Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Related Posts Showdown: LinkWithin VS Outbrain VS nRelate

If you've been blogging or reading blogs for any amount of time, then you've probably noticed, or might even already have installed a related posts widget. They are a great idea and an effective method for increasing page views and reducing bounce rates by encouraging visitors to stay on your blog longer by showing them a list of other enticing posts that "They Might Like".

In my opinion, the choice of whether or not to install one of these widgets on your blog is a no-brainer. There are no drawbacks, unless you maybe have a small and infrequently updated blog with a limited amount of posts such as this one. In that case, you might want to hold off on it until you've built up a decent amount of posts or articles. However, if you have an established blog with a healthy number of posts, then you are missing out if you don't have a related post widget.

The only real question, and one not so easily answered is, of the many available solutions out there, which one do I use? 

LinkWithin? YARPP? Outbrain? IGIT? nRelate? SimpleReach?

As you can see, there are several competing widgets designed to display related posts on your blog, and at first glance all the most popular ones do look similar and seem to be worthy choices. However, as I will point out below, there are some important differences to be aware of when making your selection.

I've been blogging for about 18 months now, and for most of that time I've been using a related posts plugin on my main blog, Bonjour Tristesse. Over that time, I've thoroughly examined a few of these offerings, namely LinkWithin, Outbrain and nRelate. The most of the others are designed exclusively for Wordpress blogs, so I couldn't consider them for my Blogger blog. In this post I will share my overall experiences with those three to help you choose the right one for you.


No doubt currently the most popular related posts widget around, LinkWithin is an established presence and brand that practically everyone in the blogosphere is aware of. When I was starting out, I saw it on quite a few other blogs, so naturally it was also the first one I tried out.

To its credit, LinkWithin is a very simple and easy solution to add to your blog. You don't have to sign up, and with just a few effortless clicks you can be up and running. If a simple set and forget solution is what you are after then LinkWithin is an excellent choice.

I used it for the first 3 months or so of my blog's existence, and was completely happy with its functions. However, as I started to get the hang of things, I began tinkering more and more with my blog, learning how to customize various things from within Blogger, I also began to become frustrated by the lack of options offered by LinkWithin, and it's lack of tracking statistics. I found its simplicity to be a curse, as the only thing you can easily change is the amount of posts shown.

So I began the search for an alternative to try out, which led me to...


I don't recall how exactly I came to discover Outbrain, whether I saw it on another blog or found it by Google, but I was glad I did.

What initially attracted me was the cleaner default layout, one with only a tiny unobtrusive [?] in the bottom right corner, and also their claim of a more advanced widget, one that promised increased traffic by personalizing the links shown according to advanced algorithms, instead of simple random selections like LinkWithin.

Outbrain also had the same option of an easy-to-add free widget with no signup required, but I was enticed to sign-up in order to gain access to advanced features like a ratings system (since removed) and most importantly, reporting statistics to track the effectiveness of the widget.

Not all was roses though. After installing the Outbrain widget, I discovered that it was showing up in an odd position, on top of my Read More jump-links, not exactly the optimum placement for it; also there was very little whitespace between the widget and the post body, making it look cramped and cluttered; furthermore, each of the post titles shown also unnecessarily included my blog name at the end.

In the hopes of resolving those three issues I went over to their support forum and to no surprise found existing threads created by other bloggers with the same problems. What was unexpected and impressive though, was the rapid and friendly responses I received from multiple members of the Outbrain staff who worked quickly to fix the widget for me within hours of my requests. Until this point, I had never experienced such rapid and effective personal support, from a private company for a completely free service.

Unfortunately though, it seems they haven't kept up as well with this side of their business, as I have a more recent, less satisfactory encounter with Outbrain's support that I will get into a bit later.

Anyhow, I happily used the Outbrain widget for the next 9 months. During this time, I ran into no further issues with their widget, and everything continued to work nicely as my blog steadily grew. I especially loved using their neatly laid out dashboard to periodically check up on my stats reports.

Although I was seeing a decent CTR (Click Through Rate), with an average of 4.75% between January to September 2011. I couldn't help but begin to wonder about the true effectiveness of these 'personalized links', links which often appeared to be completely unrelated to the current post. So I started looking around to see if there might not be an even better alternative to Outbrain.

Enter the latest challenger nRelate...


