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Content recommendation under fire

News, 01 November 2016

NEW YORK: Content recommendation companies such as Outbrain and Taboola are facing criticism from both publishers and consumers for their "clickbait" approach that can direct readers to untrustworthy locations and which threatens to undermine the integrity of news sites.

A recent study from ChangeAdvertising.org looked at the top 50 news sites, and reported that 82% were using 'content ads' from vendors including Taboola, Outbrain, Revcontent and Adblade.

Out of 312 clicked links, it found that 26% could be classed as clickbait and most of these took readers to anonymously registered "news" sites, many of which were themselves "riddled" with additional content ads of questionable content.

Rob Leathern, a board member at ChangeAdvertising.org, said it was surprising that such pages were "one click away from these top 50 news sites".

Publishers such as Slate and The New Yorker have stopped carrying such content ads, with president Keith Hernandez pointing to the disconnect between the publisher's own content and the ads.

"It is not the right look if you're trying to say you're a high-quality, upper-tier website — if you have something like this on it — and I think it's time for us to be honest about that," he told the New York Times.

He added that such ads were "built on a premise for publishers to maximize revenue — it's not built on a premise of finding the next great things for your readers to do".

The importance of the revenue angle was confirmed by Matt Crenshaw, VP/product marketing at Outbrain, who said that "this space … is becoming a very significant percentage-wise revenue source for publishers" and claimed that "we have been told from major, major publishers that we have become their No. 1 revenue provider".

Slate, however, is looking beyond short-term revenue figures and is more interested in turning casual visitors into regular readers.

"When you're looking at things from that prism and you're not maniacally obsessed with monetizing every single pixel, Outbrain is very obviously not fitting into your equation anymore," Hernandez said.

"If your readers' trust and loyalty is No. 1 as the thing you care about most, you can't have that on your page."

Data sourced from New York Times, ChangeAdvertising,org; additional content by Warc staff