How Easy, Sleazy Money Is Ruining Publishers’ Reputations
“The 19 Hottest Female Politicians Around the Globe!”
“Donald Trump’s Advice For Paying Off Mortgage (It’s Genius!)
“What These 31 Bond Girls Look Like Now Is Incredible”
In the past few days, those sleazy headlines graced the web sites of some of the world’s most respected and prestigious magazine titles. It’s part of a troubling, penny-wise-pound-foolish trend that seems to be sweeping the consumer magazine industry.
Through deals with recommendation-engine vendors like Outbrain and Taboola, publishers are being paid to publish these tacky come-ons to boost the web traffic of truly awful, disreputable web sites. The typical recommendation-engine widget is a row of five or six tiles, each tile containing a clickbait headline and a little photo that either startles or teases.
These paid links from recommendation engines aren’t technically headlines. They weren’t created or approved by the editors of Time, The Atlantic, etc. These are strictly business-side deals.
Do you think that matters to consumers? If a trusted publisher says “We Recommend” an article that turns out to be junk, do you think their loyalty to that publisher isn’t diminished?
Here’s what can happen to a reader whom we allow to be enticed into one of these rabbit holes: An paid link that appeared on Wired, and no doubt other web sites, over the weekend featured a tiny photo of a callipygian woman golfer getting ready to putt. The tight cropping created a mystery: Is that her underwear I’m seeing or just really tight shorts? The headline: “She Had No Clue Why the Crowd Was Cheering.”
Woe to those who took the bait. They landed on the slide show “15 Eye-Popping Athlete Wardrobe Malfunctions” on a web site called The Brofessional, a poster child for bad user experience on the web. Wading through the entire slide show caused six other web pages to open in separate tabs. And that doesn’t count the arrows people clicked for ads, mistakenly thinking they would be shown the next slide.
The slide show was surrounded by all manner of additional clickporn, none of it remotely related to the cutting-edge technology coverage that Wired readers are presumably seeking. The 15 photos were at best mildly amusing but mostly unremarkable yawners — certainly nothing “eye popping.”
And guess what? None were of callipygian golfers!
Don’t blame Outbrain and Taboola. Publishers that make these deals clearly know what they’re getting into. They can include recommended links that take people elsewhere on their own sites. And the recommendation widgets can be set to show only higher-quality links that are complementary to a publisher’s own content. Alongside the less savory sites, Wired does in fact link to The New York Times, GQ, Scientific America, Fast Company, and others.
Friends at publishers that are using paid links as a revenue source tell me the numbers are compelling. Knowing how publishing people can’t get their minds out of their own silos, I’m skeptical.
“The CPMs are great,” they tell me. Yeah, that’s why I’m skeptical: That means the cost-benefit analyses are bogus. They’re not looking at all sources of revenue or the hidden opportunity costs.
Do a test: On average, how many additional page views does your site get after someone clicks on a paid link to another site? How many does it get from people reading the same article who aren’t shown any paid links? Or how about if the paid link links to your own content?
Now, what’s the value of those additional page views? Simplistic ad-department analyses will look only at display-ad revenue. (OK, that was unfair. Not all analyses that come out of ad sales are simplistic. Some are quite clever at developing self-serving conclusions.) Make sure you include revenue from lead-generation deals, programmatic ads, subscriptions, and other products you sell. Plus the value of newsletter sign-ups. Also, don’t forget that additional clicks on your site give you richer data on your readers, which enhances not only your own programmatic revenue but also the value of first-party data you sell to others.
And what about the impact on our brands?
The key competitive advantage magazine-media publishers have on the web is credibility. Our content is favored by search engines and garners premium ad rates because we are known and trusted. While publishers count the dollars that paid links are earning them, are they also counting the damage — both long term and short term — to their reputations?
After all, credibility is like virginity: Once it’s gone, it’s gone.