It's time for advertising to reward journalism properly
For journalist-turned-adman Dale Lovell, there are smarter ways to make the future of publishing better for everyone
For anyone familiar with search engine optimisation (SEO) the mantra for many years has been “create good content” - Google’s algorithm rewards content that people spend a lot of time with and generate lots of shares. But this wasn’t always the case.
Before this decade SEO was not a content game; it was technical. It relied on developer-style experts mapping sites and gaming the computer science behind the search algorithms. It became an industry worth billions - and it was based largely on building keyword based back links to particular sites and landing pages.
So sophisticated it became that with some specific tools, access to SEO networks and a modicum of expertise it was possible to easily rank highly for specific keywords. What this meant to Google was that they were being gamed. Their algorithm was compromised. It meant that it often wasn’t the best content or most relevant results that were flagged for searchers, but the best at flipping the algorithm to their needs. It was an existential threat to the relevance of the Google product.
Gaming platforms and optimising for performance has always happened and will always happen, but there’s a break point – a point when these processes threaten the existence of the platforms themselves.
So what did Google do?
They gutted the entire SEO industry. They turned it on its head with a series of algorithm updates: Panda and Penguin are perhaps the best known. They actively penalised sites that looked too optimised - and sites with a back link profile that screamed spam sites and ‘bad actors’ at play.
Duplicate content and short form content were cut, and factors that are harder to game like dwell times, shares and comments went into the mix. In short, their algorithm became harder to game. It grew up. It continues to move and change now.
But Google’s main message to the SEO industry since those days has been: create good content that people find interesting. If you want to rank well, content is now SEO king. And has been for a long time. Essentially, they meant think about your audience, not your end revenue goals and you will be rewarded.
What Google did well was take away any incentive to game it; in fact they penalised anyone that was caught doing just that. There were plenty of horror story delistings that occurred, where entire online businesses crumbled. Most SEOs no longer wanted to take the risk. So things changed.
Today, social media appears to sit at a similar juncture when it comes to fake news. It threatens the legitimacy of them. Fake news is a problem for the entire digital ecosystem, but social media platforms - given their reach - face more problems. The legitimacy of social media and digital publishers as a whole, as an environment for advertisers to spend their money, is potentially at risk.
The answer could lie with Google’s experiences with SEO. The mantra to content creators has to be the same - create good content. At a basic level platforms should look at:
1. Does a news story have collaborated sources?
2. Are other people running similar stories?
3. Is there a main reference source for the story, preferably a source such as a press release on a reputable website (academic institutions, or government websites for example, not Wikipedia or some other blog)?
These are basic journalistic rules anyone that has ever tried writing anything for publication should know.
When I wrote freelance pieces for The National Geographic Channel I had a dedicated staff editor in Washington who would rip anything uncorroborated with a reference from my writing. I learnt quickly that if I wanted to get paid I had to get my sources right.
And this is the same thing that social platforms need to do - take away the financial incentive. For all the noise about political motivation, fake news is driven by financial rewards. Macedonian teenagers are motivated by cash reward, not ideological support for Donald Trump.
Take away the incentive here with algorithm changes and the amount of fake news will fall. It will make spotting the bad actors at play for political reasons easier to spot, too. This does appear to be happening, with businesses like Facebook cracking down extensively on it and continuing to invest resource. But has it gone far enough?
The fake news website playbook
Earlier this year Facebook released a series of points for users to help them spot fake news. In principal these were great, but in practice – for those cynically minded - they offered a check list of things to pay lip service to if you want to create a fake news site and trick Facebook; it’s something of a fake news website playbook.
Google will be familiar with this situation: any new algorithm update is pounced upon by those looking to game it. Social media is relatively naïve here, it seems, compared to the avarice of the SEO market to game such search updates.
It needs to wise up. But how? Obviously admitting they are publishers and acting accordingly is not something these platforms want to admit. Head count for editors and regulation would be the death knell for such tech colossuses. So what should we do?
