The following is a guest post from Yaron Galai, the CEO of Outbrain. Read more about MediaShift guest posts here.

Content discovery has become essential to publishers in recent months, and it’s worth exploring the reasons behind its explosive growth and near universal adoption and the dangers that publishers face when abusing the format by preferring short-term financial gain over long-term user trust.

My passion is for journalism, and my introduction to it was through print newspapers and magazines, which is probably different from future generations of readers. But I believe there are fundamental shared experiences, regardless of the platform, and chief among them is the feeling of a reader hungering to discover what’s next. In print, that act of discovery was defined by turning the page. It’s a powerful habit that is created when each of us can trust that turning the page over will lead to discovering interesting, authentic content.

Stock photo.

Stock photo.

I think it’s this habit that has been behind the explosion of content discovery platforms like ours (Outbrain). Content discovery is now a staple of nearly every publisher, where you’ll recognize sections with titles like “Related links” or “You might also enjoy” with links to recommended articles or content. This can be in-stream, on the sidebar, on the bottom of articles, etc. The concept of content discovery has, of course, spread to videos and is widely used on mobile sites.

It’s become nearly a requirement for publishers to install a content discovery platform precisely because the practice of “flipping through to the next article/video” is so popular with their audience. Publishers know that by offering these services, they keep readers engaged on their own site, and are able to create additional revenue through ads. As I’m sure a savvy readership like MediaShift’s is aware that some of the suggested links are paid considerations. This creates a new revenue source for publishers and a new way for marketers to reach an audience with a tool that is more likely to interest and engage. But if not used with care, it also brings with it its own potential hazards, which publishers need to be vigilant about.

All Is Not Wine And Roses

Within those paid links lie dangers for a publisher concerned about its reputation and how it impacts long-term viability. A reader’s relationship with his or her favorite site is somewhere between transactional and loyal. Readers acquire a taste for a publisher because of its content, but eventually, that relationship becomes more intimate, and those readers visit the site because they identify with it and see it as an ally, as a tool.

The trouble starts when those serving content recommendations take advantage of people’s trust and their habits by pulling some of the “tricks” that can fool people to click on those recommendations and create a quick buck.

For example, there are “stories” promoting sites that sell get-rich-quick schemes or miracle pills that will help you “lose 17 pounds in 30 minutes.”  These are a plague for our industry — these stories obviously create little real value for the user as they are usually not authentic or trustworthy. However, they pay.

They pay so well because they’re misleading and can trick readers into an impulse decision that will eventually disappoint them. Granted, the click provides revenue for a publisher, but that revenue stream is short-term and is damaging to the long-term sustainability of that publisher. The relationship with the audience becomes fraught, and they are most likely to associate your publication with their being duped.

You Are What You Recommend

At Outbrain, we maintain strict content guidelines to guard against tarring publications with ads that deceive. But this is less about a pitch for our services than it is a call for publishers to understand the importance of their relationship with their audience, who associate the values of a publication with the values of the ads — and the content recommendations — they are served. If the content they discover through your site fills them with negative feelings, your reputation will suffer and long-term user loyalty will crater. Moreover, as an industry, if too many publishers allow the abuse of content discovery with tricks like this, people will develop “blindness” to content recommendations everywhere, including on publishers that respect the user, just like we did with banner advertising awhile back.

Stock photo.

Stock photo.

Content discovery is a magical tool. When done right, it’s a win-win-win: Audiences enjoy discovering content with the “flipping through” experience that was a hallmark of my youth, publishers can engage their readers and point them to new and exciting content, and marketers can reach readers in a way that they are more likely to pay attention to. As long as publishers are vigilant about the content they allow on their sites, we’ll be able to grow together. We encourage publishers to remind themselves as the explosion of content discovery changes the revenue model for their sites that their only constituent is their reader, and not to be seduced by quick, short-term financial gain with sub-par content.

Yaron Galai is Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Outbrain. Prior to founding Outbrain, Mr. Galai was Co-Founder, SVP of Quigo, Inc., a provider of performance-based marketing solutions for advertisers and premium publishers. He previously served as the CEO of the company for three years. Quigo was acquired by AOL in December 2007. Previously, Mr. Galai was Co-Founder & VP Business Development at Ad4ever, a developer of rich-media advertising technologies for the web which was later acquired by Atlas (a division of aQuantive). Earlier, he was the Founder of NetWorks Web Design – an SEO and web design firm. At NetWorks he oversaw the production and search engine optimization of over 30 websites. Mr. Galai studied industrial design at the Holon Technological Institute, and is a Major (reserve) officer in the Israeli Navy.