Written by Internet, Media

Around the Web

They’ve been there a while now.

At first, just a few.

But now they’re everywhere.

And the invasion is growing.

What am I talking about?

Content Discovery Platforms” typified by those “Around the Web” discovery link panels you often see on news sites and advertising supported blogs.

Essentially, these are the tables of links that sit under articles on many websites. You reach the bottom of an article and want to read some more. “Well, we’ve already thought of that!” In an Amazon-style of you-liked-that-so-you-might-like-this, they push you to click on the links.

Except that they’re not necessarily links to other stories on the same website. They’re links to paid-for “content” on other sites.

Now to be clear, there are many ways that this can work. Some sites insist that three out of four, or five out of six links are internal. It’ll just be the final click that’s external.

But other sites just have a list of links that are all external, and usually tangential at best to what you were reading about.

Essentially, they’re designed to look like the bottom of a MailOnline article, and indeed they usually feature the sort of stories that might easily pop-up on a tawdry site like that.

“Controversial ‘skinny’ pill”, “12 fun facts that are complete and utter lies”, “Local mums reveal EXTREME weight-loss trick.”

There are a variety of companies that market these things, with Taboola and Outbrain being particularly virulent popular.

More recently, I’ve noticed a lot of blogs that use Disqus to power their comments now appear with “sponsored content” within their comment sections.

Now it’s all very easy for me to take the moral high ground on this kind of thing. This blog isn’t here to make money – it costs me some money to host it. The most commercial thing you’re going to see is a very occasional Amazon link with affiliate coding for a book or DVD (although there have been so few of them, that Amazon has never cut me a cheque).

I know that many websites and blogs need advertising revenue to make ends meet. But it’s the lack of intelligence used by these plugins. The stories and articles they link to are the lowest of low-rent clickbait. They invariably feature women in a state of some undress, or unlikely bargains. In general, they actually bring the website I’m visiting into disrepute. I’m reading some smart piece of writing, and there at the bottom is a link to “50 of the Sexiest Scarlett Johansson Photos You’ll Ever See.” Really tawdry stuff. Why have you let this garbage onto your site?

Let’s put it this way, if this were the “cost” of running Disqus for my blog’s discussions, I would be seeking another supplier forthwith. Or frankly I’d do without comments altogether.

It wouldn’t be so bad if these adverts didn’t so heavily disguise themselves as editorial. In most media – magazine and television, for example – there has to be clear delineation between editorial and advertising. Occassionally you might see a piece that is an advertorial – written in the style of the publication, but clearly labelled as produced for a commercial partner. Or as everyone loves to call it these days “Native Advertising.”

This is becoming a problem. The editorial/advertising walls are being broken down, as we’ve seen from the recent accusations of the Telegraph from Peter Oborne.

In the case of Disqus, Outbrain and Taboola, it’s really not always the case that the reader knows they’re being subjected to advertising. Let’s face it – that’s why they do it.

Are you familiar with this logo?


To be honest, you might not recognise it. That’s because it usually appears much smaller. Here’s a version I captured on my phone. This isn’t going to look great on your QHD screen:


In fact these logos are all part of something called Ad Choices “where you’re in control of your Internet experience with interest-based advertising—ads that are intended for you, based on what you do online.”

Often, this is the only clue that you’re really being served advertising.

For example, Disqus sometimes labels its offering “Around the Web” and also has a discrete “What’s this?” If you click on it, it reads: “Disqus helps you find new and interesting content, discussions and products. Some sponsors and ecommerce sites may pay us for these recommendations and links. Learn more or give us feedback.”

So that took an action on my behalf to establish that this might be advertising. I’m pretty certain it’s all advertising.

Sites using Taboola might have a “Recommended for you” section with some internal site links, followed by “Recommended from the web” alongside a tiny “Sponsored links by Taboola.” Clicking on that pop-up revealed: “This content was picked for you by Taboola’s recommendation engine because we thought you may like it. This content is paid for by our advertiser and publisher clients.” But the majority of the pop-up was actually about marketing Taboola itself with sections for Marketers and Publishers!

Samples of “Recommended from the web” currently displayed to me include “The Best Way to Make Extra Money in the UK” and “UK Store Sells iPads and iPhones for Pennies” – yeah, right.

Looking at a sample site that uses Outbrain (and many of the web’s biggest sites do use it), I get a Promoted Stories section featuring four “stories.” Samples I’m presented with currently include “Want to beat jetlag? Try these 7 tricks,” “10 Daily Habits That Will Give You Incredible Willpower” and “4 Reasons Why MBA Degree Is The Best In The World” [sic] – that last one suggesting that an MBA doesn’t necessarily require you to have a full grasp of the English language.

Below these are four internal site links, followed by “Recommended by Outbrain.” Clicking on that brings up a detailed pop-up that includes:

“Outbrain is focused on one thing: helping people discover great, interesting content.

“Any time you see a recommendation from Outbrain, you can trust that it will send you to a piece of high quality content. Outbrain links will never take you to a blatant advertisement so you can rest assured that by clicking one of our links (“we recommend” or “from around the web”), you will only experience great content.”

Hmm. So they’re not “blatant” advertisements. Shall we say “discreet” advertisements then? Clicking through to that MBA ad took me to what was effectively a content farm of mostly worthless “education” pieces with liberal helpings of Google ads. Essentially it’s worth someone’s while to pay to Outbrain to deliver Google Ads by proxy. And they say digital advertising isn’t the Wild West?

Outbrain also uses the pop-up to promote its services.

I’m sure that these “Content Discovery Platforms” work for their clients in that they have an advertising model that works for both parties. But surely even calling their backends “recommendation engines” is disingenuous?

Personally I think that these things cheapen websites much more than other kinds of advertising. Even useless retargeting advertising at least is obviously advertising.

I suspect that the reason they proliferate is because they get higher click-through rates than regular advertising. And that’s because they’re misrepresenting themselves and people are clicking through without realising where they’re going. Or they’re blatant clickbait and it’s only after clicking through that people that they’re not going to get a cheap iPhone.

Digital advertising is getting through “formats” at a rapid pace as they try new things, they work for a bit, and then they stop working. “Content Discovery Platforms” are probably another example of this and in due course they’ll disappear because consumer behaviour will mean they stop “working.”

It seems to me that this is parter of a wider need to understand that most people don’t or won’t interact with most advertising. We take it on board and move on. We don’t instantly pick up the phone or visit a website. Yet advertising does work, it just can’t all be proved with metrics instantly.

As I was about to publish this I spotted this Tweet from scientist, writer and broadcaster Adam Rutherford featuring advertising at the foot of an Observer piece he wrote. Because it would make sense to link through to the Express for “science” stories…

Says it all really.