The editorial ‘gold standard’
For a start we could create an editorial ‘gold standard’ of publications that benefit more than others from social ads and traffic. It could be something akin to the very successful ads.txt adoption proposed by the IAB to verify programmatic advertising for publishers.
This would reward publishers that invest in quality content with more exposure, rather than reward the clickbait, sensationalised titles skimming the algorithm for gain.
But the above idea leaves social media open to criticism of bias. Which as a technology, not a publisher, no platform can show.
Time to champion journalists
So we will need to do more. While simultaneously boosting the credibility of publishers that follow basic journalistic principles, the digital economy needs to champion journalists themselves. This could, in my opinion, future-proof the media industry and encourage real-journalism.
Journalism is in crisis, paradoxically at a time when demand for content is incessant. Publishers big and small want more content. We consume more content today than at any time before. Brands devour it across all platforms for branded content and native advertising. It should be a win-win.
But content creators are not valued. Content – and many, many people hate the very term – is seen as a commodity or a utility like electricity. All content is the same value. Regardless of what that content is about. This is not true.
It’s not helped that there’s so much sh*t out there that it makes your eyes recoil in horror. It’s a digital disgrace that sees good journalists turn to other professions and good publications fail. It’s the business model, not the people, that needs to be changed.
It’s one of the reasons why we created ADYOULIKE – as a way to harness the user-experience of social media ads to support publishers on the open web. To provide alternative monetisation systems that reward good journalism. We are proud to be playing a part in this at ADYOULIKE.
What Could We Do?
The large social media platforms, publishers or ad-tech giants, could create something akin to a B2B iTunes of journalism open to all. It will need a big name to back it if it’s going to work. Adoption will need to be universal for success. They could create an accessible ‘cloud’ based platform that offers a marketplace for journalism to grow.
I’m sure many are working on something like this already – and I hope they are for journalism and the commercial media that underpins it, to continue to grow.
So how could it work?
Not sure, exactly. But maybe only premium journalists that have perhaps written at least 10 pieces or so for ‘gold standard’ publishers would qualify to submit their work. Or they would have to be published authors or an academic of a sort? They’d have to adhere to strict editorial standards and agree to critique/verify others content to stay in the marketplace – like a Wikipedia editor, of a sort.
What’s in it for the journalists?
Well, it could radically change the marketplace for journalism. All publishers would be able to access and bid for particular content - investigative journalists could submit their proposals for consideration and secure sponsorship ahead of costly research, for example; celebrity interviews could automatically, digitally, go to the highest bidder.
Publishers would be able to bid and buy exclusives. Columnists could be syndicated across multiple publishers and submit content to the highest bidder. Some of the above happens currently – but less fluidly, less digitally and more on a who-you-know-basis. This platform would open up the market for all.
What’s in it for publishers?
There’d be no excuse for publishers not accessing accurate content, from reputable creators. And those content creators could be rewarded for it too.
The economics of the newsroom would change too. Head counts will continue to fall, this platform offers a home to real journalists displaced.
Social media platforms could push this as a requirement for publisher inclusion. As a result publishers would adopt – legitimate publishers would be all too keen - or be starved of social traffic.
What’s in it for Advertisers?
Safety. In a word. Advertisers could insist on ‘fake news safety metrics’ similar to only bidding on ads.txt inventory that exists in the programmatic space today. This, again, would increase compliance and cut fake news: publisher behaviour follows cash incentives.
Those not interested in cash and not following the protocols would stand out more, potentially as politically-fuelled fake news entities – and be more easily identified if they were suspect. No advertiser wants to be associated with a platform or publisher perceived to be a disseminator of lies and stirring up hatred. This offers some additional safeguards.
The benefits are obvious: it puts power in the hands of good content creators that adhere to high standards, secures a better social media environment, and reinforces trust in the digital space that advertisers crave. It might just be a good thing for society too.
Dale Lovell is a former journalist and co-founder of native advertising technology ADYOULIKE. He is the author of Native Advertising: The Essential Guide, published by Kogan Page.