Exploring the world through content-recommendation ads

Paid-content distribution services such as Outbrain and Taboola are now embedded on what seems like the majority of mainstream consumer websites, but as Digiday has noted, the content they surface is sometimes of questionable quality.

With that in mind, I embarked on a little choose-your-own-adventure through the content-recommendation ecosystem — a bizarre parallel Internet full of sites and pages few humans would ever stumble across if it wasn’t for those little paid links slapped all over publishers’ pages.

I decided I’d make my way around the Web using nothing but content-recommendation links to see where I’d end up and what I’d learn along the way. The rules were simple: I would click on the first link on every page that was labelled as sponsored and do so in an incognito browser window until I reached a recommendation-free dead end.

I started my journey on the New York Post’s homepage, since it’s a publisher that’s prominently listed as a partner on Outbrain’s site. I decided to begin with this Post article about what TV to binge-watch over the holiday break. “Breaking Bad” sounds like a good bet.

Under that story, I found my first Outbrain-powered paid-content-recommendation links, offering me the choices below. Immediately a pattern was beginning to emerge.


As much as I wanted to click on “The 30 Hottest Jewish Women Under 40,” I’d already decided I’d be clicking on the first option I was given. Rules are rules, so I ended up at Answers.com, where I enjoyed a 22-page slideshow depicting “9 Surprisingly High Maintenance Celebrities” instead, complete with an autoplay video ad and at least seven IAB standard display ad impressions per page.

Other than the fact that autoplay video ads are irritating, I learned that Jay-Z’s four-page tour rider includes the stipulation that he be picked up in late model Maybach 57 or 62 and that he needs two bottles of $300 champagne. (Makes Van Halen’s famous “no brown M&Ms” stipulation seem quaint by comparison.)

The next content-recommendation link I came across wasn’t marked as sponsored, but it was powered by ZergNet, so I clicked through anyway to learn exactly why “The Kardashian Christmas Card Couldn’t get any Weirder.” It turns out the Kardashian card, which was set in some post-apocalyptic Las Vegas-style hellscape, was indeed pretty weird. As was the site I found myself on: a TMZ-owned property called Fishwrapper.com.

At this point, I realized I hadn’t found myself clicking on any marketer content or articles marked as sponsored. Content-recommendation companies often pitch their products to marketers as well as publishers, since they’re the ones with the cash to spend. So far, however, it was all publishers driving traffic to ad-heavy pages. It was also apparent I was digging deeper into a celebrity rabbit hole, although I wasn’t sure where it would end.

I continued my adventure anyway, clicking a link provided by a company called Gravity, pictured below:


Following protocol, I wound up at Hollywoodtuna.com, digesting a slideshow of images featuring Courtney Robertson’s “awesome tush in a bikini,” despite plenty of other bikini and bra-related options to choose from. Exactly who Courtney Robertson is remains a mystery — that much wasn’t explained — but her tush was, indeed, not bad.

I was getting weary but found the next link, powered by Content.ad, and made my way over to firsttoknow.com for a piece on why a new natural testosterone booster has men everywhere raving. I’d finally hit upon a piece of content that was trying to sell me something. The post might have been disguised as editorial content, but the link at its base drove me to a GNC product called Nugenix.

My journey had come to an end; there were no more links to click. So I decided to look back and see what I could have learned, had I strayed from my first-content-recommendation-link-on-every-page rule. I’d missed out on a lot, it seemed. Golf-tip posts designed to sell me instructional videos. A post titled “5 Signs You’ll Get Cancer,” which ultimately wanted to sell me a subscription to something called “Natural Way to Health.”

The takeaway from my adventure was this: Content-marketing widgets are dominated by scantily clad celebrities and low-rent advertisers. No surprise there. Are big-name advertisers and publishers making use of content-recommendation services? Yes, some. But the majority of the links they feature appear to drive users to long-tail sites rammed full of ads or subscriptions to dubious-looking online content services.

Perhaps my journey through the content recommendation ecosystem was an abnormal one. Perhaps others find great value in the content they’re served by the companies mentioned above. Or perhaps the majority of publishers and advertisers using them just aren’t what many would consider “premium.”


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