You know how content marketing is the saviour of digital marketing? I’m sure you’ve heard that once or twice before.

Especially now that display advertising is all but dead in the water and native advertising is ethically dubious at best.

Content is the thing now. Content is King. Content is Queen. Content is the new SEO. Content FTW. MOAR Content.

It’s almost like you’ve now heard the word content so much it’s lost all meaning.

Without a doubt though, digital marketing’s reliance on content is making the internet a less blatantly shouty sales-based place. Brands are having to make a real effort to create something that’s at the very least entertaining, useful or interesting in order to stand out from the crowd. At best content marketing manages to transcend its advertorial background and becomes something altogether more artful and worthwhile.

Conversely however, content marketing has lead to a particularly unpleasant reliance on certain platforms and tools, particularly by publishers that are struggling to bring in revenue by other means.

Do you know what’s making the internet worse?

This…

And this…

Also this…

It’s an endless parade celebrating the very worst of humanity. Recommended articles that appear on a substantial and varied number of publisher sites, that use the most tacky, sensational and downright offensive headlines to manipulate readers to click-through.

These don’t just appear on sites from the darkest corners of the internet, these appear all over the popular SFW internet.

This is from Empire Magazine’s website.

‘30 Child Stars Who Grew Up to be hot’? 

This is from the AV Club, a site I often frequent at work, but am becoming increasingly embarrassed by now…

The above assault of tacky content completely overshadows an article about comedian Dave Chappelle and makes numerous criticisms of the muck-raking site TMZ. 

The ‘6 Celebs Who Definitely Don’t Look Their Age’ article seems wilfully hypocritical of the article’s comments.

On the Daily Mail’s website, the content recommendation sections appear too, but here they just form part of the white noise that is the Mail’s normal fat/slut/no-make-up shaming depravity.

But don’t think The Guardian escapes its oily grasp.

Sure the links are aesthetically more tasteful, and certainly the articles seem more relevant but when you’re reading an interview with singer Nadine Shah that touches on suicide, ISIS and her work with mental health charities, you’re probably not interested in ’30 news anchors with stunning beauty’.

The culprits

The companies behind the above examples are Outbrain and Taboola. These are ‘content marketing platforms’ or ‘content discovery platforms’ depending on which blurb you read.

Basically they provide a tool for publishers that wish to bring in extra revenue, by pulling in ‘sponsored’ content from around the internet, then via an on-site widget, recommends supposedly relevant articles to visitors to that publisher’s site.

Websites don't have to pay to carry these articles and they get a share of the advertising revenue that the platform receives from an advertiser behind each promoted story.

To be entirely realistic, the world of online publishing is an increasingly difficult place to operate. Display advertising is either ignored or despised, offering a pay-walls or subscription comes with the high probability of cutting down your traffic and social reach. Also people are still used to accessing information on the internet for free.

If your music website is going to make readers pay for content, they’ll just go to the nearest blogger operating in their spare time.

Content marketing platforms are certainly an answer to this problem.

The problem of relevance and appropriateness

We interviewed the CEO of Outbrain, Yaron Galai, in 2013. Of its algorithm Galai stated that:

We've developed about 35 proprietary algorithms that compete to select the best link for each individual visitor to a publisher's site.

Some of the algorithms try to match links to the story the user just read/watched. Some of the algorithms look at traffic patterns across the site and try to match links with a "people who read this also read that" approach.

At the end, all of the algorithms try to best personalise the recommended links for each individual user based on the content they found to be interesting on the same publisher site in the past.

Great in theory, poor in practice.

Taking Empire Magazine as an example, there’s an article collecting together various examples of Hollywood actors appearing in international commercials. Underneath is a clearly labeled collection of ‘promoted stories’, along with the linked website name so you know that it’s not one of Empire’s own posts.

The article '10 Major Casting Fails' is one that would probably appeal to anyone reading the above article too, so therefore a click-through is likely. 

However once you’ve clicked-through, Answers.com provides the single worst web experience you'll ever have.

At least all this is safe for work or children, and many of the respected sites above don’t stray too far into adult only territory. Unfortunately those kind of sites are only one click away.

