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.