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Degeneracy: the brand safety impact of link rot

Link rot adds a new angle to a publisher’s struggle to get to grips with brand safety

Newspapers have made the quality nature of their owned and operated sites a key part of their pitch to advertisers. But the ephemeral nature of the internet keeps throwing up unexpected instances of unsafe content being served on legitimate channels – and it could be very costly in the long run.

Brand safety has been near the top of the agenda for years. Between long-standing battles about what constitutes hateful speech to the issues of opaque online advertising practices, adverts frequently appear alongside content that is harmful. Audiences and potential consumers, most of whom are unaware of the technical aspects of buying and selling media, react badly to those instances. Failures to ensure your ads appear in brand-safe environments, then, can have real impacts on brands’ bottom lines.

News publishers’ sites should be a safe environment for ads; that is often one of the key selling points for their MPUs and other ad formats. In fact, in January Reach PLC undertook research to demonstrate that respondents to a survey believed that news websites are safe environments for online advertising. Andrew Tenzer, director of market insights and brand strategy at Reach Solutions, claimed this is “irrefutable evidence” that “quality environments matter just as much, if not more so, when it comes to brand safety”.

Yet last month sites including The Washington Post, New York Magazine and Kotaku found themselves featuring hardcore porn from adult network 5 Star Porn HD. It wasn’t to illustrate an article or as the result of any malice, but because the network had bought up defunct video platform Vidme, which those sites had used to embed other video content into article pages.

Many of the affected articles were taken down and had the embed code stripped out or disabled swiftly, but for a while advertisements were running alongside hardcore porn on those news sites. It’s a similar situation to that which occurs when news sites embed tweets – often without asking for permission – and the user either deletes the tweet or otherwise makes a change outside of the publisher’s control.

Worse, some solutions to the issue of brand safety on publishers’ sites rely on third-party tools that often disagree about what counts as ‘safe’. Some research even demonstrated that Comscore and Moat’s brand safety tech is only in agreement around 60% of the time when classifying an article as safe or unsafe.

While the Vidme situation is an outlier, notable for the type of content that was accidentally embedded, it is indicative of a much larger brand safety issue – that of link rot.

The danger of ephemera

A 2016 study found that fully 75% of deep links for scholarly content no longer pointed to the information cited in the copy. While that’s bad for academia, it also has an impact on the way that newspapers back up their articles, link internally and ultimately how they perform in search results.

Researcher Jonathan Zittrain found that even the largest English-language publishers were susceptible to this link drift over time: “With John Bowers and Clare Stanton, and the kind cooperation of The New York Times, I was able to analyze approximately 2m externally-facing links found in articles at nytimes.com since its inception in 1996. We found that 25% of deep links have rotted. The older the article, the less likely it is that the links work. If you go back to 1998, 72% of the links are dead. Overall, more than half of all articles in The New York Times that contain deep links have at least one rotted link.”

Efforts to immortalize the web are ongoing and vital for our understanding of the internet as a social tool – but those efforts offer nothing to the brands whose marketing messages end up on pages with dead or otherwise unsafe links. Worse still is when previously reliable embeds end up serving content that is horribly unsafe, as with the Vidme situation.

Even when the situation is relatively humorous, as when Donald Trump was caught out by an expired link being redirected, it underlines the fact that newspapers’ sites require constant upkeep if they are to retain their brand-safe reputation.

So while research like Reach’s indicates that consumers believe newspapers’ sites are safe environments on which to advertise, the ephemeral nature of links and embeds undercut that belief. As Zittrain’s study demonstrated, the issue of link rot grows over time. It will be a costly fix for news publishers to police the growing number of pages exposed to these problems – but potentially costlier if a brand safety breach occurs.

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