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Taboola, Outbrain and the Chum Supply Chain (themargins.substack.com)
208 points by ksajadi 11 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 127 comments

Here's Adblock Plus adding Taboola to their "Acceptable Ads" programme to allow those ads to show - enabled by default when you install it: https://adblockplus.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=25991

If you haven't already switched, please install and encourage others to install uBlock Origin: https://github.com/gorhill/uBlock

From my anecdotal experience, ublock origin is also faster. This is apparently backed up by at least some testing: https://www.raymond.cc/blog/10-ad-blocking-extensions-tested...

adblock plus is a protection racket iirc.

Finally, someone is talking sense about these shitty Taboola, Outbrain clickbait ads.

I have all the reputed news sites asking me to disable adblockers only to be shown the scum links from Taboola and Outbrain. Most times ads from Taboola and Outbrain keep showing up even when i specifically disable those divs.

I am constantly surprised how many "reputable" sites stick these bottom-feeders on their page. I feel like it must impact readers' perception of those sites when they are trying to be all highbrow, and then the bottom of an article is stuffed with crap that most tabloids wouldn't publish.

Because they have bills and wages to pay. They more than likely have tried different methods of monetisation as well, it just didn't work as well.

Which is why this field is in dire need fir reinvention. It's terrible, but it works. The challenge is making it work, without being terrible.

> Because they have bills and wages to pay.

That's a rationalization that works for all kinds of terrible things. It's never good enough to excuse the behavior.

It's a terrible product, a terrible experience, and nobody benefits from it except these companies and the people responsible for revenue at whatever publisher is infested with these ads.

I work at an ad supported site, we trialed these things and I'm sure that any of the journalists at places that have these things hate this crap as much as their users do but they don't have any say over its inclusion. It's some finance person, running the numbers.

So what should the "finance" person do? Stop thinking in a financial way? Pretty sure the journalists like having a job, too.

These ads are there because they work, savvy users might not like them, you don't, I don't. It's time for new players to step up and disrupt this market, but not if that means a loss for businesses. That's the challenge.

Grow a backbone?

We're not talking about whether the CTA button should be light blue or dark blue. We're talking about decision to unleash some of the worst garbage Internet has on unsuspecting and unwilling people. It hurts individuals, and drags down both the industry and the society at large. Someone in the company should be able to say "no" to that.

The author of the article described some of the consequences, strongly implying but stopping short of saying one thing out loud, so I'll say it here: chumboxes are unethical products, and showing chumboxes is unethical behaviour too.

(But yeah, I do understand competitive pressure. That's why I hope we eventually get around to killing Taboola and friends through regulatory means.)

I would love to see the demographic data of the people actually clicking these vile advertisements. Are these the same people who watch Jerry Springer type shows and read tabloids for the juicy gossip?

I wonder if this is having some sort of effect on people at a national level? What would you measure to see if this is effecting people negatively?

I wonder if my parents would fall prey to these scummy ads if I didn't maintain their adblockers...

This toxic clickbait needs to end.

Chumboxes cast a wide net. In the brief time I was trying out browsing without adblockers some time ago, I saw some entries I'd have clicked myself, if I didn't know that I'm dealing with the worst kind of garbage advertising. Given how random and unrelated the ads in a chumbox are, any person without developed anti-ad immune system is likely to find something in there at some point.

That's one of the many reasons why I consider it my civic duty to recommend uBlock Origin to everyone, and to install it on any computer I'm asked to do maintenance on.

While I appreciate the sentiment I assume you ask for permission before installing software on customer(?) machines?

You bet.

Taboola and Outbrain damage the legitimacy of our institutions. If the Washington Post is filled up with crap like that, it seems a little less strange to believe that vaccines cause autism, that every Trump scandal is politically motivated "fake news", the moon landings were faked, etc.

One page view at a time these ads are undermining our democracy.

> Grow a backbone?

No idea what this means from a business perspective.

It means having the courage to do the right thing for your users instead of the thing that maximizes profits in the short term.

This. traditionally, is where you explain to me that it's patently absurd to ask a businessperson to care about anything but profit, or even to suggest that they could.

Business is made of people. People are entities with conscience. Conscience, when applied, can be a market signal.

The issue is that the web-driven model of free content is unsustainable to the point these junk ads leading to junk sites are attractive to finance. The big issue is that the economics of journalistic and creative content aren't sustainable ethically any more.

I don't think anyone LIKES renting a storefront to a pawnshop, for example, but if they are the only ones who want to rent your location, you're screwed.

Essentially ethical business would wind up needing the journalism market to implode, ending up with a few state-subsidized outlets that could more or less survive with no advertising at all.

Nobody's asking why they're attractive to finance though. These ads pay for themselves on a cost-per-click level. It isn't views that makes the money off these ads, it's clicks. That means that people are clicking on them. What's more, people continually click on them, which implies that they are getting some sort of benefit from them.

