Quality over crap

We keep looking at the problems of fake news and crap content — and the advertising that feeds them — through the wrong end of the periscope, staring down into the depths in search of sludge when we could be looking up, gathering quality.

There is a big business opportunity to be had right now in setting definitions and standards for and creating premium networks of quality.

In the last week, the Guardian, ad agency Havas, the UK government, the BBC, and now AT&T pulled their advertising from Google and YouTube, complaining about placement next to garbage: racist, terrorist, fake, and otherwise “inappropriate” and “offensive” content. Google was summoned to meet UK ministers under the threat they’ll exercise their European regulatory reflex.

Google responded quickly, promising to raise its standards regarding “hateful, offensive and derogatory content” and giving advertisers greater control over excluding specific sites.

Well, good. But this seems like a classic case of boiling the (polluted) ocean: taking the entire inventory of ad availabilities and trying to eliminate the bad ones. We’re doing the same thing with fake news: taking the entire corpus of content online and trying to warn people away from the crap.

So now turn this around.

The better, easier opportunity is to create premium networks built on quality: Not “we’ll put your ad anywhere except in that sewer we stumbled over” but instead “we found good sites we guarantee you’ll be proud to advertise on.”

Of course, this is how advertising used to work. Media brands produced quality products and sold ads there. Media departments at ad agencies chose where to put clients’ ads based on a number of factors — reach, demographic target, cost, and quality environment.

The net ruined this lovely, closed system by replacing media scarcity with online abundance. Google made it better — or worse, depending on your end of the periscope — by charging on performance and thus sharing risk with the advertisers and establishing the new metric for value: the click. AppNexus and other programmatic networks made it yet better/worse by creating huge and highly competitive marketplaces for advertising inventory, married with data about individual users, which commoditized media adjacency. Thus the advertiser wants to sell boots to you because you once looked at boots on Amazon and it doesn’t much matter where those boots follow you — even to shite like Breitbart…until Sleeping Giants comes along and shames the brand for being there.

So why not sell quality? Could happen. There are just a few matters standing in the way:

First, advertisers need to value quality. There has been much attention paid to assuring marketers that their ads are visible to the user and that they are clicked on by a human, not a bot. But what about the quality of the environment and its impact on the brand? In our recent research at CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center, we found that brands rub off both ways: users judge both media and brands by the company they keep. This is why it is to the Guardian’s benefit to take a stand against crappy ad adjacencies with Google — because The Guardian sells quality. But will advertisers buy quality?

Second, there’s the question of who defines and determines quality. Over the years, I have seen no end of attempts to automate the answer to this question, whether by determining trust in news or quality in media. Impossible. There is no God signal of trust or virtue. The decision in the end is a human one and human decisions cost money. Besides, there is no one-size-fits-all definition and measurement of quality; that should vary by media brand and advertiser and audience. Still, the responsibility for determining quality has to fall somewhere and this is a hot potato nobody — brands, agencies, networks, platforms — wants because it is an expensive task.

Third, there’s the matter of price. Media companies, ad agencies, and ad networks will need to convince advertisers of the value of quality and the wisdom of paying for it, returning to an ad market built on a new scarcity. With fewer avails in a quality market — plus the cost of monitoring and assuring quality — the price will rise. Will advertisers give a damn if they can still sell stuff on shitty but cheap sites? Will the cost of being humiliated for appearing on Breitbart be worth the premium of avoiding that? On the other hand, will the cost of being boycotted by Breitbart when the advertiser pulls ads there be worth the price? This is a business decision.

I always tell my entrepreneurial students that when they see a problem, they should look for the solution, as an engineer would, or the opportunity, as an entrepreneur would. There are many opportunities here: to create premium networks of quality and trustworthy news and content; to create mechanisms to judge and stand by quality; to audit quality … and, yes, to create quality.

Our opportunity is not so much to kill bad content and bad advertising placements and to teach people to avoid all that bad stuff but to return to the reason we all got into these businesses: to make good stuff.

