Friday, August 27, 2010

The conflict of interest in content sites

Getting used to a page like this, even from highly respectable sites like is a common affair these days.

What you see is the whole view above the fold, on my high resolution laptop. Other than the title, I dont see anything relevant to me on the page, above the fold. is not alone here, in undermining the interests of their visitors versus their monetary compulsions. Most often they dont have a choice, since serving ads is their only monetization model.

These sites:

  1. Need their readers to be satisfied with their content, presentation and experience - for them to come back, spread word-of-mouth, and be influenced.
  2. Need their readers to click on those mostly intrusive and out of context ads - for them to make money.
This is a conflict of interest, a death spiral. Readers develop ad-blindness, install tools like adblock, or just do skim reading. The publisher increases the size of the ad widget, puts them higher in the article, to make them more prominent. The people who make a success for its quality, are most likely not the people helping it make money.

Publishers need a better monetization model than this. Readers deserve a better experience than this.

This article details using eye tracking studies, how users tend to skim over ad regions, carefully look for regions of text. The same study also details how reading behavior is different in search engine results.

Advertising drives the publishing industry

Nitin Srivastava, an expert in online publishing, had an interesting thought about the publishing world. He said, "they deliberately package the content unattractively (fonts, visuals) so that the ads get better attention." This came as a surprise to me. I remember a session with an editor from a leading news paper during my Google News days. He had said, "The ads first fill out the newspaper, and then comes to us editors. We then find appropriate content to fill the gaps."

The online publishing industry may not be far. The content farms are hard at work analyzing "tail queries" that have "ad potential" and long shelf life, and then get contractors to write skeletal, often mediocrely researched articles on those topics. They concentrate on massive SEO to lure those innocuous searchers. Now, is it surprising that they monetize very well? Their content is worse than the ads Google AdSense serves up on their pages. Visitors are happy to click away!

Yearning for a better reading experience

In my first meeting with Ashish Gupta, he had an insightful observation that has lingered on. He said (re-phrased), "A successful product ensures that its monetization model does not disrupt the normal usage model." This is deep! Imagine:

  1. What is the primary user behavior on a search result page? To inspect links, decide on a relevant one based on the search query and snippets, and lo, click! Is there anything different you do with AdWords? You look at an ad, and you click. Infact, in the spammy world, many ads are more relevant than the top queries. Have you tried a query like "car insurance" lately? AdWords is useful, and does not disrupt what the user expects to do.
  2. What is the primary user behavior when he goes shopping? To inspect a product, compare it with others, pick up related products, and always feel in control of decision-making. Now, Amazon allows exactly that - shows competing products and related products. Amazon makes most of its revenue by cross-selling. A customer who went for one, ends up doing collateral shopping and buys many.
  3. What is the primary user expectation when he watches TV? He wants to get entertained. He watches sports, sitcoms, comedies, movies - all just to get entertained. Now, if its interspersed with ads that are entertaining, will he complain? I've often found kids keep busy with toys when the sitcom runs, and watch TV when the ads start. Whats so interesting? They find the colors vivid, sounds diverse, and pace racy. They are hooked - until the same ad repeats a zillion times making you grab that remote - and bounce!
Now, what is the user expectation when he lands on an article page?
  • He wants to read the article! Now everything you saw on that snapshot was preventing me from reading. No wonder click-ads monetization is not the best.
  • He wants to drop off to something else, if he finds the article boring. He stills expects to read something else.
  • After reading, he wants to share - probably a snippet, or an annotation, to his network on facebook or twitter.
Can we have a monetization model for content sites that aligns with the user expectation?
  • Sponsored articles - Outbrain, Zemanta and Lijit, two companies in the content recommendation, and site search space, have been promoting a business model around pushing sponsored articles to relevant contexts in their "inventory".
  • Pay per share - How about pay per share, instead of a pay per click? The advertiser pays the ad network, only if his tweet, snippet, nugget, or article title gets shared to the readers' network.
Both these models preserve user expectation. The first very much conforms to his quest to read. The second one conforms to the best expression of a satisfied reader. No conflict of interest between monetization and experience.

In our startup, Dhiti, we are gung-ho about the latter. Pay per share will make advertisers write useful content, that users deem share-worthy. Eg: Toyota will invest in writing about their latest hybrid technology breakthrough - many nuggets from which people will love and share. Success or leads are not just accomplished by link-baiting users, but actually writing stuff they love to read and share. Wont that put sanity back into our beloved web? A pipe dream!


  1. Great article and I agree on the publisher monetization part.

    I have been in touch with adsense team (who advises on all these placements, though we show larger ads after 4 days of the article), and my observation is that most of ad networks are good at monetizing bollywood sites, but not niches.

    *something else needs to be done for the niche content site* :)

  2. Thanks Ashish for providing your insights on the article. Some thoughts on your observations:

    i) Your most valuable traffic (in terms of user quality) for a given article is for the first 4 days. These are users who are directly hooked onto your site. They subscribe to your RSS feed, listen to you on twitter, most likely share your links on facebook and orkut. AdSense is very unsuitable for these "hooked" users. The direct advertisers you have would probably be your best monetizers. You also have the choice to hand pick them, or even have other strategies like pay-per-lead generation. Even sponsored articles may work well. But all of this means work - in areas you may not have expertise on. The idea of "outsourced monetization" needs to work well for the loyal readership.

    ii) Beyond the first 4 days, most of the traffic you get will be from search engine referrals. These are random surfers - mostly click happy. AdSense may monetize better with them. Since you say Bollywood articles monetize better for you, do you want to lead all search referrals to your Bollywood articles? ;)

  3. Bharat - You raise some good points. On your point about asymmetric revenue models, here is a presentation from CEO that I had found intriguing which discusses the same. BTW, was recently acquired by Google. While not directly relevant to content sites, their lead gen model is relevant to e-commerce sites. - Youtube video - Slide deck.