>What's more, people continually click on them, which implies that they are getting some sort of benefit from them.

How do you go from "people exhibit this behaviour" to "this behaviour provides them some benefit"?

Most of the ads are hyper-targetted to psychological weaknesses we have in the same way that drugs hijack our reward pathways.

Heheheh I know we spend a lot of money trying to make that happen but from where I sit we're not that good at it yet, at least in the realm of native advertising.

I've had plenty of people say to me (and plenty of frugality pundits write) they had to get off of social media because they feel manipulated by their personal network into buying crap they don't need. I've never heard somebody say they need to opt out of Outbrain ads because of the same thing.

You dispense with "they provide a benefit" and instead land on "we're not great at being malicious yet".

Literally the top post from this comments section is someone highlighting adblocking software to get rid of the stuff.

I get that a job is a job, but don't drink the industry kool-aid.

Eh not quite. I said they must provide a benefit, otherwise people wouldn't click on the stuff. You said, "No they're being manipulated into clicking on the stuff." I responded with "Outbrain is not nearly as good at manipulating people as social networks."

To me that means there are other reasons people are clicking on the stuff and yeah I like to believe it's because they get some benefit from it (even if it's the same benefit they get from watching trashy tv or reading pulp fiction). I don't like to believe that because I think ads are awesome, I like to believe that because it feeds my belief that people do much of what they do out of free will. If we're puppets of corporations we're willing puppets of corporations and blaming ad networks won't change us.

I don't have the solution but I don't think state-subsidized is it. It's a conflict of interest when the people you're trying to hold accountable are the ones writing your paycheck. Congress (usually the members unhappy with the coverage) is constantly trying to cut funding from NPR, and it's very difficult to budget and plan long term when you don't know if you will continue to be funded. Big advertisers do occasionally pull out over negative coverage, which is another reason diversified revenue streams are essential.

> I don't have the solution but I don't think state-subsidized is it. It's a conflict of interest when the people you're trying to hold accountable are the ones writing your paycheck.

The current alternative seems to be a combination of "that, but indirectly, through access to primary sources" and "your paycheck comes from turning everyone against everyone by saturating their attention with outrage-inducing content". Is that really better?

> Pretty sure the journalists like having a job, too.

If those shitty ads at the bottom of the page make the difference between surviving or folding, then I have a bit of sympathy for the truly desperate situation they are in.

However, that's not normally the case. Instead it means a small bump in revenue for no extra work and that's hard for somebody that only cares about this quarter's numbers to say no to no matter how healthy the profit numbers are.

It is truly a desperate situation and we need every revenue stream we can ethically tolerate. If we could afford not to do it we would (also "no extra work" is not trivial - we'd rather spend our precious dollars on reporters than lead generation). Serving spammy sponsored content (which everybody understands to be such, it's not masquerading as journalism) is better than not reporting on the terrible thing a major advertiser did to the detriment of our community in order to keep that advertiser. Most daily newspapers are struggling to pay the bills - pretty much nobody but the giant national/international papers have "healthy profit numbers", even large-ish regional papers. Which is why you see so many doing massive layoffs to the point where the majority of the paper is wire stories. Or going digital-only or closing their doors. Print advertising used to be lucrative; we had a monopoly on eyeballs and ad space. Digital advertising is cheap and ubiquitous, and quality journalism takes time and money to produce but doesn't deliver nearly the kind of page views that tabloid-type stuff does. Most of our revenue still comes from print ads, but those are much cheaper now that there are other places to advertise and circulation keeps dropping. We don't like the chum either - it's a huge point of contention in the newsroom - but we can't do work that matters if we can't figure out how to fund it.

I wish I could upvote your comment more than once. We need to find new revenue models or else help remind readers that advertising does not (or at least should not) affect editorial except as a means to fund it. Like I said in another post, the chum at the bottom of a news story is no worse than the garbage in the back of pop-sci.

I would gladly pay for quality journalism, what is the cost of having your readers pay the salaries instead of these scummy ad networks? Are executives just trying to turn a big profit off journalism and extract maximum value from their readership via clickbait ads? I wish there was a simple solution for supporting our hard working journalist friends who truly love the job and are passionate about their craft.

I appreciate that, it's encouraging to hear. But the cost has proven to be more than the current market will bare. Or maybe we just haven't figured out how to ask people for money the right way, but attempts have been made. As one would expect, subscriptions go down every time the price goes up. And it's very hard to get people to pay for digital-only subscriptions at all, even with metering, paywalls or friendly suggestions to subscribe - people are used to getting information online for free, and there is a surplus of free commodity information to be had.

