Article recommendation startup ZergNet adds sponsored links, but promises to remain “content only”

ZergNet pitches itself as a higher-quality alternative to content recommendation widgets like Taboola and Outbrain. Now co-founder and CEO Reggie Renner is planning to become a bigger source of revenue for ZergNet publishers with the launch of what the company is calling its Content-Only Monetization Platform.

Before this launch, ZergNet’s main selling point to publishers was helping them grow their traffic — they’d include links to other sites in the ZergNet network, then get readers back in return. However, Renner said he’s hoping to convince publishers to at least consider giving up on competing, lower-quality widgets entirely. To do that, he needs to help those publishers make money.

And yes, that means adding sponsored links to ZergNet’s recommendations. However, Renner said, “We wanted to keep true to who we were as a business.” Specifically, he said publishers can pay to promote their stories, but they have to be real content: “We still do not allow any ads.”

To ensure that’s the case, the sponsored links will go through the same vetting process from ZergNet’s human editors as every other story in the network. As you can tell from the stories on ZergNet’s front page, it’s not exactly in-depth, high-brow journalism that gets highlighted, but this process is supposed to keep things on topic — so when you see ZergNet recommendations on gaming site IGN, they should all go to stories that are relevant to a gaming audience.

And with the sponsored links, Renner said the editors will help avoid links to things that are “just total crap — the diet pills, the stuff that’s disgusting or risqué.”

Can this more high-minded approach make money? Well, even though ZergNet is only announcing the platform now, Renner said it’s already live and generating revenue for publishers.

ZergNet is also announcing that BuzzFeed President Greg Coleman has joined its board of directors.

“I joined ZergNet’s board of directors because I strongly believe in the company’s approach to providing high-quality content recommendations that people actually want to read,” Coleman said in a statement. “ZergNet is the only company in the space positioned to facilitate positive change.”

The company said it works with more than 2,000 publishers, including AOL (which owns TechCrunch), Time Inc., CBS and News Corp.