Very interesting post from Felix Salmon about Outbrain, a site that suggests content for its readers. Bonus points to Felix for his opinion about the value of driving people to great content, not only because I agree but also because my future employment will depend on lots of other people believing this. Thanks, Felix! But on to the post:
These links are weakly personalized for me — they change according to what stories I’ve read recently on All Things D, but not according to what stories I’ve read recently on other Outbrain partner sites.
The links on the left are designed to maximize my engagement on the All Things D site — rather than reading this one story and then going elsewhere, I’m going to see some other story I want to read, and stay on their site, building up my loyalty to the site and the number of pageviews they get.
The links on the right are news stories from a range of media outlets, including very respectable ones like Wired alongside a slightly crappy listicle at a blog you’ve never heard of. Those sites are paying for traffic; when I click on one of those links, the site in question pays Outbrain some money, which Outbrain then shares with All Things D.
The reality is that while I’m far more likely to click on an Outbrain link than I am to click on an ad, the links the company serves me — especially the external links — tend to be underwhelming. I’m sure that Outbrain’s algorithms are extremely sophisticated, but give me a human-powered curation site any day (ahem) over a list of stories from places like Top Stock Analysts.
And then Felix asks:
Essentially, the question is this: can algorithms really compete with humans when it comes to finding great links?
No. Not for my money. And I do say that as someone who already reads enough stuff to the point where I pause to click on something outside of my RSS-mandated reading for the day, let alone add another site to Google Reader, but still. More than anyone, I trust myself to find content that I want to read and I’ve got plenty of sites to choose from.
Beyond that, though, my next choice is like everyone else’s: WOM from people I trust, whether they be Facebook friends, front-pagers on a blog that I read or a commenter whose opinions I usually find persuasive. Felix gets at this with his shameless plug about Counterparties and he’s absolutely right. It doesn’t surprise me that an algorithm, no matter how sophisticated, fails to provide people with content that draws them in.