GutenSidebar! Contextly’s Sidebars Now Work with the Gutenberg Editor

WordPress recently switched to a new default editor called Gutenberg, which treats contents of a post — images, embeds, paragraphs of text — as separate blocks.

That change broke several of Contextly’s editorial tools, including the ability to add sidebars into the body of stories. (A style note: we call in-post recommendation blocks Sidebars, and recommendations that show up on either side of the post Siderails. This is how the news industry refers to these units, even though WordPress, inaccurately, calls units to the left or right of a post “Sidebars”.)

For example, Manual Sidebars are added via the Classic Editor using WordPress shortcodes in the text of the post. Those sidebars can be edited, but not previewed, in the Classic Editor.

Due to how Gutenberg blocks work, this shortcode insertion method doesn’t work with Gutenberg. So we built a new method for adding sidebars in Gutenberg.

Contextly Sidebar Gutenberg

Starting with v. 5.0.4, you can now editorially add Sidebars to posts if you are using Gutenberg or the Classic editor. You can add either Auto-Sidebars (where the content is chosen algorithmically and changes over time) or Manual Sidebars where you choose the content (static recommendations).

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Design for Readers, Not Against Them

Soldier Obstacle CourseWhen I quit my editing job at Wired in 2012 to spend more time with my startup, Contextly was focussed on helping readers dive deeply into a story, via smart related links at the end of stories.

I was frustrated then at the state of digital publishing tools and the lack of innovation in the news media generally.

I still am.

After all, one of the benefits of digital publishing over paper publishing is the ability of readers to find stories that aren’t that day’s stories.

We found that readers *really* respond to smart related recommendations pointing them into a publisher’s archives. Readers are curious.

But one of the things we realized is that not all readers are in deep dive mode.

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Contextly Passes the 100,000 Email Mark with B2B Travel Disrupter Skift

Rafat Ali

Rafat Ali, founder of the B2B travel industry publication Skift. CC-licensed photo by World Travel & Tourism Council

In 2014, Rafat Ali’s Skift was in big trouble. The B2B travel industry upstart was three months away from burning through all their cash and they were unable to raise more capital.

Oh, how things have changed.

Today Skift is profitable, has double digit revenue growth, quadrupled its staff, and is on track to hit $10 million in revenue per year in the next 18 months. Perhaps what is most stunning is how this was done on only 1.5 million unique visitors a month.

How did Skift pull it off?

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Contextly Channels Let Readers Follow Topics They Care About

Publishers have just gained a potent tool in the battle for readers’ attention and loyalty. Today Contextly introduces Channels.

Many publishers write stories that consistently fall into a small number of topics. Contextly Channels now make it possible for readers to subscribe to these topics without any editorial work.

What are Channels and how do they work?

1) Contextly will identify 10-20 topics that are most salient in your publication. The objective is to have over 50% of your stories fall into one of these topics. These form the basis of Channels. The Channels do not rely on your tags and categories. (You can give editorial input into this process if you like, but for the sake of efficiency, editorial involvement in selecting the topics is optional.)

2) A Channel Button is then inserted in the stories that belong to a topic.

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An Auto-Sidebar in Every Post (Better than a Chicken in Every Pot)


This is a Contextly Auto-Sidebar on Cult of Mac. The recommendations are algorithmically chosen, and the Auto-Sidebar updates as you publish new content.

At Contextly, we’re big fans of sidebars in the body of stories. Sidebars with smart recommendations show off the depth and breadth of your site, and add a nice visual flair without interrupting a reader’s flow through a story.

Sidebars also typically bump recirculation CTRs 25 to 50%.

So we’re excited to announce that it’s now possible to put algorithmically powered, constantly updating sidebars in every story on your site.

Previously, Contextly sidebars required a little editorial effort to place them in a story. That’s no longer the case.

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Infinite Scroll Is (Usually) Just a Bad Recommendation System

Stairs going down

Only one way to go with infinite scroll.

Infinite scroll, the web design practice that lets readers scroll down into more stories on a news site after reaching the end of a post, became popular with news publishers after the rise of feed-based sites like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Infinite scroll’s not a simple thing to implement. URLs have to change in the address bar as the reader moves to the new story. Analytics packages have to know when to recognize a new read. Ad units have to be timed to fire again.

Infinite scroll is a recommendation system.

But infinite scroll looks like social networks do, so publishers keep adopting it. (Though some, like Forbes, have abandoned it).

I’ve never seen an infinite scroll implementation that’s smart. Or to put it more kindly, I’ve never seen an infinite scroll site that uses data smartly to decide what to show next.

Why does that matter?

Infinite scroll is a recommendation system.

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Kill All the Authors’ (Bios)

A Too Big Author Bio

No one cares about this block of text author bio, but it takes up beachfront real estate on this post.

I spent ten years of my life writing on the internet, and for the first 3 years, got paid mostly in bylines.

Bylines, for those who don’t follow journalistic lingo, are a fancy name for the author’s name on a piece.

