Can This Tool Help Publishers Finally Take Control of Content Recommendation Engines?

nRelate CEO Neil Mody is the first to admit that content recommendation software has its problems.

“A lot of the recommendations are kind of head-scratching,” Mody said in an interview with Contently. “You’re left wondering, ‘Why are these here? What’s going on?'”

Kim Kardashian’s see-through dress featured next to stories about ISIS, listicles of Hollywood’s botched plastic surgeries alongside articles about Obamacare—this is the result of what Mody calls “black-box systems,” commonly used by content recommendation widgets such as nRelate, Taboola, Outbrain, and others, that are effective at driving high click-through rates but can have the unintended consequence of driving a publisher’s reputation into the ground.

Still, Mody hasn’t given up on the possibility of perfect recommendation software capable of analyzing a reader’s interests to seamlessly take readers from one article to the next, without any of those head-scratching moments. The key to this, he said, is publisher involvement.

“In the native ad landscape, it’s important that editors have the same kind of control that they have over their article content, their native experience for their users,” he said. “Without that you end up where we are, and unfortunately I think we might even be down the wrong road right now.”

For this reason, the company has been hard at work this past year on a tool called nControl. Designed to enable publishers to understand not only what ads run on their site, but also the economics behind them, nControl is an alternative to the all-or-nothing content recommendation ecosystem brands and publishers have been forced to play in the past few years.

For publishers, it’s good news because it gives editors the ability to control what content appears on their site. For brands, it increases the chances that their content will appear in a well-curated context.

Here’s how it works: Editors log on to a dashboard where they can block stories and set an overall maturity level for the types of content recommendation ads that appear on their site. Set the level to one, and listicles for Jamba Juice’s secret menu and the world’s best ape movies appear. Push it to 100—its highest setting—and you get salacious content like “The 15 Sexiest Sports Moments of 2012.” The system automatically adjusts the projected earnings to reflect those maturity-level changes. (Racy articles usually generate more clicks, and thus more money for publishers.) Also included are an interactive infographic detailing click-through rates and RPM, and an up-to-date earnings report.

The focus of all of this, Mody said, is transparency.

But in an industry in which increasingly fewer people have increasingly more to do, is it realistic to expect editors to babysit sponsored content, too?

“On a daily basis, no,” Mody said. But that’s not necessarily what nControl is about.

“What we’re trying to do,” he said, “is get [publishers] to a place is where their editorial vision either changes or they want to make sure it encompasses everything on their site, including their ads. We give them a solution for that.”

Image by Gratisography

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