The Traffic Games Publishers Still Play

It’s as old as the Internet: Publishers play games to get traffic. In an ad world where impressions are still the coin of the realm, these tricks are still deployed.

They’re used because of the pressures to remain competitive. Publishing is still a pageview game. Traffic is still king.

Let’s start with buying traffic. This is an oldie but a goodie. Back in the day, publishers would buy traffic cheap from portals like AOL, MSN and Yahoo then resell it at a higher price. Let’s say you were Forbes.com. You could buy traffic from AOL for your “10 Hottest Cities for Singles,” then turn around and charge a premium for a “business decision-maker audience.” Now, while the portal era has gone the way of the dodo, publishers are still buying traffic but from different places. For fractions of a penny, one source said, a publisher can get traffic through international servers. And then it becomes a simple arbitrage game: buy traffic at x and sell at x + y.

“Beware sites with huge international audiences and very little international appeal,” said the source.

But is that traffic valuable? Smart advertisers will specify their campaigns be run only to U.S. audiences. Still, that’s not to say it always works out that way.

“You don’t gain anything from it,” said another executive. “Maybe a press release and jack up ad rates for a short period of time, but it’s just bullshit.”

Over the last several years, there has been an explosion of traffic-trading platforms. These traffic-trading widgets are pervasive through men’s and women’s lifestyle media, according to sources. And they move tens of millions of visits around the Web. Here’s how it works. It’s essentially a back-door policy: bring in tons of low-quality traffic — traffic advertisers don’t want or care about  — but then sell it as the high-value traffic an advertiser clamors for. It’s the classic mullet strategy: business in the front, party in the back.

“Many of these platforms may talk about the quality of their traffic, and their homepages may seem squeaky clean, but the truth is, they are only really effective at moving around an audience seeking content at the lowest common denominator in the form of T&A and salacious gossip,” he said.

Another tried-and-true trick of the trade is the ubiquitous slideshow. Using slideshows, particularly where each new slide requires a new page load, increases pageviews and ad impressions without any real new engagement. While the IAB say you can refresh the page with every pageview, some publishers refresh every third slide. But there are plenty who reload after one slide.

Pagination is yet another way publishers try to bulk up their impressions. Why have one page when you can cut the article into five pages and get more pageviews and impressions? Sure, for some articles that are 3,000 words, it makes sense to cut up the piece, but there are plenty of publishers that cut 500-word articles into multiple pages.

“I hate pagination,” said one source. “It’s bad for reader and undermines audience-growth potential. Pagination just doesn’t work. You can do it to gin up data and ad impressions, but ultimately it’s not a sustainable solution for your website. We’ve had to do pagination. Everyone knows it’s not good, but we have to do it.”

Some publishers look to Google Trends to write articles. As SF Weekly wrote about Bleacher Report, “Reverse-engineering content to fit a pre-written headline is a Bleacher Report staple.” Other sites that are new to generating content, said one source, have desks set up to look at trends. “Whatever’s popping today, give me five grafs on this and have this headline.” Headline link-baiting, while employed by publishers from time immemorial, still exists.

And with all these tricks to drive up impressions to drive up CPMs, it ultimately hurts a publisher. Nothing here is illegal; it’s more that these are accepted norms that most publishers use to remain competitive. But it’s not sustainable.

“We’ve gone through a lot of bad stuff, and it didn’t work out for the company,” said one exec. “Now, we place bets on staff writers. As they get better at finding an audience, it’s the bet. Tricks eventually don’t work, as it undermines credibility and the business model.”

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