The Clickbait Report

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Introduction

ChangeAdvertising.org studied the top 50 news sites, 82% of which were using ‘content ads’ from vendors including Taboola, Outbrain, Revcontent and Adblade, amongst others. Our goal is to help inform consumers about what it is they are seeing, so they can make better decisions about brands, advertisers and online/mobile publishers. In this report we examine the specific look/feel of the advertisements and the nature of the website destinations that consumers reach when clicking on these ads. This study took place between 8/14/16 to 8/18/16. In the appendix below is a list of all the sites and images of the advertisements on each one.

Of The Top 50 News Sites, 41 (82%) Employ “Content Ads”

  • Of those, sites, 16 used Outbrain (39%), 23 used Taboola (56%), and 1 each used Revcontent and Adblade
  • We counted 370 advertisements across the 41 sites, an average of 9 per site

We examined 312 clicked links across 50 websites. We split these advertisers into the following categories:

  • Advertiser – appears to be a real advertiser trying to sell a product
  • Clickbait – articles with clickbait-type headlines, and many of which have more of these ads on them
  • Real content – primarily editorial content from large, branded publishers
  • Blog content – editorial/informational content from smaller, “blog-style” publishers
  • Fake news blog – sites employing fake functionality or other deception to give the appearance of being real content or a legitimate blog/consumer information source (sometimes using an “advertorial” label)
  • Quiz/Slideshow – quiz or slideshow sites that do not employ clickbait tactics
  • Broken site – sites that don’t load or were unreachable at the time we tested them

Of these links, only 46% went to what appeared to be legitimate advertisers, while 26% were clickbait sites:

percentage-sites

Of 26% That Are Clickbait, 89% From Anonymous Sites

Many of the websites that these ads directed to, were not well-known to us. We thus looked at WHOIS information to help determine who it is that is operating said website.  What we found there was a very high proportion of clickbait domains having anonymous registrations (using companies like Domains by Proxy, it means it is not easy for a consumer to see who the company or individual operating a certain website):

anon-sites-percent

A full 72 out of 81 clickbait “news” sites (89%) were anonymously registered. It is not unusual for some sites operated or owned by legitimate companies to be anonymously registered, but it does indicate a higher-than-average desire that the operators of these sites may have to remain hidden/anonymous: by comparison only 11.5% of the regular content links (blogs and news sites together) are anonymously registered, compared to just over a quarter (26.4%) of the regular advertiser websites. We believe these findings are more concerning when you consider that many of the clickbait sites we identified are themselves riddled with additional “content” ads from some of the aforementioned vendors. The ads on these clickbait sites do, however, have even less acceptable advertising disclosures, more sexually suggestive (NSFW) and interruptive images, and tend to feature ads with advertisers/clickbait websites of even lower quality powered by networks not as likely to show up directly on the top news sites, like RevContent, AdBlade and Content.ad. This certainly calls into question the monetary relationship between these vendors and the website operators, and whether they are directly related in some way or even wholly-owned by some of the vendors.

Example of Secondary Clickbait on chron.com

In the above example, when clicking on some of the ads that show up at the bottom of chron.com, we were directed to a series of clickbait websites that themselves housed a good number of additional ad units as pictured:

Details of Ads on All 50 Sites:

This is a summary of the list of sites we examined, which contains the count of ads and names of vendors used on each page:

