It’s a Shame What Sponsored Content Has Done to the Internet Today

If the goal is to provide a “better web” why are sponsored content articles ruining the web browsing experience for most users?

You’ve seen the headlines, “These 70s Child Stars are Unrecognizable Now,” or “This Company Will Change Your Life Forever.” They’re called sponsored content recommendations and they typically appear at the end of your favorite blog post or news article as a native advertisement. The goal is to provide a better website experience for site visitors by allowing them to discover additional content that may be of value or interest.

But instead, sponsored content is typically perceived as low quality and spammy. Clickbait and sensationalism are typically the norm. In addition, the reader is usually directed to a low-quality website that sucks all your bandwidth and is so cluttered with display ads that the page is unable to load. The result is a bad user experience.

If the goal is to provide a better web experience, why would reputable websites like Bloomberg News or Time want to be associated with this type of rubbish?

The Perfect World vs The Actual World

In an ideal world, publishers would present valuable content recommendations to their audience. In turn, visitors to the publisher’s website would discover good content. This would lead to a good web experience for the visitor and a valuable introduction for the advertiser. Sounds pretty simple and effective, so why doesn’t it work that way?

What actually happens is this: readers are served spammy content that leads to low-quality websites. In turn, they are not getting the valuable content they are seeking, leading to a bad web experience. As a result, the website gets associated with spammy content and advertisers are unable to create good relationships with the audience because they aren’t offering anything of value.

If the current state of affairs is so bad, why do publishers and advertisers continue to serve such low-quality content? Because you keep clicking on it!

We Are Partly to Blame

Each time you click on one of those spammy headlines, the publisher is getting paid. The more clicks, the more revenue generated. This leaves publishers with a conundrum: continue to rake in heaps of cash at the risk of damaging their credibility; or do away with the clickbait and sensationalism and instead provide their audience with value through relevant content recommendations. While the latter certainly provides a better experience for the visitor, it won’t bring in the cash that clickbait and sensational stories can garner in the form of clicks.

There has to be a balance. First, we need to stop monetising ads based on clicks. Publishers have a financial motivation to get as many people to click on that link or ad as possible. This is the primary reason for the clickbait headlines and sensational images. They’re effective at getting people to click on the recommendation. But just because someone clicks a link, does not mean that the ad or campaign was effective. It just means that you are pretty good at getting someone’s attention.

For instance, I can get people’s attention too. I can scream and yell, act silly and weird and even lie to attract attention and get people to come check me out. But once they come over to visit and see what my deal is, they realize that I really don’t have anything to offer them, so they leave. Not only do they leave, but they’re probably also a little upset that they wasted their time with me.

The same is true online. There’s lots of things you can do to attract attention and get people to check you out, but if they get to your website and realize that you were just blowing wind and have nothing compelling to offer, they too will leave with a bad experience.

The Transparency Issue

Second, there needs to be more transparency with the sponsored article recommendation. For one, it should be clear that it is a “sponsored” article to ensure publishers aren’t tricking or misleading readers into thinking it’s original content. This also helps to solidify the website’s reputation with the visitor.

In addition, headlines need to be more transparent. The reader should know exactly what they are getting into when they click on that headline. They shouldn’t be deceived by clickbait headlines.

The bottom line is that these sponsored content recommendations are really providing little value to advertisers, consumers or the Internet as a whole. The only reason they continue to flourish is because publishers are seeing big payouts and advertisers are seeing big spikes in traffic. Unfortunately, because that traffic was tricked into visiting the site, the consumer is typically left with a bad experience and is likely to bounce or spend very little time on site, much less convert.

The goal is NOT about getting lots of traffic back to a website. It’s about providing a good browsing experience and creating a “better web” for everyone. You certainly can't do that based on deceit.