As an ego-driven bunch, writers care a lot about bylines. Writers reading other writers seek bylines out when they start reading a story (so to later know who to envy or disdain or both).

But readers don’t care about bylines, and most don’t even notice who wrote a piece. Bless the ones that do care, but for the most part, if readers notice anything about a story, they notice the publication.

If they share a story or mention it to a friend, they will say, “Oh, the Washington Post had a great story about how acetaminophen kills empathy.” They won’t remember the piece’s author Alice Ellis Nutt at all.

And the thing readers care even less about than bylines are author bios.

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The Things Publishers Can’t Count

Screenshot 2016-04-17 20.51.27

There are things publishers can’t count on the internet. Things that don’t show up in Google Analytics or in Chartbeat.

I know that sounds like heresy in the age of pageview quotas and dashboard fetishism.

It sounds a bit odd to say, like a vote of no confidence, coming from a co-founder and CEO of a data-driven engagement company – Contextly. I know firsthand some of the incredible things that can be built using data and algorithms. We innovate publisher engagement tools like our FollowUp button. It is, however, important to know the limitations of your tools.

And the uncountable things are very important things.

They may, in fact, be some of the most important things to publishers.

Things like a publisher’s reputation. Or, as some call it these days, their brand.

Here’s a few things that publishers can’t and don’t count:

  • Do “content recommendations” on the site appeal to readers’ basest selves and make readers feel dirty for clicking them?
  • Do readers start reading a story only to have that story blocked by a pop-up with X that’s nearly invisible to find or requires them to click on a link like “No, I don’t want to buy life insurance to protect my family. Let them beg on the streets and build character.”
  • How do readers feel about having to be the Lloyd Bridges in Airplane fighting off petitioners as he enters the airport — when all the readers want to do is just read to the end of an article?
  • Do the ads insult their intelligence?
  • How many times do readers sigh? Or curse?
  • Do low-quality recommendations on the site pretend that they are personalized, even for readers that have never visited the site before?
  • Is the site readable on mobile devices?
  • Did a new-to-your-publication reader who followed a story link even remember the name of your site – or did they read one story and bounce off?
  • Are you covering the issues and stories that your core community cares about?

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A Small Ode to the Web

High Bridge, New York
Yes, mobile browsers suck and crash too often. Web pages take too long to load. Too many publishers make it an Olympic sport to read a story to the ending killing pop-ups and dodging auto-playing videos.

And all the other complaints, too.

But, last Sunday night when I stumbled across this Vulture story about 100 jokes that shaped American Comedy, I had to stop and say thank you to the Web.

The piece is a compilation of 100 jokes from American history, from 1906 to the present. Each changed society and comedy, breaking new ground and cultural barriers. There’s a nifty JavaScript timeline that lets you jump by year; but for the most part, it’s just HTML and embeds.

And it’s miraculous.

I’m far from a historian of comedy, so I’m not going to argue over the editorial choices; instead, I’m going to be a simple fan-boy.

I learned a lot from this list – in no small part because the SoundCloud and YouTube clips that accompanied each selection let me experience the joke accompanied by context..

That includes the opener – a 1906 joke from black comedian Bert Williams (who I was ignorant of). Thanks to someone who took the time to upload the likely now-in-public-domain recording, this bit of history just loads in a webpage on a mobile device.

And the piece goes on from there – to classic bits like Who’s on First to lesser known vaudeville from Burns and Allen to a brazen, hilarious Bernie Mac performance at the Apollo in the 1990s.

This experience wouldn’t have been possible without the web and embeds (and fair-use and Section 230 of the DMCA).
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Favorite Feature #14: Automatically Recommending Evergreen Stories


For sites with hundreds of posts, there’s a rich underlying content that isn’t out of date and still gives value to readers. These older stories are what we call Evergreens, since they keep giving value to readers long after they have been published.

Contextly automatically identifies evergreen stories on our publishers’ sites and uses them as one of the recommendation strategies in the Explore section (we pair evergreens with personalization and popular). We’ve found that evergreens perform as well as or better than the popular sections.

Here’s one of my favorites from Make:, a post about how to cut wine bottles into drinking glasses with easy clean cuts. It’s from 2010 and readers still love it in 2015.

Make: Bottle Cutting

After it showed up in the Evergreen section of the Contextly reports continuously, Make: then added a new story updating the post with a way to make cutting bottles cleanly even easier.

The other great thing about evergreen stories is that they do change. We see stories, especially seasonal ones, bubble up and become relevant again.

Getting those in front of readers doesn’t just help readers; it helps publishers get the most from the work they do.

[For the month of November 2015, in honor of National Novel Writing Month and National Blog Posting Month #NaBloPoMo, I’ll be writing a post a day about a favorite Contextly feature. It’s a bit of a love letter and a bit of a how-to.]

If you want to try Contextly on your own WordPress site, you can download it from the WordPress plugin gallery or you want to learn about our custom CMS integration, drop us a line.