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“Chris Hemsworth Werks It In Leather Pants”
“26 Ways You Have Actually Become Your Mom”
“If WWE Superstars Had Tinder”

What do all of these titles have in common? They are recent headlines you can find over at the fountain of overflowing intelligence we all know and love: Buzzfeed.

Okay, yes, that’s sarcasm. There’s nothing intelligent about Buzzfeed, and there’s certainly very little to love, unless you’re a Paris Hilton clone who wants to see Chris Hemsworth “werk” it in leather pants.

Recently, here at MakeUseOf, some of the younger members of the staff started to speculate that Buzzfeed actually serves a useful purpose on the Internet, and that its business model is a good one. I’m here to bestow a few drops of wisdom upon these whippersnappers, and I’d love to hear your opinion as well, at the bottom of this article.

Buzzfeed Uses Deceptive Advertising

Buzzfeed has StartUpDudeBros around the web announcing that Buzzfeed’s business model is the latest and greatest thing since Al Gore invented the Internet.

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So, let’s take a sane step back here and really examine that business model.

First, let’s look at what a few of the Buzzfeed ooglers are crowing about. The most recent, and the most talked about commentary on this topic was the article, “Why BuzzFeed is the Most Important News Organization in the World” by independent blogger Ben Thompson over at Stratechery.

Ben is a well respected blogger in the tech websphere, and I’ve nothing bad to say about the guy. However, it’s important to note that his technology experience only extends so far. In a 2013 interview with Forbes, Ben admitted:

“Still, though, I only began working in tech a few years ago, first as an intern at Apple while at Kellogg business school, then as a product manager with Windows focused on apps, and now with Automattic. Before then I spent six years in Taiwan, first simply teaching English, and later building a computer-based teaching system for use in advanced English schools.”

Why is this important? It’s important because those preaching the Buzzfeed gospel are treating Ben’s article these days as though it’s the very word of God – the last word on Buzzfeed.

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Ben’s argument is that the old-school business model of keeping the profit side and the editorial side of journalism separate, has been turned upside down by the Internet itself. According to Ben, Buzzfeed has tossed away this outdated artifact of journalism, and has come up with a brilliant new approach to making money from journalism again.

“What’s especially exciting about BuzzFeed, though, is how it uses that knowledge to make money. The company sells its ability to grok – and shape – what works on social to brands; what they don’t do is sell ads directly. By ads I mean the sort of display ads you see on just about every other publishing site; your typical BuzzFeed page will have links to stories they have created for brands for pay”

Ben even made the false claim in one of his Tweets that Buzzfeed doesn’t directly make money from its editorial efforts.

Which is….completely false.

The reality is that Buzzfeed takes part in one of the most underhanded and deceptive journalistic practices since email spamming first started in the 1990s. That is the practice of publishing sponsored content from an advertising partner under the guise of editorial independence, without making it blatantly obvious to the reader that the author is not writing from a journalistically unbiased perspective. They camouflage the fact that Buzzfeed is in fact directly making money from the post.

Plenty would argue that listing the brand as the sponsor on the main page and on the article page is clear enough. That’s debatable. This is the crux of why Buzzfeed’s business model is doomed to fail, once people catch on to – and get tired of – these tactics.

How Buzzfeed Makes (a Ton of) Money

BuzzFeed’s content is carefully crafted to appeal to users of other social platforms like Twitter and Facebook. The goal of the majority of the 400+ new stories published every day is to become viral.

According to Quantcast, the site gets just over 13.5 million unique visitors per day. It is ranked sixth – I repeat, sixth – in terms of traffic by Quantcast. This is behind only Google.com, YouTube.com, Facebook.com, MSN.com, and Yelp.com.

With evidence like that, what could possibly be wrong with the business model? They have enough traffic to put everyone else to shame. They have sponsors scrambling to purchase “sponsored” posts for a piece of the traffic action. So what’s the problem?

The way to reveal this is by looking beyond traffic itself. What is the stated purpose of sites like Buzzfeed and MSN – the two highest ranked “news” sites?

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Beth Nichols, writing for The Motley Fool, points out the fatal flaw in Buzzfeed’s business model –  the company is trying to create a brand around one mission statement, while partaking in business practices that betray that mission.

“BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti has described the company’s goal as becoming ‘the defining media company for the social age,’ a phrase notably front and center in the press releases of its investors. BuzzFeed’s redefining of how the business of media gets done would seem to be more about leading publishers into more effective ways of monetizing their businesses than it is about content.”

