For many businesses, SEO is a driving concern, and with good reason. Paid advertising is expensive and often out of reach for small businesses, and many “growth hacks” can stray into dark territory and put a site at risk for black hat penalties. You’re left with light-side SEO techniques as your options for growing a website in the long term, slow as those techniques may be. In fact, because they’re so slow, site owners tend to focus on every optimization they can get, just to make sure that growth is as rapid as possible.
The natural question to ask, then, is whether or not any given technique, plugin, ad network, or media you choose to use is going to help or hurt your SEO. One such possible implementation is the ad networks Outbrain and Taboola, so let’s take a look at them and see where they stand.
Taboola, Outbrain, Zemanta, and a few other copycats are ad networks that operate as boxes of native ads. You see them plastered all over mid- and low-tier news sites, clickbait sites, pages like The Weather Channel, and anywhere else a site can reliably get insane numbers of views with low or middling engagement.
I call them native advertising networks because the ads they display are designed to look as much like a “related post” widget as possible. If you use a related post widget, boxes will appear beneath or next to your posts with images, titles, and links to other posts on your site, generally generated by the widget rather than fixed like other internal links. Users feel comfortable clicking these because they know they’re other posts on your site.
Native networks like Taboola and Outbrain take advantage of this trust by throwing additional “related post” boxes with a small “sponsored” label, that take the user off your site and onto another site, the one paying to have their ad in circulation. Often times, these fake related posts have very clickbaity titles and images, leading you to wonder what they’re talking about, and clicking so you can find out.
There are a lot of potential problems with these networks.
1: They take advantage of user trust. These networks specifically sprung up as a way to monetize related post space, and due to the immense initial click through rates and conversion rates, tons of advertisers picked them up. The problem is, the advertisers need to stand out in a bank of 6-10 ads, so they have to make themselves as appealing as possible. This means they end up descending into clickbait techniques.
Users who trust you enough to click through internal links to see your related posts are going to feel burned when they click on something they thought you posted, only to find themselves on a site they don’t know or, worse, know and don’t like, looking at content that sucks and has nothing to do with their interests beyond curiosity. These users are less likely to click similar-looking links in the future, regardless of whether they’re sponsored or not, because the difference between them is so minor. It hurts internal traffic on your site in the long run, and it hurts everyone who uses related posts as more and more people are exposed to – and burned by – these networks.
3: The content they provide is generally low quality, clickbait, or spammy. You wouldn’t publish this kind of content on your site, but with a native ad network like the above, you don’t have much of an option to link to it.
You can’t really proactively filter hundreds or thousands of websites that might show up on your pages at any given time, and there’s always more detritus to take the place of what you filter. Frankly, I’m not even actually certain you can filter individual sites or posts through the ad networks. It makes sense to be able to, but life doesn’t always make sense.
An interesting side effect of the current native ad economy is that Taboola and Outbrain are kind of poisoning the well. They know what they’re doing; providing an outlet for massive amounts of low quality content and making a ton of money doing it. They aren’t going to stop unless they are literally destroyed by an outside force, particularly something like a Google algorithmic change. Don’t think for a moment that they don’t know what kind of content goes through their networks.
As massive examples of native advertising, they’re the first names everyone thinks of when someone is looking for a native advertising solutions. They attract more customers and keep growing. Meanwhile, they exert pressure on smaller copycats, to try to make it harder for them to compete. At the same time, the low quality content and the reduced repeated visits – as I mentioned up above – makes it a hard prospect to start up a competitor. It’s hard to get someone to implement native ads with a promise of high quality content when every example they find online runs counter to that.
Speaking of Google, what is their stance on all of this? They must not disapprove, since the networks still exist, right? If they absolutely tanked SEO, no one would want to use the networks.
Interestingly, Google has very little in the way of official statements regarding Taboola and Outbrain. They haven’t penalized sites using the networks, nor have they come out in favor of them. Google for sure knows that the content is generally spammy, but that’s not an issue for the publishers, it’s an issue for the content creators. If The Weather Channel runs Taboola and pushes a bunch of thin content to their readers, TWC isn’t going to be penalized for the content. The people who publish the thin content have to content with the likes of Panda.
There’s really only one mention from a Google representative that I can find, and it comes from Nathan Johns, who is a relatively quiet member of the search quality team. It’s a bit of an acknowledgement that he – at least internally – if not Google themselves view these ad networks as clickbait and spam. However, it’s not an official stance, it’s more of a sassy Twitter snap more than anything. You can read it here.
Outbrain has a pair of posts on their official blog about their effect on SEO.
The first and most recent post is this one. Here they talk about how the benefits to a site come not from SEO, but from traffic behavior and ad revenue. They put forth some evidence that their plugin neither benefits nor hurts SEO.
If all of this is accurate and the plugin is implemented properly, ideally there will be no impact on SEO, positive or negative.
The second, older post about SEO on Outbrain is this one. Essentially, it just makes the argument that you aren’t going to get SEO value out of their widget, and you shouldn’t get any penalties. They do show a bit of a more cavalier attitude towards it, however, and try to convince you that you shouldn’t worry about the SEO hit you might take using it, since you’ll get more benefit from the behavioral side.
The fact is, there isn’t really an SEO impact, but you have to consider what you’re getting out of the deal. Let’s divide it up into the perspective of the publisher running Taboola or Outbrain ads, and the advertiser paying for that exposure.
As a publisher running native ads like these networks, you are going into it with one goal in mind; make some money out of your traffic. You’re trying to monetize the eyes you have on your content. Since your related posts get a lot of clicks from your readers, you want to monetize those clicks.
The problem here is that those readers clicking these posts are now leaving your site. As this discussion on Moz indicates, this can be a bad thing. The kinds of users who read through a full post and want to click on a related post are the best kinds of users to have on your site. They’re high quality readers, engaged with your content, who want to see more. You’re taking this potential value on your site and throwing it out to another site you don’t know or care about. These aren’t just any site visitors, these are your best site visitors, tossed away.
Worse, even if or when those visitors return to your site, they’ll be a lot more hesitant to click on your related post links, regardless of whether they’re legitimate or not. You end up making less money from your ads over time, and losing the internal clicks of your potential customers, possibly losing conversions as well.
There is one situation where this can go incredibly well for you as a publisher. The Weather Channel is one such example. If you’re a site based around a task, where a user typically only visits one page and leaves, you have a lot of potential. These users would generally check the weather, note the information, and leave the site. With an implementation of something like Taboola, those users now leave the site through a clickbait vector, and rather than leaving with no benefit to TWC, they leave via a monetized click. It makes the site a lot of money and they don’t care all that much about internal clicks.
From the perspective of the advertiser, you have to consider the kind of traffic coming in. If you’re the one publishing low quality, thin, clickbait, or spammy content, the people coming in from decent sites seeing your content are probably going to be unhappy. Some of them may filter through clickbait links for a while and get you some pennies, some might click a stray affiliate link, but most aren’t going to do much more than leave. You’re spending money to poach the best readers from other sites, but they aren’t your best readers. They’re often offended at the betrayal of their trust. If you can monetize these people, more power to you, but most sites can’t do it effectively enough to justify the price of running those ads in the first place.