How Taboola tackles the fake news problem: “You need humans to solve human problems.”

How Taboola tackles the fake news problem: “You need humans to solve human problems.”
Taboola CEO and Founder Adam Singolda (Image: David Pexton)

The past 12 months have seen some drastic changes to the world’s largest content-recommendation engine. From a 25% increase to the workforce and eclipsing USD 1B in revenue, to the successful launch of several new products, content recommendation engine Taboola certainly seems to be on the up-and-up. In this episode, OMR’s Heidi Stamer connects with founder and CEO Adam Singolda in his return to the OMR Podcast to discuss the challenges of scaling up in a short timeframe, the importance of investing in AI and machine learning, the impact of its latest products and why life as a CEO isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

“The start-up of start-ups”

In the just under 12 months since we last sat down with Adam, growth has been a common theme for Taboola. Revenues from its self-service product eclipsed USD 100M, strategic partnerships with Chinese tech manufacturers Vivo and ZTE and a 25% increase in the company workforce from 800 to 1000 employees. It’s an incredible feat, especially when you factor in Adam’s determination to upholding the same company culture that helped Taboola flourish from a start-up to a leading content-recommendation company.  

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At 17 locations around the world, it takes a concerted effort and a dedicated infrastructure to ensure that the “Taboola” culture is the same at offices in Tokyo as it is in Istanbul and in NYC. According to Adam, however, it also takes transparency. “Through absolute transparency, everyone feels like they are founders of this company. Everyone knows how much money we have in the bank. How much we make. How much we lose. Who the key accounts are.” This transparency is further buffeted by quarterly conference calls with all 15 global offices and Taboola University, the weeklong crash course located in NYC, where employees are flown in and educated on core company values. “On the last day I join and try to break the concept of a CEO, so I just wear a t-shirt and jeans. Now that I am the CEO of the company, people take me too seriously—I don’t like that.” By truly establishing a flat hierarchy, Adam is one step closer to realizing the goal of being “the start-up of start-ups—where you feel like a part of something you created and not like an employee.” 

“You need humans to solve human problems.”

If the figures are any indicator, the approach has yielded a finely tuned machine with international product launches going off without a hitch. The feed and a self-service business, which netted USD 100M in revenue in a single year, have enabled it to further strengthen its market position, increase its customer base and allocate resources to other areas—one such area is AI. “We have completely switched our entire stack to deep learning—the evolution of AI. And it’s important to signal to us when something looks funny. But in the world of fake news, you need humans to solve human problems.”

“It’s only infinite, if it’s infinite.”

Adam knows the just how potentially devastating an effect fake news can have, as this this 2016 New York Times article points out. Fortunately for Taboola, human problems at the company are the exception, not the rule. In May 2017, Taboola successfully completed the international launch of its feed format, which boasts the “infinite scroll” feature. Adam rejected the notion that the infinite scrolling could be negative, saying “it’s only infinite, if it’s infinite. When people do scroll they become ninja users—when someone gets to the 20th, 30th card, they become super users—they click more, engage more. So it’s only endless to people who scroll—if you’re a zombie user, you never saw infinite scroll to begin with.” And it now is responsible for generating one third of all company revenue. 

To find out where Adam Singolda sees Taboola in the next few years, the fundamental differences marketers have to keep in mind when advertising to different markets around the world and why Adam sees Taboola as the “Robin Hood of the open web,” check out the full conversation here:

OMR Podcast with Adam Singolda at a glance:

  • On balancing the demands of scaling quickly and fostering culture (1:15)
  • On the essential traits to look for when acquiring new talent (3:05)
  • On Taboola University and the role does it plays in establishing company culture (6:03)
  • On how company growth has affected Adam daily work routine, tasks and time management (7:27)
  • On factors influencing Taboola’s return to video after a decade of exploring other formats (10:10)
  • On Adam’s view of video from a strategic point of view (11:45)
  • On the importance of placement regarding growth of scale and impact (15:38)
  • On Taboola’s brand position and why Adam sees Taboola as the “Robin Hood of the open web (17:45)
  • On the role the Taboola News feed will play in contributing to audience growth for partners, and why Taboola is not a competitor for publishers (18:30)
  • On global partnerships and on strategies for penetrating the Chinese market (23:47)
  • On what has fueled Taboola’s impressive growth in Germany and what makes the German market unique (25:33)
  • On key learnings regarding regional differences in which ads perform well (27:58)
  • On why Taboola is investing in AI/ Machine Learning (30:14)
  • On the impact of the Taboola Newsfeed on regarding engagement and revenue (31:42)
  • On factors impacting ad placement (36:25)
  • On the impact and challenges of the new GDPR regulation (37:09)
  • On the new Taboola self-service business, its revenue and what delayed its launch (39:03)
  • On Taboola’s goals in the short-term and thoughts on an IPO (41:05)
  • On what company Adam would found today from scratch and why (45:01)
  • On companies Taboola could acquire to reach their goals (47:12)

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