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Gary Lipovetsky, co-founder and CEO of online portal Providr, is photographed at the company's Toronto office on Mar. 1, 2018. Unlike many other new media companies, Providr has modest office space located far from the downtown core in the north part of the city.Fred Lum

In a low-rise beige office complex in suburban Toronto, amid a slew of unremarkable businesses – a flooring company, a tour operator, a customs broker, a heating and air conditioning dealer – is a publishing venture whose leaders believe it is the future of media.

Its website has traffic comparable to big-name outlets such as Vice, The Daily Mail and Buzzfeed, according to Amazon-owned traffic ranking service But you've probably never heard of it.

That's because's following has not been built on the strength of its brand: Instead, it is a ghost in Facebook's influence machine, an attention merchant serving up content based purely on what's trending, and juicing its distribution by paying social-media influencers to promote its links.

Providr and its peers in the social influence universe – such as BoredPanda, DailyWire, Lad Bible, and fellow Canadian company Diply – create content dictated by what will make people click.

But now, Providr is also a case study of a digital media company under threat from the very engine that built it.

Recently, Facebook responded to mounting pressure about the quality of content on its network by announcing that it would begin to prioritize posts from family and friends, at the expense of other posts and links. With more than two billion users, Facebook is one of two companies, along with Google, that are the gatekeepers to a sizeable chunk of media companies' audiences.

Now, Facebook could choke off much of that access. For traditional news sites that have reluctantly watched audiences migrate to Facebook this will be a major challenge. For sites such as Providr that have relied on Facebook for the vast majority of their traffic, it's an existential crisis.

This is the story of a company built on social distribution engineering, which will now have to grapple with a sea change in the way audiences in the 21st century can be reached.

Chasing digital trends

The fact that Providr's fluorescent-lit offices are a drab counterpoint to the flashy atmosphere of a tech startup, is a point of pride for co-founder Gary Lipovetsky. "We're not fancy," he boasts. It keeps overhead low, which is crucial for anyone hoping to turn a profit on digital advertising alone.

About 12 people – a mix of staff and freelance writers – churn out content for the site, usually reproducing stories that have already been reported. Subject matter is chosen by analyzing data on what's trending. (Mr. Lipovetsky doesn't share those data sources, which he says are part of the site's secret sauce.) On the day of the mass shooting in Las Vegas last year, multiple articles on the news dominated the homepage. But Providr is not necessarily a news site: depending on what it deems most likely to go viral, the top articles on its homepage are just as likely to be "What the Seven Most Popular Types of Kisses Actually Mean," or "Prince William and Harry Have a Sister No One Knows About." (The daughter of Camilla Parker Bowles, their step-sister, to whom the Providr article erroneously refers to as a half sister. That article appeared just one day after a story on the U.K.-based website of The Sun referred to her as a "secret step-sister.")

"We establish what it is that general audiences want to read. Every day, we sift through hundreds and hundreds of stories and pieces of content from all over the world," Mr. Lipovetsky said, while next door a group of mostly 20-something writers tapped at their keyboards.

None of this makes Providr much different from a traditional tabloid. But it is taking a different approach to distribution, taking advantage of a social-media marketing tactic to gain an audience: Providr pays influencers – people with a large social following – to post its links on Facebook. The arrangement is more cost-effective than paying for advertising on Facebook, which the company also does.

Marlon Wayans was one of the first celebrities to work with Providr; other partners include actor Omar Epps and rapper Lil' Wayne, who collectively have a following in the tens of millions. But the site does deals with less famous figures as well: it works with approximately 1,000 influencers over all. There are so many that Mr. Lipovetsky isn't aware of all of them – he is surprised to be told that Star Trek actor George Takei's accounts have been posting Providr links. (He speculates Mr. Takei may work with social media managers who have influencer accounts with Providr.) More than half of Providr's traffic comes from such referral links.