My paper tried having a separate site for subscribers with very few ads (an occasional shallow sponsor banner or sidebar spot with no junk ads), a clean, print-inspired design and a focus on hard news. We tried a paywall and then a meter (3 to 5 articles before paywall). Print subscribers had free access. We launched that in 2013 and iterated on it until it was deemed a failure and abandoned early this year. During that time we maintained a free, ad-supported site as well, because we couldn't afford to lose that revenue. That site continued to thrive with mostly wire/commodity content and "stubbed" versions of our bylined work (basically teasers) encouraging people to subscribe for the good stuff.

It's not about big profits these days, it's about keeping the lights on, the presses running and hopefully having enough left to invest in the future. Margins are tiny if they exist. The fat has been cut - optimizations have been optimized, consultants have been consulted. We've all been through rounds of layoffs, buyouts, hiring freezes, salary freezes, reorganizations, consolidations, etc. Our goal is to keep our staff the size it is now, which is less than half the size it was in 2006. The big conglomerates are getting by on economies of scale (which comes with its own tradeoffs - a shared copy desk may sound ok until you realize knowledge of a place is pretty relevant to accuracy for stuff like which neighborhood or part of town something happened in, or when the web team is maintaining 50+ sites so everyone needs to have the same templates/CMS and your editorial objectives/concerns might not be a priority or worth adding complexity to the system).

Honestly I don't see how the publicly traded operations can be successful long term - they are serving too many masters, the product is suffering and diminishing returns are inevitable. Investigative journalism is magnitudes more expensive than the low hanging fruit, so when your objective is profit over mission and you're squeezing pennies, something's got to give. But it's not just profit-focused papers struggling. Those of us who have the luxury of some budgetary flexibility have, for the most part, been profit neutral or running at a deficit for upwards of ten years; we've maxed out our revenue (and it's declining) so our only option is to cut costs. We're so lean at this point that anything else we cut is to the detriment of our product (see: chum). I'm not sure the way forward but I think our best bet for a sustainable future is non-profit, or in some instances private ownership by benevolent patrons/ civic-minded companies.

The linked article -- and others I've read on this topic -- suggest that it's actually a big bump in revenue, which is the source of the problem. The article quoted Outbrain's deal with Time Magazine as bringing in $100M, and while that may be an outlier, it suggests that bringing in millions of dollars with these chumboxes isn't at all out of the question. If your magazine/news site has been seeing its revenue steadily decreasing over the past decade, you've been through two rounds of layoffs, and Taboola comes along and says, "Hey, we can help you bring in an extra five million a year"...

$100M sounds like a lot of money, but that's over 3 years.

So $33.3M per year or roughly $2.8 million per month. Time claims to see 65 million unique visitors per month so that works out to less than a nickle per unique user every month.

I'm paying Google Fi $10 / gigabyte for bandwidth on my phone. If the images and javascript in an Outbrain ad are more than 5 MB, then I'm paying more for the bandwidth than Time is getting to show me that. I wish I could just pay Time sixty cents per year and not have to see those ads.

I see what you're saying, but the flip side is that in absolute terms rather than "revenue per unique user," over $30M a year is, well, over $30M a year. In 2016, Time Inc's net profit was under $20M a quarter -- that's not Time Magazine, that's the whole company. If you're in that position, bringing in another $7.5M a year for letting somebody put crappy ads at the bottom of your articles could be awfully tempting.

Selling cigarettes works. Selling cigarettes to children works. Come to think of it, putting children to work in factories works. Dumping pollution in drinking water sources works.

Lots of things work. Of course "Finance People" are supposed to say no, because they are finance PEOPLE, not finance algorithms.

> Selling cigarettes to children works.

No, it doesn't work at all. That's illegal.

>Come to think of it, putting children to work in factories works. Dumping pollution in drinking water sources works.

Nope. That's illegal too..

>Lots of things work.

If you're making a list of things that are illegal, you're going to need a bigger comment box.

There is no need to needlessly take things to the extreme when it was very obvious that what we're talking about is in no way shape or form comparable to exploiting children.

They weren't always illegal.

Precisely. Thank you.


Comparing click-bait ads to child exploitation still makes no sense. It is incredibly insensitive to draw any kind of analogy between the two.

The "finance person" should start thinking beyond the current quarter, and recognize the long-term damage they're inflicting on their brand by associating it with shitty garbage content.

    > ...time for new players to step up and 
    > disrupt this market, but not if that means
    > a loss for businesses. That's the challenge.
No, that's not the challenge. We've sadly reached the point where "loss of business" is on the table for people who care about ethics. If the only way a newspaper can stay afloat is by displaying junk from taboola/outbrain, perhaps it's time for them to close-up shop?

The "challenge" is to get more people to use adblockers, punish scammers ruthlessly, and demand that the journalism sites which are worth anything at all to screen the the ads they accept and perhaps even face consequences for displaying proven scammer ads.

