Are legitimate news websites spreading fake news with widgets?

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December 29, 2016 by Paul Dughi

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Will Google start penalizing publishers for using Taboola or Outbrain?  Should they?

You may not know the names “Taboola” or “Outbrain” but you’ve no doubt seen their work.  These are two of the digital industry’s aggregators that typically mix paid sponsorships, native ads,  and click bait articles into a widget that gets posted at the bottom of stories you read.  You may have seen them posted as “Stories you may like” or “Around the Web.”  Taboola bills itself as the “World’s Largest Discovery Platform.”

So what’s the problem?  A lot of major, mainstream news organizations use them.

Full disclosure:  We’ve used them at my place, too.  So have most of my competitors.  In a era of “fake news,” I’m not sure it helps to load up sites with these kind of borderline spammy-type stories.  Why do it?  People click on them.  And when they click, the sites get paid.

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Barry Schwartz at SEO Roundtable posted this tweet from a Google Search analyst, Nathan Johns.  It could just be the hot take of someone at Google asking a question… but maybe it’s a conversation that should be happening on a larger scale.

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The Better Business Bureau took Taboola to task in the past for its failure to prominently disclose which posts are paid “native ads” or “sponsored content.”  The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been especially tough lately on how paid-for-articles are labelled.

RELATED:  Months after FTC posts native ad guidelines, most publishers are not following them

Taboola originally argued with the BBB that they weren’t an “advertiser” and not subject to its rules.  They lost.

“Even Taboola’s leads ‘From Around the Web,’ and ‘More from the Web,’ while not necessarily implying a recommendation from the publisher, can create consumer confusion as to why the links have been placed below the article.” – Better Business Bureau (via MediaPost)

Three major points here

  1. With the uproar over fake news, the stories posted on a publication’s website gives the impression that they are recommended by the website.  Based on the small sample I took, not many major publishers would be happy to say they recommended them.  But they do like the money they generate.
  2. They also bring in revenue for non-mainstream websites, including a lot of those in the “fake news” business.
  3. They are also used to spread the fake news stories onto legitimate websites.  Just look at some of those that show up in these “discovery platforms” and you know exactly what I’m talking about.

I’m not calling out anybody in particular.  These are just some of the biggest that I was able to check.  Business Insider, Bloomberg, USA Today, and The Daily Mail  are all listed as websites using the Taboola widget along with more than 98,500 other sites.

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A spot check I did of the top-rated sites showed the ad network on most of those making up the list.  Your results may vary.

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