You’ve seen them, those boxes squatting like ugly interlopers at the bottom of websites, urging you to click on some story about a new mobile game or a magic trick for losing weight. Here’s an example powered by Outbrain:
That company and rivals like Taboola, RevContent, Content.ad and Adblade have a pretty simple business model: They pay publishers to place the ‘promoted articles’ at the bottom of their stories.
The Awl gave coined a great term for these low-rent content pushers – “chum boxes”:
Clicking on a chumlink—even one on the site of a relatively high-class chummer, like nymag.com—is a guaranteed way to find more, weirder, grosser chum. The boxes are daisy-chained together in an increasingly cynical, gross funnel; quickly, the open ocean becomes a sewer of chum.
Trudging through the articles offered up by chum boxes is an incredibly depressing slog. As The Awl points out, you rapidly descend from ‘real’ sites to link farms dedicated solely to corralling ads and snagging misguided clicks.
But recently I started to notice links at the bottom of sites that were actually appealing. They all took me to the same staging post – a site called ZergNet.
From Starcraft to crafting content recommendations
If you’re a gamer, ‘zerg’ may mean something to you. If you’re not, it’s one of the races from Starcraft and has become an all purpose term for dominating an enemy with sheer numbers. It’s an appropriate reference for a company built on delivering huge amounts of traffic to sites.
Reggie Renner, ZergNet’s CEO, doesn’t do a lot of press. In a tech world where even the tiniest startups bombard journalists with pitches from the get-go, he’s almost an oddity. I emailed him.
When I asked him if he had any images to share for this story, he laughed: “We’re engineers with no marketing team. We have no materials, hah!”
We rely solely on people seeing us around or hearing from our people about us. We get a bunch of emails every days from sites just trying to learn what the heck we do.
The heck that ZergNet does is sending readers from the first link they click to a grid of recommended articles. The theory – and it works – is that they’ll end up clicking on three or four more links while they’re there.
It doesn’t pay publishers to feature its recommendations or take cash from them to show their articles on other sites. Instead, it’s built a marketplace for ‘traffic credits.’ Renner explains:
Every time a link on a publisher’s page is clicked on, they earn credits. Those credits go towards their own content being promoted across our network.
He says the company will never charge for that basic setup but may introduce a way to buy extra credits to further promote stories or allow publishers to sell their credits to others.
The humans behind the zerg
While you might expect a business responsible for 10,000 article recommendations per second to be powered wholly by algorithms, that’s not the case. Half of ZergNet’s staff are full-time editors. Renner says: “Every single article in our network is manually curated by a member of our staff.”
He says the company rejects about 90 percent of sites that apply to use its service. Stories are added manually to ensure they fit the tone and particular preferences of each publisher, including whose content they’re happy to see placed beside their own.
In theory that means that luxury titles from an outfit like Conde Nast won’t see low-rent clickbait cluttering up the bottom of their articles; less chum, more choice cuts. But ultimately, publishers still need to happy with sharing their traffic with potential rivals.
ZergNet works with titles in 80 different categories including music, fashion, style, food, gaming and movies. While Renner admits that defining a quality article is a subjective business, he says it boils down to one question: “Do you have real journalists writing real content?”
I spoke to publishers who work with ZergNet for this piece, both on and off the record, and they’re pretty delighted with the results, with ZergNet often ranking in their top three sources of traffic.
A spokesperson for Wenner Media told me: “We have had a great experience working with ZergNet and are very pleased with the relevant and robust content recommendations.”
But then, they would say that, right? The more interesting question is: How did a pair of gamers turn into big media players, seemingly out of nowhere?
What’s World of Warcraft got to do with it?
Renner and his co-founder Mike Langin met online, playing MMOs (“World of Warcraft is the one people will have heard of.”) He describes them as “hardcore gamers” and tells me that was the genesis for ZergNet:
I met Mike when I was in college and he was in high school. I taught myself to code and right after college, I joined a startup that bought and sold domain names.
I helped Mike learn how to code. He dropped out of high school to join the company and got really good at coding. He doesn’t even have a high school diploma.
They started ZergNet in January 2012, targeting small gaming sites in need of a traffic boost. By February, Mark Cuban was an investor. It was a ballsy move by Renner that led a company with “no media, background, no connections and no knowledge of investors” to snag such a big name:
I was watching Shark Tank one night – this was [Cuban’s] first or second appearance and he invested in this cat drawing business. I thought, if he’ll invest in that, surely we’ve got a chance. That night, after it aired, I cold emailed him.
I wrote this 2,000 word message, which he probably shouldn’t have even read. A few minutes later, he replied. He liked the idea, we talked about doing a deal and then…his due diligence team passed on us. But I asked him to look again and he funded us completely by himself until our A round.
Ultimately, ZergNet isn’t perfect. No content recommendation service will ever be. But it lured me in as a consumer, with articles I actually wanted to read.
For publishers selling their own ads or running well-targeted programmatic ones, the traffic it brings could be a lot more useful than skimming revenue from the chum boxes. For those who are simply desperate for short term revenue, it’s not the answer.
Read next: The science behind content recommendation