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bad contentPublishers with quality content are undermining their brands and providing their visitors with a poor experience by attempting to maximize revenue through paid links to poorly targeted, often low-quality third-party content.

For example, did you know:

The one sure-fire tip for losing weight? That a certain billionaire thinks that the economy is about to crater? That Tom Brady and Bridget Moynahan are having a baby?

No? Then you’re not reading some of the content being offered up through links on some major sites.

At the end of articles on thousands of sites such as the Wall Street Journal, Time, People, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Politico, Golf.com, the Huffington Post, and Boston.com are typically two columns of links to other “related” articles.

The left column will link to other articles on the site, and the right column appear to be links to site-approved content but are actually paid links to articles on other sites that presumably are somewhat targeted to the individual user, but often include a bewilderingly random set of links.

bad content

Sometimes these sponsored links take the form of photos, such as above and here…

Or bolded links...

Some of the links last, seemingly, forever, like that story about the billionaire telling Americans to prepare for financial ruin which I’ve seen on Politico for months, or a link last week on Boston Business Journal about Logan Airport being closed for the day, which went to a story from several months ago, or another BBJ link last week about Brady and Moynahan having a baby (another one?? What does Giselle have to say about this?) which linked to an article from 2007! 

Many of these linked articles are garbage, little better than an animated gif of a dancing woman encouraging you to refinance, but the links are on sites that are not garbage.

And even NYTimes.com, which is as high a quality as we have in American journalism, has high quality display ads on the site and does not use these sponsored links at the conclusion of articles, does use them in its early morning “Today’s Headlines” email summary.

 

These links, and this content, are most frequently provided through Outbrain and Taboola. Between the two companies they have raised over $100 million in venture backing.

They serve as a connector between publishers and content, and provide a way for sites to increase revenues, while the third-party content providers have a pay-per-click model of getting traffic through links that appear to be approved content of the hosting site. 

Some sites, like Time, use both services together:

Since this is a PPC service, like AdWords, anyone can use it and, apparently, anyone does. Clicking on some of the links on Taboola I was directed to:

  • Espressogossip.com – a celebrity gossip site
  • The NYTimes site
  • MoneyMorning.com – a financial doomsday site that is happy to sell you investment advice

This is what happens when the money people on a site win out over the editorial and user experience people. The Taboola site has this testimonial quote from the Chief Revenue Officer of Politico: “We continue to be impressed with how effective the Taboola widgets on POLITICO are at generating revenue…”.

Both Outbrain and Taboola have predictive engine that help target the content that is presented to each reader based on social, historical and contextual cues, but frankly the links they provide are, again, pretty random.

And so not all site users are happy about it. In fact, some openly complain, and tweet about their displeasure.

This content and these links undercut the brand of the sites that they’re on. How seriously can I take a site’s content when it ends every article with links to such stories as “1 Key Fat Loss Hormone”, “I’m investing $117k in one stock” and “Economist: Say Goodbye to Your Life Savings”?

Essentially they’ve turned their site into a NASCAR car, plastered with the messages from whoever will pay the most.

I know revenue is important, and is hard to come by. But work on it. Publishers need to have more respect for their sites, and their readers, than this.

Louis Gudema

Published 28 May, 2013 by Louis Gudema

Louis Gudema is the president of revenue + associates and a contributor to Econsultancy. Louis blogs here and can be reached via TwitterGoogle Plus and LinkedIn.

12 more posts from this author

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advasolutions

Exactly, and we also see this with first party content. Many sites (even large corporate ones) seem far more concerned with pushing out pointless written material, attempting to show up for target keywords - even the most obscure. Quality control has gone down the pan in many cases and the visitor is usually the last consideration.

almost 3 years ago

Chris Knowles

Chris Knowles, Web Designer at The Data Octopus

It would be interesting to see how much revenue said sites bring in from these adverts. Do they need the money to survive or is it just a greedy way of taking advantage of their traffic levels?

Recently I noticed that the popular Wordpress comments plugin Disqus includes these types of links by default, soon they will take over the entire internets.

almost 3 years ago

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Nick Stamoulis

Usability, SEO, and business goals are always going to be in fighting with each other. Yes, sites needs to make revenue somehow, someway. But focusing too much on revenue can ruin the usability of your site and send visitors away in the long run. It's a fine line to walk.

almost 3 years ago

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John

Not all content from Content Marketing recommendation platforms are created equal.

http://www.digiday.com/publishers/content-marketings-got-a-quality-problem/

almost 3 years ago

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Carlos Abler

I wonder what blowback might there be for people amplifying their QUALITY content through these services. Would we want our beautifully crafted and (hopefully) targeted content appearing among this mumbo jumbo?

almost 3 years ago

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Colleen Jones

Hi Luis,

I completely agree that linking to low-quality content, similar to including low-quality ads, reflects poorly on a publisher. You did a great job of showing why--love the examples. Too many links to Michael Lohan and Kim Kardashian articles are very likely to undermine a publisher's credibility. And credibility is their key value or brand asset!