These tactics have made Providr the 80th-most popular website in the United States, according to Alexa, and the 180th-most popular globally. It drew 51.7 million unique visitors in January, according to Mr. Lipovetsky, an audience that's nearly tripled in the past year. Roughly half of the traffic comes from the United States and another 25 per cent from Canada, Britain and Australia combined.

But Facebook is becoming more strict about this strategy: in January, it told publishers that it would restrict simple linking to content that the influencer had no role in creating. To cope, Providr has asked influencers to write longer descriptions of a story rather than just posting a link, and has included an "in paid partnership with" label at the top of articles, showing the influencer's bio as a "contributor" to the site. But Mr. Lipovetsky has noticed that influencers seem "spooked" about the prospect of Facebook cracking down, and have been posting fewer linked posts lately, driving traffic down slightly.

Companies dependent on social-media virality are not always sustainable, said Josh Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.

"There are a number of outlets who have done something like this, achieved what seem like eye-popping numbers and then died," he said.

Elite Daily is an example: the site, founded in 2012, was built for maximum Facebook appeal. Following massive traffic growth, it was sold to Daily Mail and General Trust plc in 2015 for £17.6-million ($31.6-million). Two years later, the company wrote down the investment, taking an impairment charge of £25-million ($44.0-million).

Building a business on viral traffic is highly unstable. That's partly because anybody can do it, so competition is fierce – but also because so many viral content businesses have relied on Facebook, which can tweak its algorithms at any time and change the terms of the game.

"As long as the social media algorithms are so powerful, people are going to be trying to figure them out," Mr. Benton said of Providr's distribution strategy. "But building sustainable businesses off of those tricks is a heck of a lot harder."

"Give the people what they want"

Mr. Lipovetsky and his partner Mike Tulman have made a habit of chasing internet trends as entrepreneurs.

In 1999, one year after OpenTable began providing restaurant listings to the booming consumer web, they launched, posting menus online and selling advertising to restaurants. In 2010, as the Groupon-fuelled daily deal trend was accelerating, the two men founded In 2013, as social media marketing gained wider recognition, they launched, a social shopping network that listed products and encouraged shoppers to interact with each other. That idea did not gain as much traction as they'd hoped and has been sidelined for now. In 2015, as clickbait-heavy sites such as Upworthy and Buzzfeed grew by aggressively courting audiences on social media, they started Providr.

Mr. Lipovetsky sees shock-tabloid TV personalities Maury Povich and Jerry Springer as examples of how to "do this to make money." Like him, he said, "They decided to give the people what they want."

In the beginning especially, if its data showed that people clicked on pimple-popping images, Providr served them up. And while it did not peddle conspiracy theories or invent stories, the site has been vulnerable to misinformation, because its writers do very little reporting.

Mr. Lipovetsky says he is working on improving the quality of the site, by cutting down on the number of articles that writers are expected to produce each day, allowing for more fact-checking.

But the site is still reproducing stories based on others' reporting: a recent article at the top of its homepage borrowed from a New York Times story, even copying the headline verbatim: "Scott Hamilton Was Demoted as an Olympic Broadcaster. Don't Feel Sorry for Him." Mr. Lipovetsky keeps telling writers not to copy and paste, but "sometimes you have to say things more than once." The same applied to a story about ice dancer Gabriella Papadakis, whose costume came undone during competition at the Winter Games in South Korea last month. Providr borrowed its headline, "Winter Olympics Figure Skater Manages To Keep Her Cool Even After Nightmare Wardrobe Malfunction," from a story posted a few days earlier on another clickbait website, This means that Providr has also on occasion reproduced errors that others have made.

"Things like fact-checking, that's going to come as the level of experience with the team grows," Mr. Lipovetsky said. "…We're doing our best."

While building quality is a stated objective, Providr still posts plenty of clickbait headlines about a snowboarder's "sickening crash," "celebs who gave up fame to work regular jobs," and gross-out health stories (some involving extreme closeups of blackheads and tapeworms).