Does that mean you're willing to pay for the journalism if it doesn't have ads? So far that model hasn't worked either. Or are you saying you would rather the reporting didn't exist than it be supported by ads you find distasteful? If that's the case, don't consume the news.

If I believe my work is a valuable service to my community, closing up shop is more than a "loss of business".

You are right, but this is a miscalculation in the long run. Any operation allowing these ads risk damaging their reputation.

Maybe they could take a gut check and realize that we might be faced with the grim reality that in the era of twitter and instant news via social media, we don't need these old establishment media orgs anymore. The fact that they all have to result to these tactics of hosting (and producing) click bait articles, as well as their numerous other dark patterns they employ on their sites, paywalls, etc, should show to their board or leadership that maybe the demand for their product just isn't there anymore. There's nothing that says "CNN", "NYT", et all need to be legacy multi-century businesses. It's how it goes in this country. How many businesses from 100 years ago are around today? Nothing wrong with it, it's just the circle of business life.

The commodity information you get from social media is not the same thing as investigative reporting that takes months of research, public records requests, shoe leather reporting, data analysis and interviews to uncover corruption in government, abuses of power, regulatory loopholes etc. Twitter does not fill the role of the forth estate and society would not be better off without it. It's easy to take it for granted when you get all of the benefits without bearing any of the costs.

My question is then, has society dumbed down so much from the ADD nature of the internet and ubiquitous computing, that traditional long-form sources of news media are no longer relevant for the ways people choose to consume them? e.g. news channels posting bite sized stories via snapchat stories feed, etc.

It's still relevant. Lots of people still want the traditional long form, it's just that the old business model for delivering it doesn't work anymore, and people (reasonably) don't understand why they should pay for something that used to be free. And yes, snapchat (etc) stories are an interesting delivery channel, and we're trying that too (although again, how to monetize that).

Also how is a paywall a "dark pattern"? If you don't care to consume the content, don't subscribe, it's very straightforward. And there is demand. People want the product they just don't want to pay for it, because the internet. If you want the content but don't want a paywall you don't get to complain about which ads are subsidizing your access.

If you are forced to resort to these things to survive maybe you should do something else. Maybe these journalists should learn to code.

I'm a coder journalists. I could make a lot more outside of journalism but I believe in the mission as do the traditional journalists. We don't just like having jobs - we do it because our democracy and society wouldn't work as well without it. Sometimes there are trade offs made to pay the bills so we can do the work that matters. It's not ideal but the whole industry is just trying to keep their heads above water right now.

"rationalization that works for all kinds of terrible things?" This isn't a concentration camp, it's ads at the bottom of a page that you can choose to ignore, either by literally ignoring them or installing an ad blocker.

I work for an advertiser and believe it or not I know people who directly benefited from some of the ads. There's bad ads, even "terrible" ads, but in the end they're just ads.

> It's never good enough to excuse the behavior.

The behavior of click-bait ads isn't terrible in a way that should cause someone to question their own ethics. You may disagree. So what? You aren't going to fix the human condition by drawing a line in the sand, nor would it be moral to do so. The price of skepticism is uncertainty and the price of certainty is extortion (in terms of clicks and attention).

I worked on the Ask Toolbar and it definitely caused me to question my ethics. I felt like shit about it because I wasn't creating something I was proud of, something that other people I knew and cared about would think well of. I quit that job and moved on to something better.

I would not include such bad behavior from some bad actors as part of the "human condition" but outliers on the fringe because I believe most people want to be good and do good things, but apparently not these assholes.

> I would not include such bad behavior from some bad actors as part of the "human condition"

It is. You take the good with the bad. There's not a lot of evidence this is "bad" within that spectrum. It's very subjective, since I never had to question my ethics when working in advertising. There are things I will do and things I won't, but I don't champion the eradication of those things I won't do.

The reason most monetisation models don't work is because the vast majority of content produced by these outlets is not worth anything. Hence why no monetisation strategy can part anyone with their money. There's nothing to reinvent.

The shit quality of Taboola ads made reenable my adblock on one of the only website where I had disabled it. I couldn't just support a website that put such crap before my eyes.

I'm sure they use the "it's a third party, we have no control over it" defense. Whoever pays the site pays a middleman who pays a middleman who pays another middleman that loads bottom feeder ads, malware, auto playing video, and of course JS exploits.

Can't remember which one we used, but they're terrible for engagement as well - we had to pull a native campaign as we were seeing (if not ad fraud) then utterly awful engagement rates. Average under a second time on page, lots of useless sites in the referral list, lots of "clicks".

I'm guessing publishers love them as they seem to get people to click on the ads, but eventually any reputable advertisers will wise up and get out of there.

It's a fast narrowing funnel. Lots of advertisers try it. It works well for very few. The few campaigns that work well scale massively. That's why ads are so repetitive for users.