I think many would agree with that problem. The challenge, of course, is a solution. Do we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater? Or can we arrive at a solution that helps publishers work out reasonable revenue and, at the same time, give users useful content? As the areas of sponsored content, branded content, and native advertising evolve, I'm hopeful we can arrive at a solution that works better. I recently shared our perspective at Content Science here: http://content-science.com/expertise/content-insights/branded-content-sponsored-content-and-native-advertising

I welcome your thoughts.

Colleen

almost 3 years ago

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Tom Koh

I have worked with some of the most influential publishers in the world early in my career. Some of the editors were so powerful Fortune 500 companies and top banks used to send their VPs to lick their boots. The publishers turn away many of the ads due to quality on a regular basis. Its all manually done and highly subjective. For example an advertiser cannot claim "We are Number One" unless they can provide incontrovertible proof. The revenue was in millions per publication and this didn't happen overnight. The brand and reputation was earned ounce by ounce over decades.

In contrast the Internet and many of the brands, even Yahoo! and Amazon are teenagers by comparison, just getting their driving license.

So what you are looking at are ebusiness bosses eager for their bottom line to please their investors whom they had promised a vast cashout when Murdoch or Packer or Yahoo buys them out by the end of the year.

Their views are very short term.

And these companies will not last. They will go the way of the hundreds of publications that are launched annually. Into the dustbins of time because their branding and quality will eventually do them in.

From the rubble will rise the true players, exactly like their brick-and-mortar counterparts. History repeats itself. In the Internet world, it will replicate the real world because many of the lessons learnt there are still not being fully appreciated here.

almost 3 years ago

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Danny Ashton

Outbrain et all seem to say they only show quality content but your right there are more direct marketing efforts lately on these platforms. I think including a Stumbleupon style voting platform could help to crowd source what is quality... Rather than just relying on an auction model based on who is willing to pay more.

almost 3 years ago

Malcolm Duckett

Malcolm Duckett, CEO at Magiq

...and this extends to banner advertising too.

My first-hand example is that my personal email is provided by British Telecom (via their BT Yahoo portal), and aside from a long stream of life insurance ads (a sad consequence of my advancing years I imagine) they have recently started targeting me with adverts to support literacy programs run by the Library of Congress - not that appropriate for a UK resident.

Much more worryingly this same site is now serving me healthcare announcements telling me to "call 911" if I think I am having a stroke ... At one level this is kind of amusing, but at another level actually life-threatening (calling 911 in the UK will certainly not connect you to any health professionals.)

Targeting blunders at this level are really ridiculous, any site can use current technology to target or inhibit content based on visitor location, (Magiq customers do that every day) and while if I was browsing CBS's site, this might be an understandable oversight it seems somewhat negligent for the UK's principal telecoms company to miss this trick...

almost 3 years ago

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Grame Kerr

This is a pet hate of mine, and all the big sites are at it these days, presenting you with irrelevant content that detracts from the articles they are actually producing. Fair enough they need to make revenue, however in my opinion i would prefer banner ads as its then obvious what is and isn't an advert.

almost 3 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum.co.uk

Maybe the blindspot that allows these low quality adverts space on a site is an example of the split-personalties that marketers sometimes have... as Karl pointed out yesterday:

http://econsultancy.com/uk/blog/62747-why-do-most-marketers-have-split-personalities

almost 3 years ago

James Perrin

James Perrin, Digital Communications Specialist at Feefo

This is something that I have noticed more and more, and am inclined to agree Louis. I don't have a problem with services like Outbrain and Taboola per se, but I feel that if these articles are not providing the user with additional value, then ultimately what's the point? I don't see how an article on Fat Loss, when I've been reading about something completely different will help in any way. If it's highly targeted and relevant then I don't mind, but that's where there needs to be an improvement.

almost 3 years ago

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David Sasson

It's great to see a focus in on this issue, thanks for posting the article. But we really need to look at the differences between the services. While there is the common bond of "showing links", the nature and substance of the links are vastly different.

