What is it with all these sponsored posts about plastic surgery nightmares? They’re everywhere. Tim Green (yet to go under the knife) is not impressed…

Do you know the one simple trick for fighting tummy flab? Or which child stars have grown up ugliest? Or who had the 28 worst celebrity plastic surgery nightmares?

The answers are but a click away. The questions are everywhere. You’ve undoubtedly come across them. They’re the ’Content You Might Like’ sponsored stories that appear not just on shoddy opportunist websites, but on The Guardian, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and ESPN.

    And people really do click through. Taboola says it registers around 1.15 billion clicks a month. No wonder that these content recommendation companies believe they’re building the next generation of search and discovery tools on the web.

I first started noticing these grubby ‘clickbait’ links three or four years ago. And I assumed they would be a short-lived fad. But the opposite happened. Instead, the two main companies behind these ads, Taboola and Outbrain, have thrived. In fact, Taboola just signed a huge deal to integrate its content recommendations into major MSN websites across 50 countries.

It’s amazing. Also a bit depressing. And not a little bewildering.

In case you didn’t know, these ‘Content You Might Like’ links are sponsored. Advertisers pay publishers to write clickable stories, and then pay other publishers to post the headlines as links on their sites. When a user clicks through, the host site gets a fee.

And people really do click through. Taboola says it registers around 1.15 billion clicks a month.

No wonder that these content recommendation companies believe they’re building the next generation of search and discovery tools on the web. Taboola’s CEO has stated there are three ways to find content: type it in a search bar; follow a friend’s recommendation; come across it by accident. He says his aim is to solve the last one.

But what is this mission doing to the web? At random I went to Forbes and clicked on a serious sounding story titled ‘China Plans A Floating Nuclear Power Plant’. Beneath it were sponsored links to posts such as ’19 Celebs Before And After Drugs’ and ‘Creepy Mugshots of 1800s Insane Asylum Patients’.

Now, I thought these ads were supposed to be tailored to my tastes. But I’m just not an Insane Asylum kinda guy. In a spirit of fearless investigation I clicked through. And I was taken to a very spammy site called OMGHype. Predictably it was a mass of ads and confusing links. The story itself was a slideshow requiring dozens of clicks to actually view.

I wonder what Forbes, MSN, The Guardian etc think of all this. Do they care about the effect on their brands?

From a personal point of view I lament what this is doing to writing in general.

Admittedly, these content recommendation firms are brilliant at making you click. They use relentless A/B testing to discover what kinds of stories and headlines perform best.

And they’re always finding new techniques. For a while lots of stories featured ‘this one weird trick’, then they kept singling out one in a list i.e. ’25 hot cheerleaders – number 14 is amazing’. Now, I’ve noticed a new one: ‘the cameraman kept shooting’.

There’s a kind of genius to this. Trouble is, every legitimate news source is using the technique. It’s understandable – you’re probably more likely to click on ’this weird mobile commerce app could change your life’ than ‘Host Card Emulation brings payments to the cloud’.

There’s nothing wrong with writing a clickable headline for an interesting and well-researched story. But it’s a slippery slope to writing a shoddy story purely on the basis of a clickable headline.

tim-greenTim Green

Features Editor

MEF Minute

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And what is all this clickbait for anyway? The clicks are worthless unless readers also click on the ads. And the ad clicks are worthless unless someone buys a product.

Are people buying? I doubt it. I suspect this is what will bring down content recommendation in the end. People will start to see through it. I read that banner ads originally commanded click-through rates of 44 per cent when they were new and fresh. Now 0.06 per cent is a great result.

Content recommendation will probably go the same way. When it does, we’ll just have to find pics of Taylor Swift Before She Was Famous through our own determination and hard work.

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