If you want a really interesting/frightening take on how Facebook’s new Instant Articles feature might change the web, head over to Danny Sullivan’s column on MarketingLand. Sullivan is a longtime observer of Google and the search world. All he has done is take Facebook’s press release for its new on-Facebook news publishing platform, and change all the “Facebook” references to “Google.”
The result suggests an unrecognizeable future in which publishers might be persuaded to largely abandon publishing stories on their own sites in favour of simply embedding them as native content on Facebook and Google.
That would leave the web as we know it — a vast collection of varied web sites all doing different things — a largely empty place for news.
If Facebook can persuade news companies to publish their stories directly on Facebook, then Google could do the same, for exactly the same reasons, Sullivan says, using the voice of a faux Google press release:
As more people get their information on mobile devices, we want to make the experience faster and richer on Google. People search for a lot of information on Google, particularly on our mobile app. To date, however, these pages take seconds to load, far slower than Google itself. Instant Results makes the reading experience much faster than standard mobile web articles.
John Herrman of The Awl, in the same vein, warns that as stories on Facebook Instant Articles will load quicker than others, and as the Facebook Instant version of an article is substituted automatically even if someone shares the native outside link, then Facebook and its users will end up biasing in favour of Facebook and not the web:
If enough partners use Instant, and if there is enough good Instant content to read, users will begin to regard linked-out stories as weird slow garbage that should Not Be Clicked.
The reason this dystopian vision of “a web without news” is plausible is because Facebook is already part of the way along to creating a web without the web. About 28% of all time on the net is spent on Facebook. In developing countries, where Facebook comes preloaded on feature phones, many people believe that Facebook is, basically, the web.
Facebook’s revenues are trending toward $US14 billion a year. This is a company that now needs new businesses that will generate billions in sales to move the needle. It needs more of the entire internet, in other words.
By amazing coincidence — not — Facebook is also developing a search engine that will index its massive database of links and status updates. Doubtless this search engine will do a very good job of ranking Instant Articles, perhaps to the disadvantage of stories displayed on the external web.
If you’re a publisher, and Facebook is sharing revenue with you to publish your stuff on facebook first, why would you continue to bother with the web?
And as Sullivan points out, anything Facebook can do Google can do too. It already has a search engine of course, and it is already publishing and prioritising its own content on Google search over external web sites that provide the same or better information. (If you’ve seen those non-clickable fact boxes that Google sometimes gives you when you search for a well-known fact, you’ll know what I mean.) It is not a stretch to imagine Google saying, “we will give additional SEO to articles that can be served up instantly on our platform, over those that require another click to a web site of uncertain speed.”
The reality will probably lie somewhere inbetween — publishers will likely offer some content to Facebook while monetizing their native content on their own sites in addition. But it is likely, as Sullivan and Herrman say, that Facebook now gives readers fewer and fewer reasons to actually surf the web for news.