Underneath another article there was a link to a recommended post called ’22 hidden secrets in Disney Movies’, so far so child friendly.

Until you click through and you’re presented with this horror-show.

There’s no relevancy here, there’s no concession to appropriateness, and the recommended articles highlight the very worst of the internet.

Do the publishers that use these platforms have any control of the content that gets recommended to its visitors? Certainly The Guardian example from Outbrain shows a better understanding of relevancy than those provided by Taboola, but even then seeing these sponsored articles on its site still feels like a cheapening of its name.

Taboola’s algorithm works in a way that means if you click on a story about a particular subject, then you’ll be offered more of the same. Although the shock and awe approach of some of the above examples doesn’t seem to suggest any personalisation whatsoever.

What’s the solution? 

Perhaps a platform that offers content from partnered websites that adhere to more stringent levels of quality. Then again quality publishers that provide this kind of relevant content are probably a direct competitor.

According to a report by the BBC last year, 400m of us around the world click on Taboola's links every month, and the business now achieves revenues of $250m a year.

Clearly this kind of advertising is not going anywhere anytime soon, but with the number of publishers having to rely on these platforms for revenue on the rise, the quality of your average free-to-read site is taking a serious hit.

The sidebar of shame is becoming less and less easier to avoid.

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 7 May, 2015 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Comments (6)

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Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

LOL. Link meet bait.

The sad thing is, this probably delivers highly qualified leads. This specifically selects people who are browsing when their critical facilities are impaired - e.g. when drunk - making them prime candidates for whatever marketing follows in the sales funnel.

over 2 years ago

Simone Castello

Simone Castello, Digital consultant and trainer at www.simonecastello.co.uk

Well said, they are very annoying.

over 2 years ago

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Michael Ozeryansky, CEO at Filtr8

@Pete: the purpose of those widgets is to bring, exchange, and sell traffic. No significant leads grow out of the clickbait ever. This is a tradeoff one makes - between the relevancy (=leads & value) and entertainment (=traffic) values of the recommended content. It's kind of sad to see those widget are totally and utterly skewed towards later.

On the other hand, it gave us an opportunity :) there is such a strong need for the meaningful recommendations , we built our platform to help business owners to benefit from the informative and educational content they can provide to their audience. Now we see that this kind of content actually generate leads and converts.

over 2 years ago

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Adi Wickramaratne, Digital Manager at St JohnEnterprise

Great article, Christopher. If a publisher isn't looking at how CMPs affect the user experience on their site, then they're showing a lack of respect for their visitors - and putting their own revenues at risk: Why would visitors to site A click on links to site B that look/are spammy at worst and tenuously relevant at best? I know I wouldn't.

over 2 years ago

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Mani Gandham, CEO at Instinctive

These widgets are anything but native as they're not much more than banner images with a headline beside them. Depending on the website, they actually look far worse and more intrusive than traditional display units.

The recommended links providers claim all kinds of fancy algorithms but it's clear that there's no real relevance analysis going on. It's actually unnecessary since these links are all sold on a CPC basis so it's better to just optimize by yield instead. Why worry about showing the "right" stories when they can show dozens of links on a single page and keep the ones that are clicked the most, which inevitably end up being the worst clickbait headlines with risque images.

It's a sad self-fulfilling cycle of terrible content and has repeatedly proven to provide very low quality traffic with bounce rates greater than 80%, not to mention the large amount of fraud and bot traffic. Every marketer we've worked with has tried these vendors only to realize that the effective rate for quality traffic is astronomical compared to other channels while ruining any brand safety and reputation along with it.

There are much better options these days for both awareness and performance campaigns - these widgets should be the last resort, if even used for a media plan.

over 2 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

"Baidu to invest millions in Taboola’s ‘you may also like’ tech" - not something I'd get involved in, for the reasons listed above, but Baidu are not stupid so you have to assume that the ecosystem around these recommendations works.
http://www.timesofisrael.com/baidu-to-invest-millions-in-taboolas-you-may-also-like-tech/

over 2 years ago

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