Promoted Content: How Publishers Blur the Line Between News & Ads
Image: iStockphoto/GoodLifeStudio

You’ve just reached the end of an article on your favorite news site. Underneath the last line is two or three rows of thumbnail images suggesting content from “Around the Web.”

What’s displayed is often a mishmash of topics – some closely relating to what you read, while others promise health tips or celebrity secrets.

While from a range of sources, each is vying for your next click with curiosity-stoking headlines and intriguing images.

What you’re seeing is called “promoted content,” and it generally looks something like this:

Example of promoted content

Look closely at the image above, captured from CNN, and you’ll see that the suggested links aren’t just to articles. There are also promotions for:

  • Products (Harry’s Shave Club)
  • Debt relief services (One Smart Penny)
  • Ads disguised as articles (Truth Finder and Ever Quote)

Change Advertising reports that 82 percent of the news articles you choose to read are followed by ads for promoted content.

Which leads to the question: What are these links doing there, and why should you care?

What Is Promoted Content?

Imagine you have a website that offers services, products, or written content and your goal is to get more people to visit. How do you gain exposure?

One surefire way to capture consumer’s attention is to go to where they are – much for the same reason you see billboards along the freeway or in Times Square more often than at the end of a country road.

Really popular websites, such as Facebook and Google, already offer advertising programs that help companies get attention. For example, we’ve written about why you see ads on your Facebook feed as “promoted stories.”

This mutually beneficial relationship between the websites that you love and advertisers trying to get your attention is what allows you to read articles and enjoy our favorite websites for free.

Advertising basically pays for the party.

Now, while internet giants like Facebook and Google can attract companies to advertise on them in a snap, they’re not the only real estate in town.

Plenty of other websites have visitors that advertisers would love to attract to their own website. Similarly, media publishers need advertisers to pay for the content that they create.

Where do you come into all this? Well, when it comes to the value of online advertising space, you’re a key asset.

You, your attention, personal data, and mobile bandwidth.

The more readers a media site can offer to advertisers as potential traffic, the more the cost of that “billboard space” hikes up.

With that in mind, it’s important to understand that promoted content isn’t “bad” by definition. However, there are potential risks depending on how it’s presented. (We’ll share what those are shortly.)

To help inform your choices in what information you consume and where you click, we need to first look at who puts those promoted posts at the bottom of an article.

The Advertising Companies Who Tailor Promoted Content

This is where independent advertising companies come in. One big name in the industry is Outbrain. Others include Taboola, Revcontent, and Zemanta.

These companies work like a middle man, connecting advertisers looking for space with media publishers with space (and readers) to offer.

Remember our billboard analogy? Instead of advertising a single promoted post at the bottom of an article, these companies use something called a “widget.”

In a super-simple nutshell, a widget is a bit of code that creates the actual box of thumbnail images that contains all the different promoted posts.

But, unlike a billboard, what’s in the box can change, which is why you’ll sometimes see different promoted posts when you refresh a page.

Here’s the thing: You know how there’s a concern that Google or Facebook tracks your online activity?

Well, all that information about products you’ve purchased and websites you like to spend time on is sold to these independent advertising companies. And, they use it to tailor the promoted posts you’re shown in that widget depending on your past behavior.

Meaning that you and I could go to the same website, and see completely different ads based on our interests.

What Kinds of Content Can and Can’t Be Promoted?

While being tracked and targeted is pretty creepy, it’s important to note that companies like Outbrain, Taboola, and Revcontent are providing a service and that they generally have standards.

For example, Outbrain has extensive content guidelines outlining what you can and can’t promote. The types of content that Outbrain will promote include:

  • Original articles or blog posts
  • Verified, earned media and positive reviews
  • Articles promoting products or brands

Stuff Outbrain won’t promote includes:

  • Alcohol products
  • Financial services that don’t comply with government regulations
  • Negative media about another company
  • Adult-only content
  • Articles promoting hate, violence, or discrimination

Additionally, Outbrain’s content guidelines state that certain categories, such as political articles or cosmetics and beauty products will be reviewed individually before approval.

Looking at the independent advertiser’s guidelines, it’s apparent that promoted posts aren’t a free for all space where brands with cash to burn can say whatever they’d like.

Additionally, Outbrain and Taboola both say they employ teams of people who vet content before it is introduced onto their networks. They both also offer tools for publishers to remove potentially problematic content.

While it’s somewhat comforting to know that there are guidelines, the standards adopted by these independent advertisers don’t completely negate the risk to you, the consumer.

The Potential Risks of Promoted Content

Whether CNN, Wall Street Journal, or The Boston Globe, you visit a particular online media outlet because you like what they publish. More importantly, you trust their opinion.

The risk of promoted content is that, by associating certain products and services with your go-to, trusted information source, you might end up trusting some less-than-stellar brands.

How can this be, if there are quality controls in place to regulate promoted content?

There are three ways that promoted content can create a risky territory for consumers:

Risk #1: Reader Assumption

The first risk is that you, the reader, will assume that the placement of a promoted link is an endorsement of the product or service by the publisher you chose to read.

For example, if you’re reading a Wall Street Journal article and spot a promoted post by The Lending Tree, you might assume that the WSJ is endorsing The Lending Tree as their favorite loan platform.

