Introducing QualityRating™, Balancing User Engagement and Quality

When we founded Outbrain in 2006, our thesis was simple: There are three critically important constituents in media – the publisher, the advertiser, and the consumer. If we built the right products and technology, we could serve them all equally well and make the open web a better place for all.

The two business constituents – publishers and advertisers – have very clear goals and KPIs, whether those are ROAS, RPM, CTR, etc. And over the years, Outbrain has made significant technological progress on delivering publishers and advertisers tremendous ROI on those goals.  

Yet the third and arguably most important constituent to our industry, the consumer, does not have any of these metrics or KPIs in mind. They are focused on being informed, entertained, or both, by the content they are consuming. Without clear metrics around what consumers perceive as quality, it is also difficult for advertisers and publishers to deliver such quality experiences.

Today we are announcing an upcoming change to the way we serve and prioritize recommended links on the 7,000+ websites, apps, and devices powered by Outbrain. With the introduction of Outbrain’s QualityRating™, the recommendations that we serve will also consider the consumer quality aspect, and will better balance user engagement and quality within Smartfeed™ recommendations.

Historically, Outbrain’s algorithms have been optimizing for user engagement, which is very important for both publishers and advertisers. But done alone, we recognize that it can lead to very clicky titles that don’t necessarily have the “nutritional” value many consumers are interested in. With this QualityRating algorithm overhaul, we’re further ramping up that optimization for consumer value by improving upon our algorithms via artificial intelligence and machine learning to balance both engagement and quality. 

While the focus of this algorithm change is on better serving the more than 1 billion users we reach, our work around this new algorithm is also focused on advertisers. Part of the reason we all see ads that may not be relevant to our interests so often on the web is because the industry as a whole provides advertisers with almost no information at all about what consumers value, as well as no incentive to advertisers to try to improve their ads for consumers. Again – the KPIs used by so many in the industry are not ones that reflect consumers’ interests or quality. 

Outbrain’s QualityRating will be shared initially with advertisers, helping them raise the quality of their ads on Outbrain by understanding what consumers value, and more importantly – rewarding them for raising that quality. When fully implemented, ads that receive a high QualityRating will deliver higher ROAS for those advertisers. Current algorithms incentivize higher engagement of relatively few consumers. Embracing QualityRating will allow those advertisers to engage more consumers.

We’ve heard many of the complaints publishers and advertisers have about the abrupt algorithm changes elsewhere, which catch them off guard and cause significant disruptions to their businesses. We want to make sure that as we roll out such profound algorithmic changes, like QualityRating on Outbrain, that our partners have ample time to understand what that change entails and be able to prepare properly for that future. Therefore we will start by sharing QualityRating data with advertisers later this year before fully implementing it in our algorithms in 2022. 

Quality in our space is often used as lip service or euphemism, with no real mechanism for ensuring alignment between the business needs of publishers and advertisers and the user experience needs of consumers. From first publishing our content guidelines in 2011 to the industry-leading tools we provide our partners to help craft the perfect message for the proper audience to the launch of Outbrain’s QualityRating, we will continue to bring deep alignment between all three constituents.

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