In fact, the Buzzfeed model is entirely about monetizing content, and very little to do with content itself. Aside from recent attempts by the company to start building up its investigative journalism offerings, the bulk of its content remains shallow and empty – poorly researched and often containing stolen content like images.

In one Slate article, one photographer who had his photo stolen by Buzzfeed wrote:

“If you really want to get picky about it, BuzzFeed, which makes money with sponsorships and ads placed next to content, has linked to a Yahoo page that doesn’t show ads rather than the main page that does. They’re making money from their own ads while keeping click-throughs away from ads of the original host.”

As a supposed “media company”, Buzzfeed breaks just about every rule of journalism. Sources are rarely used or cited, copyrighted content is used without permission, and worst of all – Buzzfeed writers are guilty of the cardinal sin of journalism, which is conflict of interest.

In a section of New York University School of Journalism’s student handbook titled “Ethics, Law and Good Practice”, the author opens the section with the following conflict of interest description:

“In an era of great and growing dissatisfaction with the media, it is imperative that journalists avoid conflicts of interest, defined as situations in which there are competing professional, personal and/or financial obligations or interests that compete with the journalist’s obligation to his outlet and audience.”

So, what about a post about plastic that’s sponsored by CleanPath – will it present a clear and balanced view about plastic?

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Would a company that sells refillable products, based upon the entire premise of reducing plastic use, sponsor anything other than an article that destroys the public’s opinion of plastic? How much journalistic integrity can the site maintain when it allows advertisements to exist as just another piece of content like any other? How can readers know what to trust, and what is simply paid-for promotion?

On Buzzfeed, they don’t – unless they pay careful attention to the brand icon pasted on the main page near the article or video link.  Someone scrolling and clicking titles quickly may not even notice.

Camouflaging Sponsored Posts

The concept of producing highly clickable titles is nothing new. In fact, it’s what most websites on the Internet did throughout the 1990s, before Google came along and stared making it harder to win the game with spammed keywords and clickbait titles.

These days, most websites that want to list well in search engines avoid the sort of underhanded tactics that can be found on Buzzfeed. Beyond clickbait titles, the more serious offense is that of advertorials.

The reason for this is made very clear by none other than Matt Cutts himself in a 2013 video on advertorials.

In this video, Matt explains that for a site to be considered credible and an authority, it should be very clear to readers when specific content is paid for.

“Likewise, if you are doing disclosure, you need to make sure that it’s clear to people […] So a good rule of thumb is there should be clear and conspicuous disclosure. It shouldn’t be the case where people have to dig around buried in small print or have to click and look around a long time to find out, ‘Oh, this content that I am reading was actually paid.'”

And before you say, “Well Buzzfeed doesn’t care about search traffic, because it gets all its traffic from social media!” – consider the fact that at the SMX Advanced 2014 Conference during a Q&A session, Matt told the interviewer that Buzzfeed overvalues the site’s value.

“Matt said Buzzfeed has contacted them asking why they don’t rank better. Matt said everyone thinks their own website is above average in quality, even when their average or below average. It was obvious he thought Buzzfeed was overestimating their quality in regards to how they should rank.”

Even so – even with the fact that it doesn’t obtain as much search traffic as most other sites – the social side of the equation more than makes up for it. So what’s wrong with a business model that adopts a sponsorship technique and leans on the viral nature of social media for its source of traffic?

One word: credibility.

Journalistic Credibility

The bottom line: when it comes to online journalism, your actions influence how readers view your credibility.

Digital marketing blogger Sam Crocker described this situation perfectly.

“Forget about EdgeRank, Earned media value, and something as simplistic as CTR for a moment – and think about your long term credibility as a publisher. In some instances these headlines may actually begin to erode the the brand value of the publisher.”

Buzzfeed is making a great attempt to publish credible journalism alongside its WalMart-cheap titles. But how credible can an article be that’s titled, “Obama Takes ‘Full Responsibility’ For Two Hostages Killed In U.S. Operation”, when it’s published right alongside another article titled, “14 Times The Olsen Quadruplets Were The Baddest Bitches On The Block”?

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Sam explains that these cheap Upworthy/Buzzfeed tactics have saturated the Internet to the point that people are  getting sick of them.

“Yesterday was the first time in my life that I saw a ‘news’ article shared in my feed that I really wanted to read but refused to click it because of the headline. Do I want to see ’26 Majestic Dogs Who Totally Redefine Perfection’? You bet I do. But you know what else would work, a trusted source of cute images with a link to ’26 Adorable Dog Photos’.  Headlines like these need to stop, the user backlash is coming.”

