Taboola, the startup that works with hundreds of publishers to provide a set of links at the bottom of pages directing readers to more content on the site and elsewhere, has long positioned Facebook as the big competitor.
Consumers scanning articles on Facebook, especially on mobile, are less likely to ever visit a publisher's own site, even more so now with the introduction of Instant Articles that keep readers essentially inside the Facebook experience: hence the push to create more links at the bottoms of stories to try to keep readers engaged and in your own network sphere.
Now, in an ironic twist, Taboola is launching a new format that could be summed up as "if you can't beat them, join them". As an alternative to its existing grid of links, Taboola wants now to feature content recommendations in the form of a continuously scrolling list, its own take on, yes, Facebook's news feed.
The new format is launching first with the New York Daily News before getting rolled out to other publications.
The new Taboola news feed essentially consolidates a number of widgets and links you already have on websites, specifically publishers' websites, into a larger feed experience: alongside the links to other articles on your own site, and those of other publications in the Taboola network, you will see cards for other services like the weather, videos, and marketing cards for in-app purchases, sponsored content and more -- additions that have in part been made possible by some of Taboola's recent acquisitions like ConvertMedia and Commerce Sciences.
The germination for adding a news feed comes from the fact that Taboola doesn't feel like its set of links are a solution, as much as they are part of an ongoing problem.
"Today, when you look at publishers’ sites, it’s a shitshow," Adam Singolda, Taboola's founder and CEO, said in an interview. "You have the right rail, at the bottom you have Taboola, you have newsletter widgets, and commenting and navigation bars. And in mobile it’s even worse." He said that Taboola's tests have found that the average user reads one article and then just goes back to Facebook. "Engagement becomes horrible because the experience is really bad."
In trying to figure out how to solve that problem, Taboola -- which is based in New York but was founded in and still operates in Israel -- has taken a page from the new guard of cybersecurity companies: the best way to combat a threat today is to put yourself (or your security system) in the mindset of that threat.
"Even though I have a lot of issues with Facebook they are doing something well, the news feed," he said. "Scrolling down you are presented with different cards -- images or posts or links or videos or ads -- but it's a consistent, ongoing experience. Users don't have to get to know Facebook all over again each time something new is introduced, and so they keep scrolling, for an hour or more a day."
The ideal, he said, is to get the 1 billion or so people who see and (potentially) click on Taboola links to spend more than 3 seconds on a page: to move them to three minutes, and perhaps one day to three hours. This is especially relevant in markets where mobile is the primary platform for media consumption and browsing. Singolda said that today in the U.S. and Western Europe, about half of the readers across its network are on mobile. In parts of Asia, that proportion is 90 percent.
Taboola's news feed is not completely replacing the Taboola grid at this point, but this is Singolda's long-term intention. It's one more way to bring in more engagement, but it is also another way for Taboola to differentiate from its lookalike competitors. These include the likes of Outbrain, which has long been the subject of speculation that it will merge with Taboola. Nothing to report on that front yet, Singolda said.
Readers using the new feed will, for now, click out of a publisher's page to go to a new page in the browser to read stories, with a small option to click back to the originating page. Singolda told me that the idea will be to introduce AMP pages into the mix over time to speed up the jumps, as Taboola is already an AMP partner.
I'll be looking to see how that plays out, since AMP links currently mean no traffic for the originating or endpoint publications, with Google hosting the speed-up pages on its own URLs. Same, too, goes for the idea of bringing in infinite scrolls, which seem to pose their own kinds of unique challenges for publishers that want to keep readers engaged on their own properties, not floating away on an endless river provided by someone else.
Taboola has raised over $160 million, and Singolda said that it's profitable and has $100 million of that funding still in the bank.