Why Would Publishers Send Traffic to Their Competitors?

Premium-brand publishers, many of them household names, are driving their readers directly to startup competitors’ sites for just pennies per click, by making outbound content recommendations (which should not be confused with internal content recirculation).

Imagine McDonald’s displaying posters for Five Guys Burgers at their checkout. Or Kraft putting coupons on its macaroni and cheese boxes for a generic store brand. I know it sounds crazy for any industry, but this is actually happening today with many premium publishers.

How did publishers get to this place? The answer seems to be the desire for short-term money and a follow-the-crowd mentality. Take the recent content recommendation deal Time Inc. signed with Outbrain.  I’m a long-time fan of Time magazine, and read it both online and in print. Now, as influential as it is, is lending its reputation to a third-party company by promoting and recommending lesser-known sites like Lonny Magazine and Brainjet to its trusting audience.  

What could be the long-term of effect of this?  Let’s take two different but common scenarios. First, let’s assume Time is recommending a high-quality but unknown publisher.  That startup publisher obviously hopes that its site will be bookmarked by Time’s readers who will then continue to return, or sign up for its newsletter. If that happens, it will likely be at the expense of’s traffic volume.  

The second scenario is that the startup is of poor quality. In that case, Time’s reputation will be damaged, because it will be seen to be recommending shoddy content to readers.  But either way, the only benefit to Time is that it received the equivalent of a few pennies in return for its imprimatur.

There’s another reason why this practice is so disastrous for publishers. Many of these so-called outbound content recommendations are actually brand ads in disguise. So when a household name like allows a third-party network to sell branded advertising to CNN’s audience at a $.15 CPC, why would a brand advertiser ever do a direct buy on the site on a CPM basis? The content recommendation unit will likely generate more clicks at a bargain rate.

That’s great for the advertiser, but a long-term problem for the publisher.  If the direct sales CPMs start to drop as a result, that upfront advertising guarantee from the native content company doesn’t look quite as attractive.  

Publishers are unknowingly relinquishing control of what native ads appear on their websites because of the way in which these deals are structured. Many of the ads that are appearing on their sites are driving traffic from their site to a potential future competitor’s website, even though it may be a third-tier one for the moment. This allows the competitor of tomorrow to benefit from the traffic that these publishers are working so hard for today.

There is a reason that native advertising has come to the forefront of digital advertising — because it works, for both publishers and advertiser — but it has to be done the right way.

3 comments about "Why Would Publishers Send Traffic to Their Competitors?".
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  1. Roger Dooley from Brainfluence, May 20, 2015 at 12:18 p.m.

    I totally agree, Ash. I tested a couple of these services on my blog based on their promise of displaying both relevant articles from my own site and as little as one piece of sponsored content. I found the articles from my own site were more random than relevant, and the sponsored item was always of terrible quality. The tests didn't last long. I reverted to my own related content tool that gave decent recommendations and had no articles about celebrity bikinis or weight loss miracles.

    The problem is that by offering a bunch of click-bait image links, services like Outbrain can drive traffic and write some really big checks. For beleaguered publishers desperately trying to turn a profit, it's hard to say no. They don't have a more lucrative way to monetize that space.

    It's sad to see previously great brands turn to this.

  2. Mani Gandham from Instinctive, May 22, 2015 at 4:13 a.m.

    All of these recommended links widgets are doing nothing but surfacing poor quality content on even the most premium publishers. It's easy to do when everything is full of clickbait headlines and risque images billed on CPC. Why worry about relevancy when they can just optimize for clicks instead.

    It's sad that these sites are looking for short-term gains and completely destroying their decades or even centuries of editorial reputation. This market for low-end recommended links will eventually dissolve as viewability/fraud tracking starts to become more common and marketers are slowly realizing that 80% bounce rates means effective rates for quality traffic is much higher. It's just a bubble waiting to collapse.

  3. Satish Polisetti from Polymorph, May 26, 2015 at 12:45 p.m.

    Good post Ash. Outbrain & Taboola are adding tools for publishers in order to control quality and also flag content that is questionable. It can never be 100% perfect tho.

    Two things are happening to have better quality:

    1. We are seeing the start where publishers are selling the same real-estate for other buyers brought in by their in-house sales teams. Once that happens, the quality will be improved and price will not be compromised. 

    2. The same real-estate is also being auctioned to bring in better quality content or tap into content marketing budgets via Open RTB 2.3 (native extensions). 

    These 'partner' units are brought in by the business development teams with large guarantees that are lucrative to say 'no' but there is definitely hope. 

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