Does the Buzzfeed model work? Yes. For now. It’s a cheap parlor trick that has a limited lifespan. Ultimately, I believe that people, when they want to get “the real story” will always turn to those sources they know and trust as credible.

People may get their cheap, fast meals at McDonald’s, but when they want something with flavor and substance, they know to go to an actual restaurant.

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Liam Boogar wrote it best in a post for LinkedIn where he explained that while Buzzfeed’s model works for Buzzfeed (for now).

“Buzzfeed is successful because they have aligned their business model with their journalists – journalists are there to pump out content ad nauseum, and viewers pay for it with their eyeballs, clicking through the never-ending lists & videos chopped up into .gifs.”

Ultimately, this isn’t the right model for legitimate, intelligent journalism – or any site that prides itself in having a respectable brand and reputation, really. That is why any of Buzzfeed’s attempts at legitimate journalism will fail.

“Media that prides itself on journalism, being smarter, and having more insight – from bloggers like Robert Scoble & Nate Silver all the way up to publishers like the New York Times & the Wall Street Journal – need to find a revenue model that aligns that leverages in its purist form that intelligence, access to intelligence, and insight.”

Is Buzzfeed an important organization? Just the fact that it ranks as the sixth site in worldwide Internet traffic says yes, that it is. However, is it an important news organization? Hardly.

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It isn’t at all surprising to anyone with an interest in real news, that a 2014 study from the Pew Research Center found Buzzfeed to be the very least – bottom of the list – trusted news source in America. Lower than even Rush Limbaugh. Ouch.

Most important news organization indeed…

Buzzfeed has been a cheap Internet fix for millions of web travelers for a long time now. However, it’s past and present tactics make it a joke when it comes to credibility and authority as a news source. And once the passing fad of such titles fade away, so then will the Buzzfeed monster.

Will it assume its place as another relic – another bad idea in the train of bad ideas – from the long evolution of this thing we call the Internet?

That all depends on the direction Buzzfeed leadership takes moving forward. The website can not exist trying to achieve both goals – it must either continue its course down the dead-end clickbait road, or it must resolve to overhaul into a site that’s completely dedicated to hard-hitting journalism and serious news. In one case, the end is assured. In the other, there is hope for a Buzzfeed anyone will be proud to admit they read.

So, now it’s your turn. Do you hate Buzzfeed? Do you love it? Share your take in the comments section below.

stocklight / Shutterstock.com, a6photo via Shutterstock, 360b / Shutterstock.com

  1. digital-S
    March 15, 2016 at 12:09 pm

    This article has some good points, but to say Buzz feed current business model is doomed to fail, just shows the author of the article doesn't understand the business model, yes I agree if buzzfeed stick with their current business model indefinitely, and I use the term current than yes they will fall; as no industry stays the same, but the main premise of online or bricks and mortar newspapers/magazines is based on readership, so if click bait works in people clicking on a headline then the current model of attracting an audience works, plus what media outlet can really be trusted to deliver just news, its all opinions, not news, if readers were only interested in news, there wouldn't be so many different publications reporting news

  2. kdbdesigninc
    May 13, 2015 at 2:51 pm

    This article seems to be some kind of jealous vendetta against BuzzFeed. No matter what, makeuseof is not that popular.

    • Ryan Dube
      May 13, 2015 at 3:17 pm

      Regardless of the reason you feel the article exists -- it's a bit difficult to argue with that Pew Research study. I mean...Buzzfeed is trusted less than Rush Limbaugh?

  3. Christian Cawley
    May 13, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    With regard to McDonalds: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-30386870 "McDonald's global sales continue to decline"

    "Sales at McDonald's outlets in the United States fell 4.6% in November - more than double the expected decline.
    Global sales for the fast-food chain dropped 2.2%, in their sixth consecutive monthly fall."

    • Sam
      May 13, 2015 at 9:14 pm

      Pfffft yeah, who even eats there any more? They're closing down left, right and centre... aren't they? :-) We keep hearing about PC sales declining. Would you therefore argue that Dell or Lenovo aren't successful or lack a sustainable business model? McDonalds are still looking pretty successful from where I'm standing.

      Ryan, re cost and the economy, I don't think McDonalds were struggling in the 00s, or the 90s, or the 80s, or the 70s... you can't blame the economy here. Unless you're suggesting there's been a half-century of recession? A lot of people actually enjoy going there. Nostalgia will certainly be a factor for a lot of people. Regardless of the reason for their success though, they ARE a successful business, one of the most successful in history especially with regards to global brand recognition (yeah I know, Captain Obvious here) and I can't see that changing any time soon.