No. Site Vendor Placement Ad count description Total Ad Count
1 Boston.com Taboola Bottom 6 6
2 The Blaze Taboola Bottom 6 image + 5 text only 11
3 The Daily Beast Outbrain Bottom 8 8
4 The Independent Taboola Right and Bottom 5 Right, 9 Bottom 14
5 Chicago Tribune None 0
6 SF Examiner Adblade Bottom 6 6
7 NY Post Outbrain Bottom 6 6
8 Salon.com Outbrain Right / Middle / Bottom 8 Right, 3 Middle, 6 Bottom image, 5 text 22
9 CNN Outbrain Right / Bottom 4 Right, 6 Bottom 10
10 SFGate Outbrain Bottom 4 image + 7 text 11
11 Los Angeles Times Taboola Bottom 6 6
12 Mirror Taboola Right / Bottom 4 Right, 9 Bottom 13
13 Bleacher Report Outbrain Right / Bottom 8 Right, 9 Bottom 17
14 Chron.com Outbrain Bottom 4 image + 7 text only 11
15 Vox.com Outbrain Bottom 3 articles + 1 ad 4
16 AL.com Taboola Bottom 6 6
17 The Telegraph Outbrain Bottom 10 10
18 The Atlantic Taboola Bottom 4 4
19 NBC News Taboola Right / Bottom 3 Right, 3 Bottom image, 5 text 11
20 Time.com Outbrain Bottom 8 8
21 Slate.com Outbrain Bottom 5 5
22 NJ.com Taboola Bottom 6 6
23 Vice.com None 0
24 MLive Taboola Bottom 6 6
25 Huffington Post Taboola Bottom 6 6
26 FOX News Outbrain Bottom 4 image + 6 text only 10
27 CNET None 0
28 CBS News Taboola Bottom 3 3
29 EliteDaily Taboola Bottom 6 6
30 Business Insider Taboola Bottom 10 10
31 Gawker.com Taboola Bottom Long 15 (mixed) 15
32 Upworthy None 0
33 Mashable Outbrain Bottom 9 9
34 Daily Mail Taboola Bottom 12 12
35 Techcrunch Taboola Bottom 3 3
36 The New York Times None 0
37 New York Daily News Taboola Right and Bottom 4 Right, 9 Bottom 13
38 BBC.com Outbrain Right 6 6
39 Buzzfeed None 0
40 Boston Globe None 0
41 Detroit Free Press Taboola Bottom 6 6
42 Mic.com None 0
43 The Washington Post Outbrain Bottom 6 6
44 US News Taboola Bottom 4 4
45 Engadget Taboola Right and bottom 8 8
46 USA Today Taboola Bottom page 6 6
47 MSN.com Taboola Bottom page 21 21
48 Yahoo.com None 0
49 The Guardian Outbrain Bottom page 8 8
50 Forbes Revcontent Bottom page 8 8

Confusing Disclosures Fall Afoul of FTC Guidelines

A wide variety of labels are employed to describe these blocks of ads, which may confuse the user as to their purpose, and it might fall afoul of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Native Ad Guidelines –
change-ads-results

 

Every Disclosure and >300 Click URLs, by Site

Here (in an XLSX file) is the disclosure language we saw on each site and the complete & actual click URLs for every ad we clicked on. In addition to the table above, in that spreadsheet for each news website you’ll see something like the following, from The Guardian’s row (Row 50). Note: unlike the list below, in the XLSX file we don’t write out the headlines from each ad, just the URLs in order from left to right and top to bottom as they connect with each sub-ad-unit:

This is what the ads on The Guardian website looked like:

50-guardian

If you want to see the image of what these ads looked like on each of the news sites’ pages at the time, visit the “Appendix: All the Ad Images” below.

Summary and Recommendations

Given that (a) over a quarter of all these ‘ads’ are pointing to sites positioning themselves as providing news or other information of consumer interest or value, but almost 90% of those entities are anonymously registered, and (b) their use is so widespread amongst top news publishers on the Web, and reportedly a large source of income for said publishers, more scrutiny is required of these companies. We suggest that:

  • Regulators should scrutinize and require disclosure of the financial relationships existing between these entities (e.g. vendor like Taboola and clickbait websites)
  • Content ads should have standard labeling across the board, and adhere to other FTC native advertising requirements they seem to be disregarding currently
  • Vendors should give tools to publishers to review every ad ever shown on their sites and let them disapprove any of them
  • Consumers should be able to provide feedback on each and every ad inline, and prevent each specific advertiser (including clickbait sites) from subsequently being served to them
  • Any use of targeting or cookie data in any of these ads should be disclosed and users should be able to opt-out inside of the ad unit
  • Vendors and publishers MUST distinguish visually (in a standard way) between units that are actual advertisers / or are secondary content sites
  • Require that the headline used in an ad match the headline on the landing page/site, for all users

Note, Change Advertising Inc. is a 501c3 nonprofit. Your donation is tax-deductible, please support our work!

Example: Clickbait Headlines Often Don’t Match Content

On one of the secondary clickbait websites (a site we got to by clicking on one of the ads on a top 50 news site, in this case it was from The Guardian as well), we saw a host of articles advertised by Revcontent, noted their headlines and then noted the headlines of the pages these clickbait ads directed to, as follows.