More disturbing content has also made its way on to the site, such as a recent article including multiple screenshots of a video allegedly showing a man beating his dog to death.

"It shouldn't have gotten through. There were data behind the fact that people want to consume it. Somebody thought, 'Ah, it's okay,' even though we had discussed, nothing gross," he said. After The Globe and Mail asked about the article, Providr pulled it from the site.

"Give the people what they want" is not just Mr. Lipovetsky's goal: it is also, basically, the mission statement of the internet. And it's why low-quality content thrives: the economics of digital advertising place an incentive not on quality, but on what will make you look.

Providr makes all its money on digital ads sold on automated exchanges – where advertisers chase traffic and serve up ads alongside content that they have not hand-picked. Ad exchanges have faced criticism for helping to monetize low-quality content. Google, which operates one of the largest exchanges, has teams that detect advertising scams, and that respond to complaints about highly political or even racist content. But it mostly does not delve into value judgments about quality.

"I wouldn't say we're the ones who determines what's 'quality.' That's really the agency's job, to do that on behalf of the advertiser," said Mladen Raickovic, Google Canada's head of Global Partnerships. "… Advertisers, all the time, they are getting smarter around which publishers they want to work with."

"Google and Facebook are the two most powerful drivers of human attention that humanity has ever known. … [They] have had a really big impact on the way that content gets created," Nieman Lab's Mr. Benton said. "It didn't just change headlines, it also changed the kinds of content that [companies] would create."

What happens next will amaze you

But the digital giants are feeling pressure to set aside the neutral stand on the kind of content that people use their platforms to share. CEO Mark Zuckerberg kicked off the new year with a pledge to fundamentally change user experience on Facebook. Too many links to media sites, he wrote, were "crowding out the personal moments" that draw people to Facebook.

The announcement set off a panic, as publishers big and small reckoned with an upheaval in the distribution of their digital content.

"If you believed two or three years ago that Facebook traffic was going to be really important to the future of your brand, then you're in real trouble," Mr. Benton said.

Last week, digital publisher LittleThings, which built an audience on Facebook by sharing inspirational viral stories, shut down. Its founder and CEO, Joel Speiser, said in a memo that the algorithm change caused its organic traffic to fall by more than 75 per cent. "No previous algorithm update ever came close to this level of decimation," the memo said.

Even before the announcement, Mr. Lipovetsky had already begun working to diversify. As an attempt to become higher-ranked in Google search results, Providr is in the process of converting roughly 10,000 articles into Google's Accelerated Mobile Pages [AMP] format, which load faster. He hopes that if people are searching for a trending story, they'll find his site – and start visiting on purpose, not just through a Facebook link.

Meanwhile, Providr's bread and butter – Facebook – has been clear that "they want better-quality journalism," Mr. Lipovetsky said. He's responding by "decreasing article volume and increasing quality," in hopes that Providr's stories will continue to appear in the Facebook newsfeed.

He also wants writers to report more stories from scratch rather than cribbing from existing sources, and wants to give them a chance to pitch ideas they feel strongly about and not just to latch on to what's trending. It all sounds a lot like the traditional media companies that Providr's model was built on beating. Mr. Lipovetsky believes he has an advantage in coping with change.

"Keep in mind, I came from the daily deals space. That was a big up and a big down. … Had I kept my overhead low, I might have been able to pivot that business," he said. Part of that decline was due to another powerful platform making a change: Google created the "promotions" folder in Gmail, directing advertising messages out of the main inbox. Overnight, 70 per cent of DealFind's e-mails weren't being delivered.

"I definitely learned my lesson," he said. "There's always a solution. The question is, how long will it take to get to that solution? If your burn rate is super high, you're going to be under a lot of pressure. … I had a 400-person company. I had 40,000 square feet of fancy offices. I've made that mistake. Now, I kind of know better."

The European Commission has told firms such as Google and Facebook to remove 'terrorist content' an hour after it is first notified, or face legislation forcing them to do so.


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