      As for Buzzfeed and education, I think the main flaw in your logic is treating Buzzfeed as something it's not. Of course it's not news - it's entertainment. Generally not very good entertainment, but I strongly doubt people are going there to keep abreast of current events. You don't criticise your car for being unable to make a good cappuccino. As long as Buzzfeed continues to entertain (or even just pass the time when people are bored) it will continue to thrive.

      I get that you have a low opinion of the site and that's fair enough, but stating that their business model is doomed to failure may be wishful thinking.

    • Christian Cawley
      May 14, 2015 at 7:19 am

      Well I don't know anyone personally who eats at McDs, and I offered stats.

      You didn't :)

    • Sam
      May 14, 2015 at 12:38 pm

      Are you an idiot Christian? You believe stats over what you see with your own eyes? How many times do you pass a McDonalds and see it empty? How many times do you see them full of customers? Besides, do you really think 4% is a big number? Please try and employ the use of common sense.

    • Christian Cawley
      May 14, 2015 at 1:16 pm

      I live in a town that had two McDonalds. It now has one. The smaller of the two.

      Why don't you try and employ the use of manners before commenting further?

    • Sam
      May 14, 2015 at 4:08 pm

      I'll apologise then. I just have limited patience for people on the internet who will argue absolutely anything (seriously, what's next - you'll tell me Coca Cola is unsuccessful?) even when it flies in the face of common sense. It's especially annoying when I know you're arguing something you don't even believe. We're talking about the second largest fast food chain on the planet.

      I've also seen your own snarky and petulant comments in response to other peoples comments on your own articles, which made me less inclined to show you the courtesy I would normally be inclined to show authors of articles on this site. It seems you're choosing your words more carefully lately though, which is commendable.

      Anyway, the bulk of my comment was directed to the author of this article and it looks like he's done discussing this article now anyway. If you want to maintain that McDonalds has become unsuccessful then that's fine.

    • Ryan Dube
      May 14, 2015 at 4:41 pm

      I'm here - I was just driving when I read your comment and unfortunately my mobile doesn't allow me to easily cite sources.

      The economy is very much a factor. I'm a bit surprised that you claimed McDonald's didn't do better in a poor economy. Everyone knows this is exactly the case.

      "At a time when recession-weary Americans are cutting back, McDonalds is holding onto its consumers and showing growth–the fast food chain is trading at $55.77–up from the $13.45 it was at just six years ago. Their global same-stores sales were up 7.1% in January, and their stock is up 1% in the last year, while paying a $0.50 dividend. So, it’s not just empty calories. "
      - http://www.forbes.com/2009/02/17/mcdonalds-recession-stock-intelligent-investing_0217_mcdonalds.html

      And how can you say people don't care about quality? In a decent economy - which we're finally in now, people opt for quality when they can afford it. This is exactly what's happening.

      "But McDonald’s also has problems at home. It faces competition from other fast-food chains such as Burger King, which has been gaining market share with a simpler and cheaper version of the McDonald’s menu. And it is being squeezed by more upmarket "fast-casual" restaurants such as Shake Shack and Chipotle Mexican Grill, which are rapidly growing. They have been luring customers—particularly younger ones—away from McDonald’s chicken nuggets and chips by offering slightly better quality food, a high level of customisation (such as the option to choose the ingredients in a burrito or burger) and some table service. "
      - http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2015/01/economist-explains-7

      So, my analogy holds true. Once more people are better educated and thirst for that higher quality, they will seek out sources of information that are more fulfilling than the McDonald's quality stuff they get at Buzzfeed.

    • Sam
      May 14, 2015 at 5:40 pm

      I'm certainly not arguing that McDonalds performed poorly during more prosperous times. My argument was very simply that McDonalds was NEVER unsuccessful. Therefore, you can't argue that the only reason people are eating there now is due to the recession. If McDonalds only prospered during times of recession, they wouldn't still be here now after half a century of doing business.

      If you re-read my initial comment you'll also see that I never said people don't care about quality. What I actually said is that most people lack taste - i.e. they don't recognise quality when they see it. Course taste is a very subjective thing - who are you or I to say people shouldn't enjoy a Big Mac? We could digress even further into a discussion of health and nutrition, but then we'd be talking about the continued popularity of alcohol, tobacco, narcotics etc (and gluttony I suppose) and we'd be here all day :-)

      The only point I was really making initially is that McDonalds is a successful business and evidently have a successful business model, despite not offering the best quality in their field. The same applies to Buzzfeed.

