan Tweney, Venture Beat’s Executive Editor, if there was any editorial control or influence over these content promotions, he was blunt:
“Editors are not at all involved in decisions about which ad networks we use, what’s sold, or where it goes,” Tweney told me. “Ads go in places where we put ads, content goes in the places where we put content, end of story.”
CHURCH & STATE
This is consistent with a long history of publishing and the need for separation between the so-called church and state of news publishing. In traditional publishing formats this was the strongest guarantee that news was not slanted to the will of advertisers. That has been a guiding principle for both sides of the news business for over two hundred years because reader trust is good for business.
In traditional media formats this may still make sense, but as native advertising and content promotion are increasingly linked to actual reporting, the lines are already blurred for readers. With the mainstreaming of native advertising (which used to just be called “sponsored” content, because that’s what it is), publishers are increasingly tearing down this separation of church and state, while traditional news editors dig in their heels to maintain editorial integrity.
The irony is that separation of editorial and revenue departments is precisely how top news brands are losing reader trust with content recommendations. The illusion that promoted content is related to the rest of the stories on a page is part of what sells for Taboola, Outbrain, Content.ad and the rest. Content.ad states it best with their offer to deliver “high-paying premium content that doesn’t look or feel like advertising” — though it is, of course.
In light of this effort by advertisers, an increase in editorial influence over sponsored content would now help preserve the integrity of most news brands. At the very least, editorial ground rules that are normally applied to other publishing formats need to be enforced online. The Atlantic and Newsday have both kept their promotional links legitimate, and I’m sure their editors are not involved in ad approval. If they can generate revenue from high quality Taboola links without sullying their brands, then surely other publishers can filter out the worst promotions and do the same.
Of course filtering these ads to keep brands above the fray won’t matter if readers stop paying attention to those recommended headlines. Now that we’re reaching a point of saturation in the market, where nearly every popular news site has some sort of recommended content promotion, users are likely to adapt in the same way they did with banner ads. That means a quick dive toward zero value that could be hugely damaging to publishers and service providers alike.
Nobody knows this better than Yaron Galai, founder and CEO of Outbrain. Galai launched Outbrain after watching firsthand as the contextual ad market was decimated by saturation, user fatigue and poor targeting. After more than a decade in that business, he sought to build a system that delivered high value to both publisher and reader by driving traffic to high quality, relevant content.
Along the way, Outbrain picked up a lot of these get-rich-quick advertising campaigns, a market which only got bigger as competitors like Taboola began to do the same. In fact, it can be argued that Outbrain in many ways created today’s market for cheap pitches disguised as content, but the company has more recently become a crusader for quality.
Last year Galai and his team did what most publishers still won’t. Outbrain imposed editorial guidelines that restrict the sort of sales funnels that still appear to be Taboola’s bread and butter. In particular, Outbrain seems to have dropped the most aggressive advertisers, like Newsmax, that Taboola still serves. (Outbrain sources will not discuss particular clients or campaigns, but I suddenly stopped seeing all of the Newsmax link bait that seems to violate several points in the Outbrain editorial guidelines.)
When I sat down with Outbrain founder and CEO Yaron Galai, he reported that Outbrain won’t even consider healthcare or finance ads anymore because they so consistently lead to obvious sales funnels that don’t provide useful content. They don’t have a problem with sponsored content, so long as it offers something more to the reader than a sales pitch. Even accepting sponsored stories and some well written advertorials, Galai says they still lost 7 of their top 20 campaigns and it hit the bottom line hard.
The pain continues almost a year later. Galai turns away lucrative business almost every day, explaining to advertisers that their content is not a good fit and referring them to competitors. In one of the recent email threads I saw, Galai closes by reminding the client that “there seem to be plenty other similar services now with much different editorial requirements than ours.”
This isn’t just altruistic, of course; it’s good business. In the long run, the Outbrain team believes reader trust is worth far more than the immediate gain afforded by link bait and product pitches. And in the meantime this policy helps differentiate and strengthen their brand by comparison.
“I can’t claim we always get this right,” he told me, “but we’re certainly the only ones that seem to be trying (certainly at the expense of short-term revenues).”
As with publishers, the worst possible outcome for Outbrain and other content promotion services would be to lose reader trust. According to Galai, “User trust, IMHO, is the paramount currency of our space. Not short term money.”
That costly decision has also been rewarding for competitors aggressively competing for market share. Outbrain competitors like Taboola have little incentive to block content that feeds their bottom line and pleases their publishers. So long as the free market demands these valuable ads, the profits may be well worth it for now. And Taboola’s policy is to treat all content equally. Taboola simply sells the picks and shovels in this gold rush. It’s not their job to make sure that every claim is legitimate.
However, the long game favors Outbrain and discerning publishers who listen to their readers. The conversion and sharing numbers David Hirsch referred to may look great for companies like Time and Taboola now, but the less defined ‘ick’ factor could be a huge problem over the long term. Anyone familiar with startup development and product iteration understands that today’s sales numbers can be misleading, and user feedback is a key indication of where a product needs to improve. For Taboola and others to ignore reader distaste over some of their content promotion is to ignore a huge pool of user feedback.
QUALITY = VALUE
Outbrain and Taboola are both trying to solve a difficult riddle: how do you turn something readers loathe (advertising) into something they love (great content)? The key is ultimately user experience, which Singolda reminded me is more in the hands of publishers than any service company.
Publishers that don’t focus on reader trust and experience design will pay dearly over the next decade. The top news brands to beat — e.g. Quartz (The Atlantic), Wired, The Verge, Vice and others — all benefit from a high quality focus on the reader experience. And most of the leaders in news design don’t use paid content links at all.
If Wired sends me to another source, it’s because it’s relevant to the Wired mission. The same is true when Quartz includes third party sources in their daily email brief. Readers can more easily trust that curation of these stories is not driven by link bait arbitrage or undisclosed sponsorship. Such brands benefit from a curatorial reputation that boosts the value of their original reporting as well, so it is in their best interest to play it straight.
The best sources also don’t waste a reader’s time or energy. When a reader gets burned by something “related” that isn’t, the resulting frustration costs everyone in the media market. Taboola, Outbrain, publishers, writers, advertisers — all of them suffer as readers begin to install ad blockers, start ignoring those links or seek out other sources for news.
Now that Outbrain has apparently seen the light though, is it too late? As savvy readers collectively begin ignoring those content links, Outbrain will need to maneuver quickly and smartly to either win readers back or surface relevant content in a new way. They’ll have to ensure that the spread of bait-and-switch links through other networks does not pollute the market so much that their own links aren’t devalued as well.
In this battle to retain reader attention, Outbrain’s greatest allies may be their direct and adjacent competitors. Marchex, iSocket, Contextly and dozens of other established companies all depend on the same reader trust and engagement with their clients. While Contextly and Outbrain have begun lobbying against the use of deceptive advertising, all of the other publisher services will need to begin educating publishers as well if they want to preserve any value in the recommended content market.
DISCLOSURES: I have been an investor, advisor or founder with several tech and media startups, including the online publishing service TinyPass, which some may interpret as a competitor to advertising networks. I do not have any financial interest in Taboola, Outbrain, Contextly or other companies mentioned here.