Can nRelate Cut Down the Noise in Web Content Recommendations?

“Click bait” runs rampant on some Web pages these days, much the way ads cover paper placemats at some diners.

In the margins of many media sites, it is common to find suggested stories and promoted links that have nothing to do with the material that originally brought the reader there. The (over)use of eye-catching photos and headlines on the Web is not new, and plug-ins that recommend content have been around for a while.

Despite the grumblings, candid celebrity photos and other click bait persists because it drives up online traffic—even if it is out of context. “[The recommendations sector] has been an ad-driven model, as opposed to a user-driven model,” says Neil Mody, CEO and co-founder of nRelate in New York.

He thinks Web publishers now want more balanced control over the sponsored content that gets pushed at their readers. NRelate, owned by IAC, is a service that, like others in its space, suggests stories and other material as people view Web sites. Rivals in this market include Outbrain, Taboola, and Contextly.

Content recommendation software typically uses an algorithm to pick stories and advertorials to promote on media websites. Such software tends to choose material that gets clicked the most, and that can mean inappropriate or unrelated links might get suggested. Mody says sometimes publishers do not have much say in what gets promoted on their sites, leaving it in the hands of the software. “It’s a black box; you don’t know what’s going to show up,” he says.

NRelate offers a dashboard for publishers to better target the promoted content on their sites. They can set the categories of suggested content, whether to use editorial or advertising material, and how “mature” the content is. A slider on the dashboard lets publishers decide how tame or risqué the recommendations will be. That means publishers can still choose to run click bait through nRelate, but Mody says readers have a widget that lets them give feedback on how appropriate the material is.

Competition is intensifying in this sector because Mody and others see an opportunity to drive ad revenue by boosting online traffic. “Getting people to where they want to be on the Internet is uber-valuable,” he says. “Google does that, Facebook does that, and we do that too in a distributed way on sites.”

For better or worse, some media websites have become akin to tabloids running most anything that gets readers’ attention. “Suddenly every publisher has this style of stuff going on under their articles now,” says nRelate co-founder Oliver Wellington. “It’s there because people are clicking on it, but it’s not necessarily helping the perception of publishing.”

A graduate of the NYU Poly Tech Incubator, nRelate was founded in 2009. Initially the company tried to emulate the business models of its peers by selling its services to big media companies—but Mody say they had trouble making headway. “We changed gears to focus on the blogosphere,” he says.

Early on, nRelate raised some angel funding, but Mody saw the challenges of growing alone in this sector and in 2012 accepted an acquisition offer from Ask.com, an IAC company. Some 100,000 websites, along with IAC-owned companies such as The Daily Beast, currently use nRelate.

Mody says nRelate’s next step to build up its overseas presence sometime late next year. Even with his software, publishers still must decide if running salacious promoted content, to get higher click-through rates, is worth the reputation it garners. “The simplest example is a cleavage shot when you’re reading a serious story,” Mody says. “That’s the big issue with the space.”

 

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