  4. Sam
    May 13, 2015 at 10:09 am

    Seems you're confusing two basic questions here - "is it good?" and "will it continue to be successful?". Those are two very different things. Are the Mail, Mirror, Sun etc good newspapers? Of course not. But evidently plenty of people think otherwise because do they continue to be successful (as far as any printed media can be regarded as successful)?

    Your own example of McDonalds is an interesting choice because I'd hardly regard McDonalds as an unsuccessful business or regard its business model as flawed in the long term. It's not gourmet cuisine, but that hasn't stopped quite a few people eating there (and nor will it do in the future).

    Most people lack taste and that's why the biggest brands very rarely offer the highest quality products of their field. It's also why delivering quality doesn't necessarily have anything to do with having a long-term successful business model.

    • Ryan Dube
      May 13, 2015 at 3:22 pm

      I think the McDonald's thing is a good point, and it points out a serious problem in society itself really. When people can't afford good food, they are forced to eat at McDonald's. And they do....MANY do. There are a lot of people who can't afford a nutritious meal, and to save money will forgo quality for quantity and something to fill their stomachs quickly - with plenty of fat and salt for taste.

      Really, it's more a reflection of the state of an economy that McDonald's does so much business. In much the same way, it's a reflection of the state of education, that Buzzfeed does so much business. I'm sure if, as a society, everyone was more focused on health (and had the extra income to support it), McDonald's would go out of business. Likewise, with a better educated population, Buzzfeed would eventually go out of business.

  5. Megan
    May 12, 2015 at 10:14 pm

    Although I do agree with what you are saying and I myself can not stand the site Buzzfeed, they have definitely made their presence known as they are ALL over my Facebook. I can't help but feel for the poor saps sharing whatever clickbait article is 'hot' for the day, as I'm sure most are unaware of the stupidity of their actions and unaware of how annoying their stupidity really is to people like me.

    With that being said, Buzzfeed is a force to be reckoned with, at the moment, because people LOVE to see and share those types of things. As annoying as the site really is your article comes off as a bit 'hater' like and to be honest, it almost seems you are a bit jealous. Which it seems would be a natural feeling considering the time and thoroughness a site like Makeuseof and its REAL journalist's must spend pushing out real articles that have real content and real information. I wouldn't give another thought to a site like Buzzfeed, cause as you have said, the people are catching on, slowly but they are starting to realize how dumb "10 Boobs you won't believe are REAL" really sounds and how stupid they must look sharing such crap.

    This is just my opinion. Makeuseof is my favorite website and I'm addicted to it just like the 13 and 14 year olds are addicted to Buzzfeed. Lol

    • Ryan Dube
      May 13, 2015 at 1:16 am

      Thanks Megan - that was one of the nicest comments I've ready in a while. I'm so happy MakeUseOf is your favorite site and that you call us home. I think you're definitely correct with the little bit of jealously probably - I mean what web publisher wouldn't be jealous of traffic levels placing the site in the top 10 on the Internet? On the other hand, I'd really have to think hard about whether I could really write at a site like that - feels like it would be trading integrity for money really. Lots of people have no problem doing that though.

      Thanks again for your great comment - you made my day. :-)

  6. Enzer
    May 12, 2015 at 6:39 pm

    I trust The Onion more than I trust Buzzfeed.

    I've been purposefully avoiding most clickbait-like titles for years now (Especially Buzzfeed). The "5 things you didn't know...", I always already knew. The "10 things you wouldn't believe..." I've already known the truth about. They add nothing to my day, I'd rather read an article about business models or the Fermi paradox... At least they have the potential for some real educational value.

    • Kris
      May 12, 2015 at 6:52 pm

      Good answer, @Enzer. I'll take The Onion over Buzzfeed any day as well. I avoid them as much as possible and I'm a MARKETING guy!

      However, the "10 of this that will do that" or "5 reasons you want to whatever" is here to stay. It doesn't have to be bat$h1t crazy stuff like Buzzfeed does though. Look at Cracked.com (and even MUO!). They put together entertaining and, sometimes even enlightening, posts that use that headline format. It works. And, because of human psychology and limited attention span, I feel it will continue to work.

      That being said, I agree with the author of this post that the deceptive way Buzzfeed is generating clicks will bite them in the behind sooner rather than later.

    • Ryan Dube
      May 13, 2015 at 1:14 am

      Thanks Enzer. I've started doing the same. 9 times out of 10 it's Buzzfeed and I get frustrated with myself for clicking. Now I hover over links and check what the destination site is. If it's Buzzfeed, I just move along. :-)

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