"Advertiser" is also an overstatement as this article explains. Most are doing as arbitrage.

It's all garbage. I don't get why anyone thinks these ads are any worse than any other online adverts. If anything, they're less creepy because they're generic clickbait and they don't appear to be tracking me or targeting me personally.

one of the main reasons why publishers stick with them is because these networks give the publishers minimum guranteed deals.

I have started to simply turn of JavaScript for those sites that either give me any grief about adblockers or show gdpr opt outs.

A few years ago I got really into the (ad-supported) solitaire game included with Windows 10. I wasn't really surprised that almost all the ads were Outbrain/Taboola type chum, targeted at senior citizens. I was surprised that almost all of the ads were scams, promising 0% interest mortgage refinancing or threatening that you could lose your Medicare benefits, etc. I wonder why we haven't seen backlash towards companies hosting obviously malicious ads.

Here's what I don't get: What is being exchanged of value here?

In all but one case in this analysis, the only thing that is worth something is the click. A click not leading to a credit card transaction.

Take the case of the 5G ad. If you convince a user to click on that and then on one of the ads on the google results, someone gets $10. Nothing of value unless the user also has interest in the super specialized networking equipment being sold, something that seems extraordinarily unlikely.

This is a form of fraud isn't it? You're just putting a few million page views in the mix and calling it legitimate behavior when someone accidentally clicks once in a while.

Someone eventually either buys something, or the company that's paying for the last, most expensive, click goes out of business. But there's a lot of those companies, so there's always (so far) someone paying for those clicks.

In this view, the sucker is the VC? I'm not saying that's wrong, but wow.

Often, yes? Idlewords had a good post about this a few years ago: https://idlewords.com/2015/11/the_advertising_bubble.htm

"... a piece of sponsored prose remarkable not for its content, but for being at least four layers of advertising removed from any kind of productive economic activity."

Such a great article.

probably also some small businesspeople of the herbalife/lululemon type...

(goes out of business or just stops buying those ads...)

I wouldn't assume ad owners are stupid (maybe sometimes)

Generally, they know what those few million page views value is. A direct method could be to pause the campaign for a while and see how it effects a metric that matters to them. (if they don't have such metric, then yeah... they're a little stupid)

It is factored in really. The people who advertise on that yahoo keyword are aware that somewhere close to 80% of clicks or views are worthless to begin with (clickbaits, dark patterns, actual fraud).

In a lot of cases it is still worth it. In many other cases people perceive it to be worth it, but don't really do the research involved to prove that it is.

So I was idly wondering whether the UK Advertising Standards Authority had had a runin with these people, and found surprisingly few examples.

https://www.asa.org.uk/rulings/rakuten-europe-srl-a16-335037... mug with "C" handle and "UNT" body, banned

https://www.asa.org.uk/advice-online/recognising-ads-native-... Ruling on "native advertising", mentions Outbrain ruling https://www.asa.org.uk/rulings/Outbrain-Inc-A13-251818.html

UK ASA, is fairly toothless in general.

Where they have leverage is with TV (which submit semi-voluntarily) or where the advertiser is regulated by another body, like financial services, pharmaceuticals or gambling. In these cases, the regulators can and do hand out fines based on ASA results.

It seems like their website isn't displaying all the rulings though.

I have worked in ad tech. It was fun. These types of ads were a funny joke.

I have also worked for US defense related companies. It was also fun and the tech was top notch.

Most people's jobs in the world seem to come at someone else's expense if you think deeply enough. Quite a shame.

> Most people's jobs in the world seem to come at someone else's expense if you think deeply enough. Quite a shame.

It is true. There are degrees - some of the jobs don't hurt others, and some that do don't do it on purpose or as a primary outcome. A company making screws and nails likely exploits only its employees.

Some are taking advantage of their customers but still deliver a basic need. Think grocery stores that like to screw with food quality to the limit allowed by laws and social tolerance. You don't get exactly what you think you paid for, but it won't otherwise hurt you either.

Some jobs can involve hurting people, but at least have a somewhat plausible justification for it. E.g. some of the defense work can be justified by just protecting your borders and deterring attacks, and the hurt isn't realized until some external party tries to test your defenses.

Then there are jobs that are purely about exploiting other people, without giving them much of value. A lot of advertising is this. Chumboxes, telemarketing, e-mail spam, native advertising, retargeting... I could go on. It all essentially boils down to treating human beings as exploitable resources - bags with money that you get to squeeze out by applying psychological pressure. It does feel very much like factory farming.

(Yes, this post is sorted in descending order of what I think about occupations. Yes, I think defense companies can be morally superior to advertisers. The former help maintain a bubble of law and order in which we can happily live. The latter exist to screw our lives up.)

Whatever makes people sleep at night :).

