Instant Articles and Online Publishing

I didn’t give much thought to Facebook’s new Instant Articles feature until I noticed John Gruber’s take on it. He wrote about it from the perspective of an independent publisher and how efforts like it could impact his livelihood writing on Daring Fireball.

I’m intrigued by the emphasis on speed. Not only is native mobile code winning for app development, but with things like Instant Articles, native is making the browser-based web look like a relic even just for publishing articles. If I’m right about that, it might pose a problem even for my overwhelmingly-text work at Daring Fireball. Daring Fireball pages load fast, but the pages I link to often don’t. I worry that the inherent slowness of the web and ill-considered trend toward over-produced web design is going to start hurting traffic to DF.

Soon after John published, I started seeing a multitude of articles from other independent writers discussing the ramifications of Instant Articles and, ultimately, what online publishers need to do to maintain relevancy. Federico Viticci is concerned about a world in which every social network has its own Instant Articles-like feature, Peter-Paul Koch blames the proliferation of web development tools that bloat page sizes, and Om Malik explains that Instant Articles has refocused our collective attention on network performance and speed.

The web is still a wonderful place filled with a never ending supply of great content, but people will stop showing up once publishers push them away with enough terrible experiences. Although speed is what keeps getting everyone’s attention and is something publishers should definitely keep an eye on, the overall act of reading content on the web has lost its luster.

Facebook obviously has ulterior motives — there’s a great deal of value in keeping users inside of their ecosystem — but Instant Articles resonates with users because loading the average web page has become a miserable activity. So many sites these days plaster their pages with Javascript sharing links, Feedback buttons that hang off the side of the web page, banners asking you to download their iOS app, omnipresent navigation bars that shrink the amount of visible content, full page advertisements that require you to tap on tiny close buttons — I could go on for days. Not only is the average web page quite slow, but its a dreadful place to read. I hate loading a web page and being bombarded with junk. All I want to do is read the article you published. Why is that so difficult?

What I think it comes down to is greed. Online publications are often quick to sacrifice user experience in order to increase page views which they expect to increase revenue. Publishers are struggling to keep their revenue consistent, or even worse, ever increasing in order to account for their growing staff. And the only way they’ve found to increase revenue is by encouraging user “engagement” — typically adding a bunch of “call to action” or “social” features.

But, there’s a problem with the underlying thinking that increasing your ad views will translate into increased revenue. What seems to happen is the cost per impression paid to publishers has continued to decrease and its a matter of simple economics. As the supply of ad space increases the actually cost to advertisers per impression naturally goes down based on supply and demand. By covering their websites with advertisements and then making every attempt to increase page views, online publications are thrusting themselves into a world in which online ad space is worthless because of its ubiquity. I think the ad networks that are addressing this best are the single-ad-per-page networks like The Deck and Carbon Ads. They turn the traditional online advertising model on its head by not allowing publishers to cover their websites with ads. This increases the amount of attention each user pays to the ads allowing them to charge premium prices for each spot.

I don’t expect most online publications would be willing to move to an advertising platform like The Deck or Carbon Ads, though. These single-ad-per-page networks are just too radical of an idea for most of these companies. Instead, I expect most of them will slowly transition to publishing content through mediums like Facebook Instant Articles, and it will work for a while. Advertisers will be quick to jump onboard because its a new and exciting mechanism and there’s natural scarcity given that only a select few will adopt it early on. But, in time this medium will eventually succumb to the same pitfalls we see today on the web — obnoxious advertising and bad user experiences. It’s not going to happen all at once and probably won’t take place for many years, but eventually the slow erosion in quality will take place and Instant Articles won’t look all that different than the web of today.

I’m not worried about the future of online publishing. I expect one of three things to happen (or a combination there of) which will ensure that independent writers will continue to be able to make a living. The first possibility is that tools will eventually be built that allow writers to continue writing as they do today, but have their content seamlessly funneled into whatever ecosystem they want it in. Whether that be a service that reads a website’s RSS feed and turns it into an Instant Article or an application platform like Glide that will allow writers to produce content designed for viewing inside of an application, developers will build what’s necessary to allow writers to continue having an audience wherever that may be.

The second scenario is that this move from the web is simply a fad that will eventually die just as AOL keywords and a myriad of other technologies have in the past. Web developers and online publications will at some point (hopefully) realize the error of their ways and start producing web pages that are a bit more user friendly and readers will return to their web browsers again. Compound this with future increases in bandwidth speeds and there might not be a need to move to another publishing platform.

The third possibility is that some percentage of readers will disappear from the traditional web and will spend nearly all of their time reading content in ecosystems like Facebook. If that’s the case and developers aren’t able to build quality tools that change the way we publish today then many of us will have to double down on what we’re currently doing to maintain readership — engage with others in social networks, share links to our own content, build email newsletters that add a more personal touch to what we’re writing and makes it even easier for readers to reply directly to our thoughts from within the same application they read it in (their email app).

I would consider the last possibility the least likely of the above options as it assume that developers aren’t going to be working on new ways to deliver or consume content and that social networks like Facebook and Twitter are going to live forever. And that’s a bit too far fetched for me. Don’t get me wrong, its a good idea for most of us to double down on what we’re doing anyway, but developers are going to realize that there’s a need and build tools to provide a solution. And at some point all social networks fall by the wayside no matter how big or powerful they become.

I don’t subscribe to the doom and gloom scenarios that other writers have posited since Facebook announced Instant Articles. There are plenty of websites that need to take notice and start working towards a more user-friendly experience, but most of the writers I pay attention to already attempt to minimize page load times and completely avoid the Javascript toolbars and cluttered sidebars that are keeping other publishers down. The good thing is that us geeks already use tools that allow us to read the web in a more friendly manner — Instapaper, RSS readers, Safari’s Reader View, etc. And, I hope there’s plenty of developers working on ways for everyone else to catch up and start using these types of tools to improve their experiences as well.