The value of finding content to link to

By Felix Salmon
December 14, 2011
convinced there's real value in driving readers to great content -- and clearly I'm not alone: Outbrain has just raised another $35 million.

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I’m convinced there’s real value in driving readers to great content — and clearly I’m not alone: Outbrain has just raised another $35 million.

What’s Outbrain? Well, if you look at the All Things D story announcing the new round, you’ll see something which looks a bit like this at the bottom:

outbr.tiff

These links are weakly personalized for me — they change according to what stories I’ve read recently on All Things D, but not according to what stories I’ve read recently on other Outbrain partner sites.

The links on the left are designed to maximize my engagement on the All Things D site — rather than reading this one story and then going elsewhere, I’m going to see some other story I want to read, and stay on their site, building up my loyalty to the site and the number of pageviews they get.

The links on the right are news stories from a range of media outlets, including very respectable ones like Wired alongside a slightly crappy listicle at a blog you’ve never heard of. Those sites are paying for traffic; when I click on one of those links, the site in question pays Outbrain some money, which Outbrain then shares with All Things D.

In both cases, the stories are chosen by a set of proprietary Outbrain algorithms which attempts to maximize engagement rather than traffic. In other words, they’re not clickbait: they’re not the headlines you’re most likely to click on, but rather the stories you’re most likely to read and engage with.

Or that’s the theory, in any case. The reality is that while I’m far more likely to click on an Outbrain link than I am to click on an ad, the links the company serves me — especially the external links — tend to be underwhelming. I’m sure that Outbrain’s algorithms are extremely sophisticated, but give me a human-powered curation site any day (ahem) over a list of stories from places like Top Stock Analysts.

I had lunch with Outbrain CEO Yaron Galai recently, and I told him that I would love to see what happened if Outbrain started putting a bunch of unpaid links in its list of external links. Still chosen by algorithm, of course — but not confined to the links which generate dollars for the company.

This happens already, to some extent: Outbrain employees, when they find stories they like, can throw them into the external-links bucket, and those links do sometimes appear in the wild. And on top of that, Outbrain is getting a certain amount of money from brands who want to drive traffic to certain third-party sites: technology companies, say, who want people to read glowing reviews of their products.

But I’d love to see how effective Outbrain’s algorithms would be if they weren’t constrained by the universe of Outbrain clients and instead had the whole internet to choose from.

Essentially, the question is this: can algorithms really compete with humans when it comes to finding great links? Outbrain’s links aren’t that great, but Outbrain is hobbled. For one thing, even when Outbrain does have highly-respected news organizations buying traffic, those organizations often severely restrict the stories that can be linked to, perhaps because they want to send traffic to a certain part of their site. And of course Outbrain is always constrained by any given organization’s budget: once it’s exhausted, Outbrain won’t link there any more.

Outbrain isn’t the only company in this space, either: NetShelter just announced something vaguely similar called InPowered. But it’s a very long way from what I had in mind when I talked about ad units linking to third-party sites. Go to SlashGear to see one of these ad units in the wild: on the right hand side you’ll see something which looks like this.

samsung.tiff

Click on that, and a huge Samsung ad pops up, saying “Experience the Wonder of Samsung Smart TV”; if you scroll down that pop-up ad, you’ll eventually find some third-party links, mostly to reviews of Samsung TVs. You click on them twice (for some bizarre reason), and eventually you get to see the third-party site — in a frame with a netshelter.net URL, and with the original Samsung pop-up ad still cluttering your workspace.

So no one is really getting this right, yet — presenting simple links to unrelated great third-party content, just for reflected glory of providing that service. But with another $35 million in the bank, Outbrain might at some point start thinking about that option — selling branding around its links, rather than the links themselves.

In a way, that’s what Reuters is doing with Counterparties: it’s polishing its own brand by sending people to great sites all over the web. My hope is that we’ll be able to feature Counterparties on sites all over the web, as well, rather than forcing people to find our links only on Counterparties.com. And if we can do it, anybody can do it. In principle, at least.

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