Publishers Must Provide Premium Content to Generate Premium Dollars

What does it say about Discovery that it was willing to take an 82% loss to get rid of “How Stuff Works”?

After all, the site is 327th on Alexa, which means it is heavily trafficked. But, as Ad Age comments,  “the right mix of traffic, ad revenue and expenses ultimately proved elusive. ”

And here’s why. When Discovery bought “How Stuff Works in 2007 (for $250 million) it was one of a number of highly popular “content farms” that hired low-paid freelance writers to generate content on subjects that were popular with search engines. Another site like that was, Demand Media’s flagship site. Back in the day when advertisers bought on page views,  the formula content farms used for generating page views– superficial posts on common subjects — worked really well and attracted advertisers.

However, when consumers clicked on these articles and found them largely without value — and sometimes even copied from site to site — the complaints went to Google, the search engine that got them to these low quality sites. So Google had to respond for its own brand reputation, and in 2011 it released what is known as the “Panda” algorithm — a method for supposedly cutting through the low quality content on the internet:

As “pure webspam” has decreased over time, attention has shifted instead to “content farms,” which are sites with shallow or low-quality content. In 2010, we launched two major algorithmic changes focused on low-quality sites. Nonetheless, we hear the feedback from the web loud and clear: people are asking for even stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content.

This algorithm immediately “demoted” sites like “How Stuff Works” and EHow and caused them to lose readers, and then of course advertisers.So now it is 2014, and advertisers are buying much more targeted audiences, and are buying on different metrics, such as engagement and viewability. This creates even more of a strain for sites that aren’t positioned as premium.

We don’t have visibility into the specific metrics for “HowStuffWorks,” and we’re not trying to pass judgment on their content generation practices, which we believe were generally superior to the other members of the content farm genre, but the recent sale for $45 million emphasizes the need for any publisher to provide quality content at all times to justify the trust of brands and advertisers.

In the specific case of ZEDO’s network, we screen carefully to make sure we have premium publishers who publish quality content with which brands wish to be associated.


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Are Premium Publishers Any Different?

As long as page views and traffic stats are the principal way we measure the value of publishers, ads will not convert at the numbers media buyers hope for, even on premium sites.  We need to find a better, more genuine way to measure the value of a site. Users might be part of the calculation, but the most important metric will probably end up being some form of actual engagement that could lead to actual sales.

The reason traffic is not the best metric is that publishers — almost all of them– play what Digiday’s Josh Sternberg calls “Traffic Games.”

Huffington Post and the New York Times are as guilty of these games as any other site. Why? Because they run so many slide shows. If you watch a slide show, and each slide counts as another page view, you aren’t increasing engagement, although you can get 15x the page views.  That’s our view of inauthentic traffic.

Some publishers still buy traffic. In the early days of the internet, link exchanges were popular. That was one way of generating traffic, and it even survived Google, which still uses inbound links to measure the rank of a site.

But it’s gotten more complicated.  According to Sternberg, “over the last several years, there has been an explosion of traffic-trading platforms. These traffic-trading widgets are pervasive through men’s and women’s lifestyle media, according to sources. And they move tens of millions of visits around the Web. Here’s how it works. It’s essentially a back-door policy: bring in tons of low-quality traffic — traffic advertisers don’t want or care about  — but then sell it as the high-value traffic an advertiser clamors for. It’s the classic mullet strategy: business in the front, party in the back.”

Less obvious, but just as detrimental to a premium publisher, is the sort of content generated on sites like Demand Media and Bleacher Report. These sites scan the trends for topics of interest and then assign a (low-paid) writer to generate an article on the trending topic. That’s why it often seems as though everyone is writing about Benghazi, and then everyone is writing about Hurricane Sandy. These articles are reverse engineered from the headlines of other similar articles.

At ZEDO, we’d rather see high quality content paired with high impact advertising formats that reinforce one another and drive up  real engagement. For this reason, we think it might even be a good strategy to produce brand-sponsored content. As an advertising technology company that wants to add value at both ends of the ad tech ecosystem, we want our publisher partners to succeed by giving advertisers both content and formats that truly perform.


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