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  • Good ideas, Jeff.

    Running to a meeting, so this has to be brief. At least one advertising network has been making a go at this idea for some years: The Deck.


  • It’s that old cognitive dissonance bifurcation, Jeff. Folks say they WANT quality news, but track their clicks and… well, it’s like saying folks want to eat healthy or even think they do, but if you really track what they eat, well… unfortunately in our Blame Society, we believe the News We Want to Hear is quality, the opposing views are “fake news.” So good luck wid dat;-)

  • js

    Your article is deeply frustrating to me. I think to myself, we had this! We had a network that valued quality over crap! It was working! It was 1980(ish)!

    Suggestions to industry to fix the Crap vs Quality ratio on the Internet:

    1. Get rid of blanket advertising – The advertising industry seems to think that I am not capable of researching the things I want to buy. If I want to buy a tool box I will go to a search engine and search for tool boxes. I will engage the communities that talk about tool boxes. I will research tool boxes and find the one I want and go buy it. In fact I am the best source of knowing when I want to buy something and researching what I want. So a note to ad agencies stop trying to predict me because your not good at it. Really, give up on this notion of personally targeted advertising and relevancy. Its a waste of your time and more importantly your consumers time.

    2. No ads in search engines, no sponsored ads – these activities corrupt the quality of a search engine in fact the value of the search engine is not tailoring the results to the user but to the topic of the search. The search engine should strive to return the highest quality purest search results as based on the search term or topic. Searching for tool boxes should not also return ads for pickup trucks. Paying for search result placement is reprehensible. Even if its clearly marked its still noise in the search results. And if your a search engine (This is aimed at you Google) be transparent about how your search algorithms work.

    3. No tracking – I don’t need to be tracked. Nor do I really want to be. I have heard many arguments for tracking and tracking cookies but none of them came close to being justified beyond a profit motive. Remember cookies were originally designed to maintain state in a web site organizational structure and nothing more.

    4. Make quality content the focus. There are news and information outlets that I read which have demonstrated a high value on the quality of their information WSJ, New York Times, Scientific American are examples. And while they sometimes make a mistake they have demonstrated an effort to produce high quality content that is well sourced, researched and reviewed. I realize there is a cost to this and I am willing to pay for it that is why I still get the newspaper. There is no reason to think I wouldn’t pay for an online source I find as useful. I come to Jeff’s blog because I am interested to read what he has to say not because I am interested in “Hosting with Site Builder” that ad is just noise to me wasting my bandwidth. Lets assume for a moment that you discovered a justified reason for advertising on the web then I would say the following rules should apply to putting an ad on your web page. 1)advertising should occupy no more than 10% of the page and no pop-ups or auto-play anything, 2)no covert tracking, cookies or otherwise 3)no native advertising or embedded advertising, be absolutely clear about whats content and whats an ad. All of these things help drive the focus to the content.

    5. Do quality work, produce quality content. So much of the content on the Internet is re-hashed, regurgitated, or just plain copied from other sources. If your a content creator do quality original work.

    6. Respect your customer. This is a biggy. How do you respect me as a customer? by valuing my time and my resources. You do this by being honest and upfront about who you are and how you do things and who pays you. Transparency and honesty is key to building trust and respect. Assume that I am intelligent sincere consumer. Value my privacy. Don’t pander to me. When you make a mistake, admit it, be open about it and correct it.

    These are suggestions and they are in no particular order and they are not all inclusive. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t want to be treated in a manner consistent with these suggestions listed above.

    However, its not all content creators fault. Here are some suggestions for “the public”, the “Internet consumer”.

    1. Treat others with respect.

    2. Practice some common sense and some critical thinking. Seek facts and truth not just ideas and opinions that validate your own notions.

    3. Value quality content. Pay for it, subscribe to it and hold it accountable, respectfully.

    4. Stop clicking on or watching the ads. Stop just accepting that this is the way the Internet has to be.

    5. Engage in your communities when its appropriate and in an appropriate fashion.

    Its a start…

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