Outside Magazine built its own recommendation widgets to replace Outbrain

Although the revenue from third-party recommendation widgets can be addicting for many publishers, the ads can be rife with clickbait that degrades the user experience.

Outside Magazine, a publication that promotes an active lifestyle outdoors, was running Outbrain’s widget on its site. Four months ago, it replaced it with its own, which only recommends other Outside articles. The change got users to read more Outside articles, making up for the revenue that Outside had received from Outbrain, which supplied 10 percent of Outside’s digital ad dollars. With Outbrain’s widgets, about 1 percent of its total visitors clicked through, while Outside’s own recommendation boxes have about a 1.3 percent click-through rate, said Todd Hodgson, director of product management at Outside. That adds up quickly, he said.

Hodgson believed the CTR went up because Outside’s widgets give its editors more control over what appears in the boxes, ensuring the content is more relevant to readers. The Outbrain units used to feature articles like “Miley Cyrus Looks Ridiculous in Butt-Baring,” but Outside’s recommendation boxes now show articles like “How to Survive a Plunge Into Whitewater Rapids.”

“We were able to make our site look more premium by ridding ourselves of clickbait, which high-end advertisers notice,” he said. “The revenue from those Outbrain clickbait links is peanuts, especially compared with internal CPM on our ads.”

Hodgson wouldn’t share Outside’s CPM rates.

With both Outbrain’s and its own widgets, Outside deployed a single recommendation box at the bottom of articles. Most people don’t get to the end of an article in the first place, but among those who do, the change in CTRs before and after Outbrain is even more pronounced. Hodgson said that among users who read to the end of a post, Outside’s widget had a CTR of 5.8 percent, which is more than double the 2.5 percent of users who clicked on Outbrain widgets.

Because other publishers depend more heavily on recommendation vendors — Outbrain, for one, told The New York Times last fall that it accounts for 30 percent of revenue for some pubs — Hodgson emphasized that Outside’s approach won’t work for everyone. Outbrain did not return requests for comment on this story.

Outside has placed its widgets on about 30 percent of its content. They don’t appear on photo galleries or video posts, and short articles use an infinite scroll rather than the recirculation units. But Hodgson expects to expand the use of its own widgets, since users are clicking on them 16 percent more over the past three months.

“We’re looking for as many ways as possible to get more views out of the users we have coming to our site,” Hodgson said.


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