Ad headline Website headline
15 Scariest Looking People That Actually Exist Freaky Women You Wont Believe Exist
26 Hot Vacation Pics That Will Make You Look Twice 26 Weird Vacation Pics That Will Make You Look Twice
Embarrassing Dirty Photos You Must See Embarrassing Photos
17 Women Who Forgot The Camera Captures All 27 Women Who Forgot The Camera Captures All
More Kardashian Photos That Keep Shocking Everyone IT’S TIME FOR YOUR KIM KARDASHIAN NUDE PHOTOS UPDATE
30 Epic Brides You Must See 30 Epic Bridal Mishaps
Top 24 Most Embarrassing Pictures of 2015 Most Embarrassing Pictures Ever Captured
16 Examples of Pure White Trash 28 People Who Define White Trash
You Won’t Believe What Comes Next The Fappening (Part 2)
25 Epic Yoga Moments Caught on Camera Top Yoga Pants Of 2015. #18 Is AMAZING!
Best party pictures from Spring Break 2016 Best Spring Break Photos Of 2016
The Cameraman Just Kept Recording (PHOTOS) Best Perfectly Timed Photos!
Horrifying Woodstock Photos That Were Classified Rare Photos From Woodstock
Pictures That Hillary Clinton Wishes Would Go Away Pictures That Hillary Clinton Wishes Would Go Away
You Won’t Believe What Comes Next The Fappening (Part 2)
1 Weird Trick That Forces Your Eyes Into Perfect 20/20 Vision In Just 7 Days 1 Weird Trick That Forces Your Eyes Into Perfect 20/20 Vision In Just 7 Days
Walmart Cameras Captured More Than Expected (PHOTOS) The Best Worst Of Walmart
Embarrassing Dirty Photos You Must See Embarrassing Photos
10 Snapchats That Should’ve Been Deleted [ERRORED OUT]
17 Wicked Yoga Pant Fails The Most Drool-Worthy Yoga Pants Photos You’ve Ever Seen: Will You Love Or Hate #8?

Appendix A: All The Ad Images

Here are all the ads we tested from every URL, across all of the top 50 news sites (note: this is a LARGE page!)

Update 10/30/2016 – Here is a folder that contains all the images of the ads and also screenshots of the secondary clickbait websites.

Appendix B: Click URLs by Category and WHOIS Registration

This spreadsheet contains the click URLs we classified and where we looked up their WHOIS information. Note we relied on the vendors mentioned in the spreadsheet, and while we are confident that the spreadsheet is mostly accurate with respect to the WHOIS information presented at the time, we cannot be responsible for the accuracy of, or any subsequent or ongoing changes made to, WHOIS information.

An example row (28) contains:
a) The URL we examined from detonate.com
b) Our Classification thereof: Clickbait
c) Domain: detonate.com
d) Whois link: http://domaintools.com/detonate.com
e) Whois Registrant: Domains by Proxy
f) Status: Anonymous (or if it is not, we provide the registrant email address)

Appendix C: Methodology

ChangeAdvertising.org examined the top 50 news sites (list of sites based on this article from 2015 by the New York Times). Note: the only deviation from this list is that Forbes.com was added in place of NPR.org.

It found, amongst other things, that:

  • 41 of 50 (82%) sites employed “content ads”
  • Of those, sites, 16 used Outbrain (39%), 23 used Taboola (56%), and 1 each used Revcontent and Adblade
  • We counted 370 advertisements across the 41 sites, an average of 9 per site
  • Salon.com had the most on a single page, with 22 split across the right, middle and bottom of the page, including 5 text-only links
  • MSN.com sported 21 links, although 9 of them pointed to other articles/store pages on msn.com, and the two forms of ads were not differently marked, which could be confusing to the user

The sites that we examined may or may not have these types of ads on other pages than the ones we studied, but for the pages we looked at in the dates in question, the following websites did not employ these types of ads:

  1. Chicago Tribune
  2. Vice.com
  3. CNET.com
  4. Upworthy.com
  5. New York Times
  6. Buzzfeed
  7. Boston Globe
  8. Yahoo.com
  9. Mic.com

Copyright 2016, Change Advertising Inc. (All rights reserved)