Well, I don't work or plan to work at a defense contractor, so it's not like I'm having trouble sleeping. So far, the worst thing I can say about the work I did in the past is that some of it was probably a waste of time and resources to work on.

Quite a bit of the modern capitalist system revolves around hiding exploitation, violence and slavery from the people who benefit from it.

Arbitraging evil, in a way.

Also used to work in adtech (not military tech, yet). Now I work in finance, for a hedge fund. For all the bad things you can say about finance, at least people are voluntarily chosing to participate in it (in contrast with ads, which are pushed onto users involuntarily - maybe not online ads, but most certainly real-life ads).

Most people here are incapable of understanding this. HN is full of people who's work is purely good and ethical :). I would love to be able to see the world through those eyes.

I sincerely hate these accursed things. Loathe them. Installed an ad blocker with the specific intent to rid myself of them.

I hope you installed uBlock Origin and not Adblock/Adblock Plus/uBlock (not Origin), because these people bought into the protection racket euphemistically referred to as ""Acceptable" Ads" back in late 2014


There's even a FAQ entry on the Adblock/Adblock Plus/uBlock (not Origin) website (they're almost certainly the same company)

> "I want to support websites I love. I just don't want to see ads from Taboola!"

which is answered with

> We hear you. [...] We agree that Taboola (and to a somewhat lesser extent, Outbrain) ads aren't "acceptable." We're hopeful that now that the Acceptable Ads list is under the control of that third-party board, Taboola and Outbrain will be removed from it. We encourage you to voice your opinion of Taboola ads on the Acceptable Ads forum.

The Wayback machine only has it since 2018 but I think it's been there since ""acceptable" ads" was transferred to the completely-independent-and-objective-no-hidden-agenda "third-party board" in 2017. Guess what one of the oldest and the most viewed threads on the forum is about?


Very crafty.

That's horrifying. But nah, I'm using 1Blocker.

I interviewed for a role at outbrain as like a... Junior account manager or something, before retraining as a Dev. So glad i missed that noise. I was a tester at an agency and that was ok and worked on some cool stuff... But this would not have been my speed at all. I didn't really know much about outbrain when I interviewed for the job, what an eye opening article.

Always do cursory research first! There are people that unknowingly work for adware trojan companies.

Easily one of the grubbiest forms of advertising on the web. Hollow, vapid and devoid of value other than for the advertiser. "Chum" is the right word.

A decade of free online news subsidized by the dying gasp of the news industry has set us up perfectly for this.

Going forward, that subsidization will finish evaporating and the only news media that can earn ad dollars will be either sponsored content or have chum strewn across them. Buy gold, miracle cures, payday loan, t&a.

Expect the chum to be optimized, enhanced, and enriched.

Or, you know, stuff people are willing to pay for. WaPo and NYT, among others, have seemingly done okay after paywalling their content (with admittedly relaxed rules to preserve inbound hits from Google, Twitter, etc.).

The real problem is the lack of a payments infrastructure that doesn't have tremendously high fees for small amounts, especially small recurring payments. I'm willing to pay for a WaPo subscription upfront, for a year, and that makes the credit card fees acceptable on their end. But the amount I'm willing to pay for other sites is smaller, and that probably makes it prohibitive for them to accept credit cards directly, and there's no other good standard way of getting paid.

Ironically Google is in the best position to do micropayments (hell they could even do impression-based micropayments!) because it's not too dissimilar from their ad-revenue billing. But of course they won't, because they're an advertising company.

But the faster we kill ads, which basically means the more people who use adblockers, the more market pressure will be created for someone to act as a clearinghouse for small payments between content creators and consumers. And the stuff that people aren't willing to pay for, won't be created, or will be created only if it's someone's hobby or scratches their creative itch.

An interesting ethical question is who in the supply chain is responsible for the chum content, and how much. Lets assume an ad is an out-right scam of some sort. The advertiser is obviously guilty, but is the ad aggregate to blame (outbrain yes, adsense no)? The hosting website? (no, but their reputation should be affected). The CDN (no, and cloudflare's attempt was censorship), The hosting company or the domain registrar or my ISP (no) Maybe the browser itself or the OS or my router (no) or the adblocker failing to block the ad (yes, if it was via acceptable ads).

There are many (more) players in the "supply chain" yet we perceive their respective responsibility differently, perhaps arbitrarily. I wrote my gut reactions in parenthesis above, but I can't see a strong rational behind my own sentiments.

I call these arbitrash.

I hate them with a passion, partly because I understand (deep down) why they continue to exist: they sometimes work on me, in the sense that they arouse the basest form of curiosity and I get the impulse of clicking on them. I like myself a little less for it, even though I never actually do it.

It's about he difficulty of brands coexisting with news content. Traditional content-based and even remarketing ads are risky to run against news articles. Too many of them are depressing or controversial-- nobody wants to accidentally advertise cheap flights next to a plane crash article, or anything opposite a polarizing political piece.

