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HOW FAKE NEWS COULD HELP FIX ONLINE ADVERTISING

January 5, 2017
January 5, 2017
Photo: Natalia Ostashova via Unsplash

Regardless of where any of it falls politically, fake news is a disturbing, yet fascinating phenomenon. But for all of the uproar, I find it interesting that anyone is terribly surprised by its allure, reach, or success—because the groundwork has been laid for years.

Ah, clickbait. It comes in many forms and with different monikers: display advertising, behavioral marketing, re-marketing, re-written or aggregated news. At it’s core, it’s nothing more than placing value on position (and of course, clicks) over everything else. My disdain for it goes back almost two decades, and began in 2000 when I was an editor for a then-relevant Yahoo! Directory. We began a pay-for-review program called Yahoo Directory Submit. For fee, you could submit your site to a desired category, have a human review its content for quality and relevance, and if approved, decide where it belonged in the taxonomy. The “relevance” of a site was determined by a person, and mainly defined by the relationship the site and its content had to a place in the hierarchy. Quality was a grey area, but we were pretty comfortable determining the relative value of a site to our audience. To borrow a phrase from Jacobellis v. Ohio with regard to crappy content, “we knew it when we saw it.”

Systems don’t need to be in place very long before people start to manipulate them to try to gain some sort of advantage. Because the directory was an alphabetical list, users began to submit their businesses with titles like “AAAAAShipping Company,” then “1111AAAAShipping Company” and “!!!!1111AAAAShipping Company.” When we cracked down on this and demanded people use their real business names, people registered their businesses and URLs with absurd titles. Needless to say, this made for really lousy-looking categories, flooding pages in a way that made discerning quality from non-quality that much more difficult for users.* It’s important to note that while I’m focusing Yahoo! directory placements (which probably seems like an archaic concept now) at the time, acceptance did help with search visibility, as well.

Offering sponsored listings up above the alphabetical list eventually helped curb the practice to some degree. Shortly thereafter, Google effectively buried full-on human curation with its relevancy algorithm, but such was my indoctrination to clickbait and placement wars. The fight for eyeballs continued with banner ads, and those eventually added insufferable Flash animation.

Editorial sites eventually got into the game by having low-paid writers create tons of poorly-written content simply to get clicks, selling dubious audience metrics to advertisers to get them to part with gobs of cash for campaigns measured in “likes” and “impressions.” It’s like a snake that’s eating itself, but somehow it never finishes the job. I’ve been in rooms as director-level people get all hot and bothered over the 3 million impressions they paid for, not having any clue that an impression is just an opportunity to be seen somewhere among the Universe of Crap on whatever platform they’re dying to get exposure on. No one ever asked about the actual click rate or any other ROI, and most certainly, no one offered it up.

So, if businesses fetter away millions on programs with claims and returns that are, at best, mysterious and low quality, and, at worst, deceptive and unethical, why wouldn’t it follow that people that would click, consume, and internalize “news” headlines and content with the same standards and attributes?

Technology keeps evolving and people’s willingness to casually give away their information has only grown, and so too have the promises of demographic targeting and personalization. Frankly, I don’t know anyone who isn’t at least a little creeped out by being served an ad for something they looked at the week before, or sent someone an email about—yet I constantly hear from ad companies that users prefer a browsing experience that is “tailored” to them. Apparently, as a justification for serving up schlock masquerading as slightly-better-than-schlock. Or sometimes displaying decent content that gets cheapened by things like silly titles (“You’ll never guess what happened when…”).

Fake news influenced our national media and political process enough that the platforms like Facebook and Twitter—that provided legions of lying liars the medium, the blind eye, and/or the opportunity to build audiences (real or purchased)—are now forced to confront the impact that false or deceptive information has. Whether it’s designed to get someone to read, act, or simply click, the danger of misinformation seems to have finally become tangible. But that awareness is at least a little bit encouraging.

Some wishes for 2017: That the halls will be decked with a little bit of sense. That Interweb gatekeepers will grow the onions and show the leadership necessary to say no to patently false or misleading information being distributed on their networks. That businesses will educate themselves, start to ask questions about ROI, and demand as much measurable performance as they can from their advertising partners, and quality from themselves. That content consumers will wake to the fact that they don’t really need to click to find out that one weird trick that will get rid of their belly fat. It only feeds the beast.

*I’d be remiss not to mention link farms and hidden hyperlinks, too. Ah, ye good olde days of search algorithm manipulation.

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