Editorial Unease Rises As Content Ad Links Proliferate

On The Atlantic’s website, there is a sophisticated piece about the philosophical and moral implications of Obamacare. At the bottom of the page, there are links to other articles from “around the Web.” You would be forgiven for thinking they might be in the same ballpark as the piece that precedes them. But they’re not even in the same game: These are pieces with titles like “14 Famous Couples Time Forgot (But We Never Will)” or “The Latest In Gray Hair Solutions.”

The Atlantic, this is not. These links (and countless others like them on countless other news sites) are generated by companies that are in the business of recommending content. These companies often just redirect readers to similar stories on-site. Digiday, for example, uses Taboola to recommend relevant Digiday content. But the real money is with the links to sponsor sites. (Digiday does not use paid content-recommendation links on its article pages.)

Publishers love these link generators – like Taboola, Outbrain and Disqus – because they’re easy money. The pitch is pretty simple: Users are going to leave your site, so why not get paid? This is a no-brainer for hard-strapped chief revenue officers. But many reporters and editors at these same sites often think these links compromise the integrity of the brand. After all, the entire purpose they serve is that they look a lot like editorial content, even if they’re for a golf-instructional video.

“I think they detract from articles,” one Web editor at a legacy print publication told Digiday. “They don’t point to quality content, their images are often terrible and they just feel antiquated and outdated.”

A reporter from a different digital publication said that the recommended links on his site were embarrassing.

“The biggest problem is the appearance that the stuff is actually editorially selected by us,” he said. “But I’m not sure how common that misconception is now that this crap is everywhere.”

Some journalists, like Nicholas Jackson, the digital director at Pacific Standards, are somewhat more tolerant of these link generators, in spite of their obvious flaws.

“We’re not using it to place cheap network links promoting outside content to bring in a little bit of money, which is where I think a lot of the clutter comes in,” he said. The Pacific Standard sees an almost 11 percent click-through rate using the Outbrain widget.

“We may get to a point in the not-too-distant future where we’re thinking about implementing more widgets like this to bring in some additional revenue and keep all of our content free, but I do think too much hurts the user experience. I don’t want our pages to look like Slate’s.”

Slate uses Outbrain as both a content-recommendation tool for additional Slate articles but also to link to other publications. Slate litters its article pages with Outbrain and another paid distributor, Content.ad.

For example, this article by William Saletan about the real reason the GOP forced a shutdown, there are six Outbrain links to stories like “Never Tell Your Boss These Eight Things” on a site called YouBeauty. There are also 10 Content.ad links that want you to check out stories like “14 Embarrassing Sex Questions.”

Slate’s editor, David Plotz, happens to like Outbrain, which has a three-year deal with his site.

“They are smart and easy to work with, and they generate good revenue for us while providing our readers a service they like,” he said.

But for many editors — especially those who don’t interact much with the business side of the house — the feeling is that the revenue generated by the Taboolas and Outbrains of the world is not worth the sacrifice of editorial dignity.

In an email to Digiday, Ben Williams, New York Magazine editorial director, wrote simply, “The revenue doesn’t justify the downsides (aesthetics, sending readers elsewhere) for us.”