Facebook Instant Articles

Facebook Instant Articles

Facebook’s pitch to host publisher content sounds great for improving user experience. But if Google follows in doing the same thing, it might not so great for the web.

Today, Facebook announced Instant Articles, a way for publishers to post stories directly on Facebook. We’ve known this would be coming, and there’s been some debate over whether it’s good or bad. But I haven’t seen that extended to what would happen if Google follows Facebook’s lead. It could, potentially causing the web to be swallowed up by two gatekeeping giants.

Introducing Google Instant Results

Allow me to demonstrate how easily Google could mimic Facebook. Here’s the top part of Facebook’s press release announcing the move. All I’ve done is replace the word “Facebook” with Google and made a few other small changes:

Today we’re excited to introduce Instant Results Articles, a new product for publishers to create fast, interactive pages articles on Google Facebook.

As more people get their information news on mobile devices, we want to make the experience faster and richer on Google Facebook. People search for share a lot of information articles on Google Facebook, particularly on our mobile app. To date, however, these pages stories take an average of eight seconds to load, by far the slower than single content type on Google Facebook itself. Instant Results Articles makes the reading experience as much as ten times faster than standard mobile web articles.

Along with a faster experience, Instant Results Articles introduces a suite of interactive features that allow publishers to bring their stories to life in new ways. Zoom in and explore high-resolution photos by tilting your phone. Watch auto-play videos come alive as you scroll through stories. Explore interactive maps, listen to audio captions, and even like and comment on individual parts of an article in-line.

We designed Instant Results Articles to give publishers control over their stories, brand experience and monetization opportunities. Publishers can sell ads in their articles and keep the revenue, or they can choose to use Google AdSense Facebook’s Audience Network to monetize unsold inventory. Publishers will also have the ability to track data and traffic through comScore and other analytics tools.

“Fundamentally, this is a tool that enables publishers to provide a better experience for their readers on Google Facebook” said a Google executive Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox. “Instant Results Articles lets them deliver fast, interactive articles while maintaining control of their content and business models.”

Paved With Good Intentions

I understand that Facebook has good reasons to offer Instant Articles. I’ve been frustrated many times waiting for some article to load, after clicking on a link at Facebook. It even happened to me today. I gave up waiting for the article to load. For this and other reasons, it also makes sense for publishers, at least in the short term.

Some do worry the move could cause publishers already too dependent on Facebook and its fickle News Feed algorithm to grow even more so. That’s a valid concern. But the bigger concern to me is that having a giant like Facebook suck so much content effectively within its walled garden gives license for that other giant, Google, to do the same.

Facebook’s Move Enables Google

Every argument Facebook has made for this program, Google could make as equally valid. Facebook’s move — which is backed initially by major publishers including Axel Springer’s Bild, will enable Google to have exactly the same type of program, if it wants. That’s especially ironic when Axel Springer is so critical of Google just linking to its content. How’s it going to feel when Google wants to actually host that content?

Google, of course, already hosts some publisher content now, most notably via YouTube. Google Currents, which I doubt few even remember, is closer to what Facebook is doing. But potentially, Google could leverage Facebook’s move to have a program where anyone listed in its search results has an option to host their content right on Google.

Because speed. Because user experience. Because interactive maps, zooming video, etc.

Despite all those good reasons, I worry what it means when the free and independent web is mirrored within the walled gardens of two giants, Facebook and Google.

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