While researching for a new widget I noticed a lot of positive buzz for nRelate, a relative newcomer to the content recommendation game, offering yet another simple to use and easy to install widget, with claims of a 5-12% page view increase, and a very impressive amount of widget customization options. I decided to give them a 90 day test run at Bonjour Tristesse.

Just like the others, nRelate gives you the option of installing without signing up, but then you don't get access to their superior customizing features, nor do you get to see the all important usage statistics.

One point to be aware of here, installation on your blog is not nearly as immediate as the others. nRelate says it takes about 2 hours after installing for the widget to begin to show up on your blog. In my experience it was more like 8 hours.

But once it does appear, you can login and change a wide array of settings that none of the other guys offer. Such as: the choice of several different thumbnail sizes; the ability to use your own custom default image; a half dozen different preset layout themes; the ability to completely disable the nRelate logo if you wish; and the most interesting one, you can toggle the degree of relevance you want your resulting links to have from low, medium, or high.

On my blog, I found the high setting was not very practical, returning only a limited number of links and sometimes none at all. The medium was slightly better, but still quite often didn't come up with the maximum 4 links that I had it set to. I had to settle for the low setting to guarantee a consistent amount of link results. Of course your results will vary depending on the amount and type of content on your blog.

All of that fancy stuff is nice, but ultimately what I was after was an increase in CTR over what I was previously getting from Outbrain. So most important for me was access to nRelate's reporting features to keep an eye on things.

Unfortunately, a couple of weeks after installing the widget, nRelate rolled out a system update which inadvertently caused me to lose the ability to see my stats. After failing to find a support link via the dashboard menu—there currently still isn't one—I finally noticed a nondescript support email address published in the welcome screen after you log in.

I sent an email to this address detailing my problem and received no response or acknowledgment for days. Eventually I discovered a link to their support forums in the footer of their main site and made a post there which was answered relatively quickly and got my problem taken care of. If anyone from nRelate ends up reading this, you guys may want to consider adding a link to the support forums in a visible location somewhere within the logged in partner dashboard.

With access to the stats restored, things rolled along smoothly for the remainder of my time with nRelate.  I did find that the nRelate stats reports are much simpler and not quite as detailed (for example there is no way to see which of your articles is the most popular), and the charts and tables are not as visually fetching as Outbrain's very well designed reporting screens. Also, if you are an advanced user, they lack the ability to export your numbers into an Excel spreadsheet.

After 90 days, my average CTR from nRelate ended up being a disappointing 3.29%. A 1.5% drop from Outbrain. That might not sound like much, but for every 10,000 page views, that is an extra 150 hits lost. Of course this wasn't any kind of controlled scientific experiment, and there are many factors that could have contributed to this lower CTR, but the positive experience I've had with Outbrain in the past, combined with the more user friendly interface and advanced stats prompted me to switch back.

I do still highly recommend nRelate though, especially for its very extensive customization features, and for one other thing I haven't mentioned - the fact that they do not perform any redirection on the links in their widget. I'm not entirely sure of the SEO implications of link redirection, but both the LinkWithin and Outbrain widgets briefly redirect your visitors to their internal sites before bouncing them back to you. Although I personally have not found this to be a problem, some have claimed that this is in effect 'stealing your link juice' so it is something to be aware of.

Conclusion - Return to Outbrain

I switched back to using the Outbrain related posts widget on January 1, 2012 and immediately noticed a problem with the wrong thumbnails being scraped from my latest posts. I headed straight for the support forums where I had great results in the past and opened up a ticket.

Knowing it was New Years and the holiday season I didn't expect a lightning fast response, nor did I get one. I eventually got a response on January 4 that didn't quite solve my issue, but at least I had acknowledgement. After I replied back for clarification, I uncharacteristically did not receive any further communication until almost a month later. Finally on February 2, just as I was about to throw in the towel and head back to nRelate, someone from Outbrain came to my aid and fixed my problem. Hopefully things are back to normal now, but I haven't had any issues since, so I don't know if their response times have improved.

Despite the support delays, I will be staying with them for the time being, especially since my click rates have returned to what they were before. But I will also keep a close eye on nRelate as they remain an extremely viable alternative that with a few improvements could easily become my first choice.


LinkWithin is good if you want to keep things simple.

Outbrain is my widget of choice for performing slightly better in CTR and providing a great interface for stats.

nRelate remains just a nose behind Outbrain, but still an excellent choice with the most superior custom features of all.

Did you find this article helpful? Which related posts solution do you prefer? Let me know in the comments below.

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