from the thanks-for-your-support dept
Let’s get a few things out of the way first: we are rarely aggressive in asking for support on Techdirt. Many other sites do complete takeovers or popups or have pleas for funding that take up half the screen. We don’t do that. However, every so often we do remind folks that we need support to keep running — so today I’m going to do that with what is hopefully an interesting story and a discussion on the kinds of things we won’t do for money.
If you haven’t yet heard it, I want to recommend a recent episode of the Reply All podcast entitled An Ad for the Worst Day of Your Life. It is quite an amazing story involving a guy whose wife died suddenly and unexpectedly a day after their daughter was born. That happened back in 2008, and the guy, Matt, was quite understandably distraught. He began blogging about his life as a widower and single father. The blog caught on and got more and more attention. Eventually, Matt decided the blog was no longer necessary, pulled it down, and moved on with his life.
Then, this year, just as he was about to get remarried, he suddenly started seeing ads with a giant picture of him — and his dead wife. Those ads were showing up everywhere, thanks to the various sites that include awful units full of “Stories From Around the Web” or “Stuff You May Have Missed” or whatever. You know what they look like. They’re always filled with the worst kind of clickbait crap imaginable. “Whatever happened to…” “Eat this if you want to live longer…” That kind of stuff. Here, I just randomly opened up a story on Google News, scrolled to the bottom and got this example:
They’re all over the damn place — and many publishers love them, because they pay a lot more than just about any other ads. The Reply All episode calls these “Chumboxes” — a term I’d not heard before — and then goes through the process of figuring out how Matt’s picture kept showing up in them. It’s convoluted, but involves content farms playing a weird arbitrage game of writing clickbait stories and then trying to attract traffic to sell their own ads. A story about a dead wife gets clicks. And that generates more fake stories about Matt and his wife and more ads and more clicks. It’s a huge mess of crap, but it pays incredibly well.
The two major companies who provide these things are Outbrain and Taboola. And they’re big. There are a few other smaller operations, but Outbrain and Taboola are the main ones. Outbrain has raised nearly $200 million and bought up many of its smaller competitors. Taboola has raised $160 million.
Here’s the thing: Taboola, specifically, has been after us to put these ads on our site for years. We told them no, and they kept coming back. We told them no again and explained that we think those ads are crap and are an insult to our readers (because they are). And the company said, “No, we have quality filters and we promise it’ll show good ads.” Eventually we said we’d take a look and ran a test with our content using their “quality filters.” And, guess what? The ads were still awful crap that would be insulting to you. So we told Taboola no. But they don’t let up. Every few weeks we get another request from Taboola. They email. They try to friend us on Linkedin. They try to friend us on Facebook. And we keep saying no.
Because, despite what some trolls will say about us doing anything that will get clicks or money, we have no desire for short term revenue that fucks over our community. Because we actually value you guys (even some of our critics). Using crappy services like Taboola and Outbrain shows a lack of trust and lack of respect for your community. It shows a level of short-term money-grab thinking that is insulting and disrespectful. And that’s too bad, because the concept behind Taboola and Outbrain could be good. If we could use a service like that which would actually take you to good and relevant information around the web, and get us paid at the same time, that would be great. Indeed, seven or eight years ago we partnered with a company that promised that. And then, a month later, they said they were no longer doing that and wanted us to do sketchy stuff. And we no longer work with that company.
We’ve talked before about how traditional banner ads — the kinds from Google AdSense, for example — have become next to useless over the last few years. The rates keep dropping to the point that they’re barely worth including at all. In fact, we’re exploring some new advertising programs that respect our community by not including any tracking technology at all, so if you happen to work for a company that wants to advertise in a respectful manner, please contact us.
All of that is to say: we try to respect the community here, even at the expense of revenue. And that sometimes makes things quite difficult. So we need to rely on you, our community, more and more. We try to be as respectful as possible. We don’t put up paywalls. We don’t complain if you use ad blockers. Hell, we let you turn off the ads on the site. But we also sometimes need to ask for support, and we’ve tried to make it possible to support us in many, many, different ways. We’ve now put up a page that lists out all the ways you can support us, from becoming an Insider (the easiest and most direct way to support us — and we’re working on some fun updates to that program), to backing us on Patreon, to buying one of our many t-shirt designs (more coming soon) to buying products from our deals store, from which receive a commission. We also have a partnership with Private Internet Access if you’re looking for a VPN.
We’re also just now launching a new job board in partnership with ZipRecruiter, and if you’re looking to hire someone and post a job there, it helps support us as well (also, if you’re looking for a tech job, go check it out).
Our goal, as always, is to build and support this community — but it does take some money to keep things going. We know that not everyone can support us monetarily and we do our absolute best to make the site and community work for everyone, without being annoying or intrusive. But that does mean that every once in a while we may need to remind you that we need your support and explain the way we think about these things.