Some Online Publishers Backing Away From Those Fake “Around The Web” Ads

Image courtesy of Ann Fisher

The internet is covered in advertising.* It’s a fact of life. Some of that advertising, though, is a lot better — or at least, less completely sketchy — than other ads fighting for some time with your eyeballs. And since the sketchy stuff may make you think less well of the company running it, some media outlets are quietly disappearing the bars that always seem to end up full of “one weird trick” and bogus “celebrity death” stories.

That comes from the New York Times, which reports today that many sites are quietly doing away with some of the most misleading, silliest advertising we’ve all gotten used to seeing online.

You know the kind of ad the NYT is talking about. You’ve seen it all over the internet. This kind of ad usually says “promoted” or “around the web,” and hides itself by looking like any other “recommended” or “related” stories module. The latter direct you to content — usually on the same website or, in case of a network, perhaps on its sibling sites — that actually is either trending right now or particularly related to what you’re already reading. But the ads take you, well, anywhere.

The kind of ad-bar in question might look, for example, like this:

A screenshot from The Atlantic on 10/31/2016.

A screenshot from The Atlantic on 10/31/2016.

Slate and The New Yorker both recently stopped running those content ads on their site altogether after one too many incidents of, well, just being kind of unsavory.

Sometimes, the semi-targeted nature of the ads served up can create a total disconnect that has a distinctly adverse effect on readers. For example, the NYT calls up one instance where a Slate article about misogyny ended up with an ad for “0 Celebs Who Lost Their Hot Bodies” next to it. Another Slate article, about eating disorders, ended up with “6 Tips to Avoid Thanksgiving Weight Gain” advertised on it.

“It is not the right look if you’re trying to say you’re a high-quality, upper-tier website — if you have something like this on it — and I think it’s time for us to be honest about that,” Slate president Keith Hernandez told the NYT.

Companies Outbrain and Taboola are the biggest, says the NYT, but you may also have seen advertising sections from Revcontent (as in the screenshot above) or ZergNet float in around, too.

Executives for the content-serving companies, as you might expect, defended their business. Taboola CEO and founder Adam Singolda told the NYT, “The vision is to index the entire web and bring the best, most personalized stuff to people.” If it’s working right, it can “introduce you to things people may not even know about but like.”

Outbrain’s statement to the NTY was similar, saying its mission is to “help people discover content that they can trust to be interesting, relevant and timely for them.

Change Advertising, a non-profit dedicated to, as you might guess, changing advertising, analyzed content ads appearing on 41 sites and found that while just over 60% of the links did indeed go to some kind of legitimate advertiser or publisher, a solid 26% went to straight-up click bait content-aggregators that themselves went to more ads, including, as the NYT delicately puts it, “Sexually suggestive” or interruptive images.

(In short, yes: through bad advertising, the internet does quickly devolve to porn.)

The NYT looked at a handful of the links itself. While some led to legitimate content on partner sites, like the AARP, many went to sponsored “advertorial” content on otherwise-legitimate news sites, to fake news sites, or to information-harvesting clickbait sites with no real purpose other than to get your data to advertise to you even more.

So why is there, bluntly, so much crap being served up in these widgets?

It’s a matter of scale, mostly. Although Outbrain and Taboola both told the NYT they do vet content before it hits their networks, neither has much control over advertisers who redirect their URLs after their ads have been approved.

Likewise, neither can have every ad carefully examined by a human. Outbrain says it serves 200 billion recommendations per month, and Taboola claims 360 billion. Even though both have editorial teams and account managers to review the ads that get placed, that’s simply a scale that nobody can keep up with.

*Except Consumerist. We’re not!

Publishers Are Rethinking Those ‘Around the Web’ Ads [New York Times]

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