The chumbox advertisers, being nameless arbritrage affiliates or fly-by-night sellers, have zero brand equity. They have very little to lose if they accidentally get their ad running against the wrong message.

Taboola and Outbrain are everywhere. They pretend to be:

"Taboola and outbrain are clearly filling a need in the market. There is a gap between what publishers can monetize through their existing direct and remnant channels, which outbrain and taboola help fill. They also provide the sites with deeper engagement by cross linking related content that people are likely to read."

That was funny..

With that in mind it is very interesting to note that these are both linked with Israeli intelligence and do more than just provide third party advertising. To me it is a good idea to block them off.

I saw that they are Israeli companies, but what ties do they have to Israeli intelligence (beyond, I suppose, that their Israeli employees had previously done mandatory military service)?

They are not "both linked with Israeli intelligence".

Do note though that Google, Facebook, apple, did disclose that they work in collaboration with the US intelligence.

The world of affiliate marketing is a really interesting one. A lot of developers won't find their nirvana here, and that's understandable, but when you abstract away the nature of this business, you get to solve some really interesting problems.

I also believe this is an area that is still craving for real innovation and solutions. There is a lot of money to be made here, but no one has really "cracked" it yet, not truly.

> when you abstract away the nature of this business, you get to solve some really interesting problems

This is how a lot of people justify working on some pretty awful things :(

Sure, but Affiliate Marketing is just marketing. It's not the best thing in the world, but it sure as hell isn't worse than the likes of Facebook, Google, etc.

Why should it be one or the other? Let’s just do away with both.

It’s like a criminal justifying his actions with “well at least it isn’t murder so I’ll keep going”.

That's not what I am saying. Any large web platform will use these tactics, the worst offenders being the ones on top of the chain. Even if you truly believe your platform or employer does not use these tactics, they are being positively affected by the platforms that do. Your work more than likely contributes to this massive market - and it is massive, it pays a lot of wages, directly and indirectly.

That's again like saying, "I'm technically in the mafia, but I work the small jobs that don't involve threatening or killing people, so this is OK".

> isn't worse than the likes of Facebook, Google, etc.

I didn't qualify my statement to leave these out…

When I read these sentiments, I usually see it as people that naively believe the "badness" of the internet is limited to a selected list of players. If we could magically get rid of these players, you might as well shut down the whole internet.

The internet, sadly, still runs due to these shady platforms. Without them, businesses wouldn't sell enough, "good sites" wouldn't have a revenue model, people that falsely believe their work is ethical and good wouldn't be paid.

The solution is not to purge, but to improve and clarify.

There's nothing inherently wrong with Google or Facebook, and they clearly provide value to many people. It's their methods I have issue with, and you're right: if they could improve them I might not feel that they were doing wrong anymore. They haven't yet, though…

I’m just wondering, what’s value does affiliate marketing deliver?

There seems to be little legitimate money to be made and it mostly hinges on tricks & dark patterns to mislead customers into bad deals as far as they’re concerned.

> I’m just wondering, what’s value does affiliate marketing deliver?

For most pages, I'd say very little to the customer, a lot to the merchant: the merchant can't claim things about the product for legal reasons, can't make up fake reviews/testimonials etc, so they outsource that task to the affiliate. Of course, they don't say "just claim some bullshit", but they accept that it's done, and it will be done because there's a lot of incentive to do it and none to not do it.

What I'm really surprised with is the whole couponing sector of affiliate marketing. It doesn't provide any value to the merchant, because people typically look for coupons after they've decided to buy something at a specific store. You may get fewer abandoned carts by offering rebates and coupons, but there's no reason to pay some middleman to serve them.

> You may get fewer abandoned carts by offering rebates and coupons, but there's no reason to pay some middleman to serve them.

It's price segmentation. There's lots of people who will not buy some types of stuff unless they can find a deal. Coupons let you profit off those people, sometimes enough to make it worth to pay a middleman to take care of the work involved in distributing them.

Sure, but you don't need the middleman. You can (and some large shops do) just publish the deals yourself. Add a /coupon/ or /voucher/ page or whatever the local term is and put your deals there. You'll rank for it, people looking for a deal will find it and use the "no shipping" or "5% off for new customers" deal you provide. Same effect, only you don't pay 1-10% to some affiliate publisher that has lots of incentive to damage your brand by advertising coupons that don't exist etc because the he only needs the click to get paid, leading to additional support and annoyed customers. I just don't see the added value that an affiliate publisher generates.

You almost never need a middleman. But companies, especially smaller ones, are limited for time and attention. Someone comes in and tells you they can do a service X for you that'll cost you Y and net you Z, Y < Z, many companies will jump at it - Y is still much less than it'd cost them to run X themselves (hiring people, figuring out how to do it effectively, etc.).