Negating this risk is as simple as being educated on the existence of promoted posts. You’re less likely to assume a relationship between your preferred media publisher and the brand advertised now that you know why they’re there.

Risk #2: Dubious Billing Practices

Consumers are often quick to call a certain category of products “scams.”

However, the term scam isn’t quite right. After all, a scam means that you’ve paid money for nothing, and promoted content guidelines prohibit the advertising of any product or service that intends to outright fleece customers of their cash.

Instead, what consumers sometimes call a “scam” is more accurately described as dubious billing practices.

In our experience reviewing thousands of products, these are usually seen as one-off product websites that offer free trials or mandatory enrollment in auto-ship programs.

This is an important distinction. Because these companies offer an actual product, they’ll generally be allowed to advertise as promoted content, so it’s important not to take a product ad at face value just because it’s promoted by a trusted media publisher.

Negating this risk involves being aware of what you click after an article, and carefully considering if the page you land on is trying to sell you something. If so, read reviews and the fine print before purchasing.

Risk #3: Bait and Switch

Outbrain and Taboola have both admitted that their guidelines, while created with the best of intentions, can only police promoted content as it’s first submitted.

Sometimes shady companies will submit one URL for approval, then alter their campaign or redirect the website once the ad has been launched.

This kind of bait and switch is difficult for independent advertisers to catch in action.

And, while each of these risks is based around the idea that promoted content is legitimized by the publisher whose site it appears on, bait and switch ad campaigns can lead consumers to hand over sensitive banking information to the wrong people.

Again, it’s important to remember that whenever you click on a link, you can be taken away from the website that you had intended to visit. Once that happens, take care to evaluate all the information in front of you with a skeptical eye.

Additionally, if you feel that a promoted link has taken you to a page that’s in violation of the guidelines we’ve shared, you should contact the media publisher on whose site you had initially visited and let them know of the problem.

Less Reputable Websites Invite More Dubious Promoted Content

By now you have a solid grasp on what promoted content is and who’s behind it. We’ve shared why it’s important to media publishers and brands, as well as some potential risks that it poses to consumers.

We want to point out that promoted content doesn’t mean an advertised link is “bad” any more than a company that hopes to gain exposure by promoting on a billboard.

However, there is one general rule of thumb we’ve recognized while researching this article: The wackier the website, the more outrageous (and dubious) those promoted posts can be.

For example, below is an image of a promoted content widget taken from The Wall Street Journal:

Example of promoted content

From Fox Business to Charles Schwab, you can see that the brands advertised on the WSJ are generally regarded as reputable.

Now, an image of promoted content from The Washington Post:

Example of promoted content

Compare this to the promoted content on the WSJ, and you’ll see that it’s tailored to a slightly different audience. The WSJ features ads primarily for financial brands, while The Washington Post branches out into clothing and other publishers.

Still, these are reputable companies.

However, the WSL and The Washington Post are mainstream media publishers who offer advertisers a high volume of traffic. Therefore, it costs a lot more to promote your posts on their websites.

What if you’ve got a smaller advertising budget? Well, you’re regulated to the periphery. To see what we mean, check out this graph of what’s considered fake or hyper-partisan news:

Graph of what’s considered fake or hyper-partisan news

No matter your politics, the websites on the outskirts of those represented simply aren’t as reputable. As such, it costs less to promote posts there. Just look at what we’ve found promoted on the website Addicting Info:

Example of promoted content

As you can see, we’re not in Kansas anymore. This promoted content widget by Revcontent is overflowing with less-than-reputable links, including clickbait titles that promise to erase wrinkles in a minute, disclose a cure for diabetes or ED, and easy tricks to whiten teeth.

If you ever want an example of links not to click, that image is a veritable petri dish of potential risk.

Again, the graph mapping out news sources from mainstream to hyper-partisan doesn't mean that promoted content only shows up on political publishers.

But, we should highlight that those companies that can only afford to advertise on off-the-beaten-path publishing websites should be regarded with extra caution.

Bottom Line: Learn How to Judge Promoted Content Before You Click

In short, promoted content provides a symbiotic relationship: It’s a much-needed revenue for media publishers while giving advertisers a relatively affordable way to reach a wide range of potential customers.

And, the benefit for you? Companies like Outbrain say that promoted content offers readers timely, relevant information that’s tailored to your interests.

In reality, that sounds a little too altruistic to be true. After all, Outbrain is making money whenever you click on a promoted link, so their motives aren’t just to offer you a sampling of interesting new topics to explore.

With that in mind, it’s up to you to understand that even when you’re not spending money online, you’re still a consumer in the sense that your next click is bought and paid for.

Learning to determine whether a promoted item is worth your next click depends on what you value and the standards you demand of information.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to read about tricks to whiten your teeth just as long as you understand that the article will likely be trying to sell you a product at the end.

To help you begin to define what’s worth your clicks, consider:

  • Does this article relate to the content I was just reading?
  • Is it promising something, like a cure for diabetes, that likely isn’t true?
  • Is it playing on my sense of curiosity about celebrities to encourage a click?
  • Is it published by a reputable company that I trust?

The bottom line, ask yourself: Is it useful? Is it relevant? Is it safe? If you can answer yes to these questions and the topic interests you, go ahead and click away.

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.