For instance, camp #1 are "Sponsored Link" services which have been around for almost a decade and which have always been filled with direct response marketing messages (like "Refi at 2.5%" or "30 second tip for a flat belly"). AOL Sponsored Links, Industry Brains, AdBlade, MSN sponsored links....there are a plethora of these services that are basically direct response advertising running in an auction environment, much like Google AdSense. They are almost always labeled properly as advertising (like in your NY Times pic). While I agree that such services don't improve the user experience, at least it's clear to the user what it is-- it's basically the equivalent of the backpage/classifieds of old print publications, versus the glossy, full-page, branding advertising in the front.

Camp #2 is something we at Outbrain are proud to have pioneered, which is the concept of improving the user experience by showing interesting links to real 3rd party content, not to "offers" meant solely to entice a purchase/sign-up without informational or entertainment value. We have strict guidelines about what qualifies to run in our network and take our responsibility to maintain user trust very seriously. We aren't looking for a fast click, but actually evaluate post-click engagement metrics (bounce rates, time spent, etc.) to ensure real people are getting real value from the content we are surfacing. And this does translate into high revenue for our publisher partners, but not at the expense of user experience; quite the opposite, it generates high revenue because users continue to use these links, session after session.You can argue that our targeting isn't perfect-- sometimes we show links to topics you may not be super interested in, or we unintentionally show an article that's out of date. That's a fair point and we work constantly to improve on those fronts. But the links should always point to real content. If it doesn't and we find it, we kick it out of circulation. We are curating almost a million active links to content at this point, and investing in doing that better and better at scale.

Camp #3 of these services-- and frankly the most dubious-- are those that take the advertising links from camp #1 and pretend they are content links like camp #2. Some will purport to be a content discovery experience but point to articles riddled with affiliate links (nothing wrong with affiliate marketing, but it should be labelled clearly as advertising). Other services mix respected content links with the "Billionaire says" stuff you showcase above, hoping to have real content produce a legitimacy halo that gets people to trust in the continuity programs sitting next to it. This is the camp that I'd argue needs the most supervision -- users should know whether a set of links is pointing to content or to offers, and not be intentionally confused by it for short-term financial gain. Pick camp #1 or camp #2.... the hybrid is a clunker.

almost 3 years ago

Louis Gudema

Louis Gudema, Senior Account Exec and Digital Marketer at Louis Gudema Consulting

Thank you all for this very lively conversation about paid links and content marketing.

And David Sasson, thanks to you and Lisa LaCour, who emailed me some thoughts on this post, for your responses from Outbrain. I appreciate that Outbrain has stopped doing business with unscrupulous online retailers, as described in this article that Lisa sent me: http://adage.com/article/digital/outbrain-cuts-spammy-marketers-expects-revenue-hit/238200/

However, the fundamental problem still is that Outbrain links, like those of Taboola, appear to be approved editorial content/links on content-rich sites, rather than pay-per-click ads, which is what they actually are. They may be ads to editorial (of questionable quality), but they are PPC ads nonetheless. You have very small links that, if clicked on, explain this, and sophisticated Web users like those who read Econsultancy may be aware of the distinction, but I doubt that very many people outside of the industry understand it. Compare, for example, how different in appearance Google AdWords are from organic links on a search results pages, and they are clearly marked as “ads” or “sponsored” (as are those ads in the NYTimes email, spammy though they may be).

You may be working on your algorithm, but you have a long way to go. The Outbrain content links are quite often both unrelated and bewilderingly random in their content; they do not seem thoughtful or targeted, at all. (Imagine searching Google for “digital cameras” and seeing organic links for them but ads for, say, men’s hair coloring products.) Here, for example, are Outbrain links that appeared recently on CNN.com at the end of a story about the pre-trial hearing for the man accused of killing Trayvon Martin. The story is about a very serious legal matter. Many of these linked stories, though, would be better found on an entertainment or lifestyle page, or not at all:
http://assets.econsultancy.com/images/0003/3849/CNN_Outbrain_links.png

There used to be these physical objects called “newspapers”, and occasionally an ad in a newspaper would be written and laid out to look like a news story, with a headline and several inches of body copy. But that type of ad was rare, stylistically they were usually obviously different from the real news stories, and the word “advertisement” appeared repeatedly on their border, so the distinction was clear. Unfortunately, the Outbrain content links do not rise to that level of transparency.

It is that deliberate confusing of advertising and editorial, combined with the poorly matched content, that I contend weakens the brands and user experiences of these high-quality sites. I’m heartened to see that a lot of people agree with me – the volume of comments, almost all in agreement, to this post is unusually high – and not just in these comments but in comments to a similar post on Digiday that John links to in his response, and in Colleen Jones’ article.

I hope that more sites will start to listen to us, too.

almost 3 years ago

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