That it later turns out that the deal was bad for the company long-term - well, that's the reality of business. Plenty of dishonest and exploitative companies exist and are successful.

Sure, but freeing resources is something that I do consider a value. In this case, you still need to handle coupon codes, you need to create those coupons, you need to transmit those coupons to affiliates - the only thing you don't need to do is publish them on your own page.

It may be that some consultant talks shops into it, I just never understood what the value proposition is. "Look, just pay somebody 5% of your revenue and deal with annoyed customers instead of spending an hour on this once" doesn't sound that attractive.

It connects consumers with products and services they might otherwise not have been made aware of, and pays the content producers' bills

Sure, a lot of that content is bullshitters bullshitting about bullshit products and in the MLM world some of the bullshit "products" consist solely of instructions on how to make more affiliate links, but affiliate marketing is also how most price/feature comparison sites which are actually useful make their money, and started off as a way of getting people to take writing book reviews more seriously because they could earn a bit from linking interested readers directly to a purchase page on a new website called Amazon.

> you get to solve some really interesting problems

Like what? Attribution and customer journey?

Aka stalking. No thanks, I’ll work on more ethical things.

There is not a single large web platform that does not use complex tracking and targeting mechanisms.

Affiliate Marketing is nothing compared to that.

Better not work for large web platforms then.

I don’t and still manage to earn good money contracting for honest businesses (that have a real product/service that people pay for instead of relying on stalking to make money).

There’s plenty of stuff out there beyond FAANG.

Why do you include Apple, Amazon & Netflix in your list?

My point was less to show their lack of ethics and more that there’s more than enough money to be made in small (but profitable) businesses.

Amazon is involved in advertising though so it’s just a matter of time before that cancer consumes the entire company (in addition to being unethical overall like closing their eyes on the counterfeit problem).

Better not work for the web at all, if that's what worries HN users.

Taboola and Outbrain type ads are what you get when you don't have good ad targeting available. FB and Instagram ads are much higher quality because of the targeting FB offers.

How are they different from Adsense?

Adsense generally involves [theoretically] context-sensitive text links to regular company websites designed to look like context-sensitive ads, whereas Taboola/Outbrain generally involves a big box of fake news links of the "Secret Brain Pill Used By Millionaires" type, designed to look like a list of news content.

Google are very fussy about who can advertise and what. They'll ban spammy behavior. If your content is not relevant you pay more. If your site score is low you pay more.

So what they're saying is, we follow this one simple trick? I just don't believe that.

I work for Outbrain, and I'll say upfront that, yeah, we can do better. Advertising is advertising, and it's not the ideal way to monetize content, but until the world finds a successful way for people to pay up for what they enjoy it's what the industry has to work with.

That out of the way I have a few issues with this piece.

1. Ranjan did an interesting thing that chum purveyors like us do all the time. He lead the article with a disturbing screenshot of the lowest piece of crap chum he could find. That draws you in to read more because who wouldn't stare at a train wreck right? What he didn't say is that the screenshot he showed isn't an Outbrain widget. In fact almost every recommendation in that widget breaks Outbrain's content guidelines (https://www.outbrain.com/amplify/guidelines/) and would be removed from our network. Tying those ads to Outbrain is not accurate.

2. The block of chum below the first one, with the 5G and such? Yeah totally Outbrain. Ranjan went through all the ads there and found none of them are harmful. Yeah some are vapid entertainment, one is a nonsensical link to a dying search engine, but a few of them gasp are actually useful. Somehow though the fact that people make money off of advertising is bad.

3. None of either example are worse than what you would find in the back pages of Psychology Today or Popular Science back in the day. Those publishers were as responsible for those ads back then as WaPo is for the chum at the bottom of its articles today. If you read our content guidelines you'll see that Outbrain takes that responsibility seriously. We're guests on our publishers' pages and we never forget that.

I think this article could have gone a whole lot deeper into the terrifying world of ad arbitrage, programmatic buying, behavioral tracking, GDPR skirting, etc. and it would have been more meaningful, but the fact that it is complaining that these chum buckets are as bad as display advertising in the magazine era isn't really saying anything new.

So these ads are largely unobtrusive and provide an extra income stream for the WaPo - it certainly feels a bit seedy, but is this actually a bad thing?

They're obtrusive - disturbing images of rotting teeth, etc. Taboola and outbrain are the two places I will block at hosts file level even when not running an adblocker simply because of how ugly their ads are.

If nothing else, I suspect it's harmful to the reputations of the news organizations hosting them, especially as they're often themed to look similar to the site.

In an era of "fake news" accusations, having actual fake news right there on your home page isn't great.

They are gross, stalk you across the internet and can lead to malware or scams. At least with most ads the “value” is some kind of product you can buy if you click on it. With these ads there’s no value other than showing you more ads if you click through.

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