Reading news online over the past year, I came to realize that more or less every story now includes a beautiful woman. Tucked into modules with names like "around the web" or "you might like," there she is, demonstrating her bosom or backside or pearly-white smile. Often she is a celebrity, talking about weight loss, filing a lawsuit, or collapsing onstage. Other times she is a fitness guru, or a fashion expert, or (in at least one case) a "former pole vaulter" who is "still smoking HOT." The women of "Around the Web" are ubiquitous, they are alluring, and they only want one thing — your click.
To finish an article on the web today is to immediately enter the desperate, and strangely tedious, world of "content discovery." Eager to keep visitors on their websites for as long as possible, publishers have long built widgets filled with links for their readers to consider. But increasingly, those links are pointing away from their own sites to titillating items from other publishers, many of whom have something to sell. Readers are clicking, publishers are reaping millions, and the startups that power these modules are profitable and on the cusp of becoming public companies. But there’s reason to believe "Around the Web"-style links won’t be with us forever.
Very interesting real estate
Over the past few years, paid links like these have popped up on some of the biggest sites of the web: CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, USA Today, and Huffington Post, to name a few. And those are just the sites that use Outbrain and Taboola, the leading players in the field. Outbrain, an eight-year-old company that has raised $99 million, is reportedly in the early stages of planning an initial public offering of its stock. Taboola, which began as a way of recommending videos and has since expanded into web links, has raised $40 million and says it is profitable. "The way these started was with this realization that people were more likely to click on a ‘related story’ than a banner ad — even if it’s advertising content," says Shane Snow, vice president of content at Contently, which among other things helps brands develop advertorials. "So that became very interesting real estate."
So what if the Around the Web girls all went away? Would anyone really miss them?
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Publishers, for their part, have a vested interest in making sure the girls stick around. There’s a simple reason for the sudden ubiquity of the Around the Web link: cash. Outbrain, Taboola, and their peers have a simple pitch for the sites they work with: add our modules to your site for free, with just a few lines of code, and start making money immediately from the traffic you deliver to paying partners. "Our whole pitch to publishers is a no-brainer," LaCour says. Adam Singolda, co-founder and CEO of Taboola, says top journalistic outlets are making more than $10 million a year adding its modules to their sites — significant revenues in an industry still struggling to find its footing online.
150 billion links a month
And people are clicking. Fainthearted readers may still feel disoriented finishing a smart piece of reporting only to encounter "15 hot celebs who dress too scandalously," as I did recently, but we seem to be in the minority. Singolda says that 70 percent of people who clicked on a Taboola link this month clicked on at least one other Taboola link the past 90 days, which he takes as an encouraging sign. Then there’s the sheer scale of the clicking: Taboola says it serves 3.5 billion recommendations a month, to 300 million people. Outbrain is used on more than 100,000 sites, and recommends 150 billion links a month.
But publishers don’t seem eager to discuss their adventures in content discovery. I asked Outbrain and Taboola to speak with one of their publishing partners about their growing enthusiasm for recommended links, but all of them declined. It seems possible that publishers themselves remain unconvinced of the long-term value of the Around the Web girls. "Our view of them is that these guys are the Groupons of publishing — it’s a really good short-term hack," says Ryan Singel, co-founder of Contextly, which sells module technology to publishers that recommend only internal links. "Sending people off your site for three cents a click to sites you can’t control — that’s not what is going to work in the long term. The future of native advertising isn’t going to be sending people off your site, it’s going to be having that content living on your site."
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The Around the Web folks take another view. Once upon a time, a reader might come to a site like the Huffington Post through its home page and scroll down hunting for links. These days, that reader is much more likely to come to an individual story page through a link from email, social media, or a search engine. In that world, they say, publishers have to advertise their best stories on other publishers’ sites. "People are navigating the web site to site now, and not up and down," says Outbrain’s LaCour. "We’ve got to get better at personalization, but what we want to say is, ‘Hey Casey, we know what you want. We know about you, we know about your reading habits, we know what you want to consume. So here are our recommendations for what we think is best.’"
The shrill seductions of the supermarket tabloid
It’s a pitch that would be more persuasive had one of these recommendations ever showed me something I wanted to see. While chatting with LaCour, I pulled up a page at random on the website of New York Magazine and read her Outbrain’s suggested stories: the aforementioned hot pole vaulter, "celebs who fell in love with people who didn’t love them back," and "22 ‘used to be’ hot celebs who aren’t anymore." The superior journalism and refined editorial sensibility of New York had given way to the shrill seductions of the supermarket tabloid.
LaCour fired back with the recommendations OutBrain had given her, and they were much better targeted: stories about New York, about being a mom, and about real estate — all topics close to her heart, and some presumably from genuine publications. The secret, LaCour says, is that she clicked on enough Outbrain links to teach its algorithms what she likes. But who has the time or inclination to teach a widget?
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Meanwhile, the success of companies like Outbrain have led to proliferation of less savory recommendation engines. Companies like Hexagram and Crowd Ignite make widgets where the recommended links lead not to the stories you expected but to landing pages full of other stories, with a goal of getting you to stay and click through multiple stories before you leave. These so-called link exchanges don’t always involve direct payment — they’re just a way for publishers to attract new visitors.
But chances are you won’t know what you’re getting before you click. Today, a single-digit percentage of readers will click through a link in an "Around the Web" module, compared to 0.1 percent who will click on a traditional banner ad. But banner ads once had high clickthrough rates themselves. Over time, readers learned that banners rarely led to anything good. At Outbrain and companies like it, there’s an existential fear that their own products could suffer a similar fate. Speaking of the company’s ideal customer, LaCour says: "We want to make sure that she’s happy and she’s delighted. If we as an industry continue to try to clickbait her, and she’s not happy after she clicked, then we’re all screwed." (LaCour says Outbrain strives to recommend only high-quality links.)
"How do you get increases in revenue? You show babes."
But it seems just as likely that a handful of rotten apples will eventually spoil the bunch. "The problem is, you make more money when you show a risqué link," says Reggie Renner, co-founder and CEO of ZergNet, a kind of link exchange where human editors select all of the recommendations. "You make more money, you get more short-term benefit. When it’s time to IPO, you need to show increases in revenue. And how do you get increases in revenue? You show babes."
Notably, everyone I interviewed described their companies not as link purveyors but as technology platforms that will prove invaluable to publishers over time. The modules are just the beginning, they insist — in the future, the data they have collected about readers’ habits can be turned into all sorts of useful products and services for their publisher clients.
In the meantime, though, here are some beautiful women to look at. They’d appreciate your click.