Sunday, February 28, 2016

New mobile platforms aid users, penalize publishers

News publishers are again the pawns in a chess game among the big technology platforms, mainly Google, Facebook, and Apple.

And while publishers are losing control of their future, users are gaining a better experience with pages that load faster on mobile devices.

This is the scenario that is emerging with the expanded rollout of Facebook's Instant Articles, Google's Accelerated Mobile Pages, and Apple's iOS9 and News products.

I have spent a weekend reading over expert commentaries on the business and technical aspects of the latest innovations in Internet technology. What all three of these innovations have in common is that they are aimed at serving mobile users better and that they claim to help publishers gain revenue, audience, and data about users. Many of the commentators are worried that publishers are losing out to the platforms.

Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of the Verge, was warning back in November that the battle among Google, Facebook, and Apple to corral mobile users and advertisers would cause the most damage to independent digital publishers on the open Web.

Apple and Facebook want to keep users within their own walled gardens by getting publishers to design their content for those platforms rather than the publishers' own web pages -- distributed content. Google wants to keep them on the open Web, where its ad-serving technologies -- Double Click and AdX -- monopolize the market. Patel wrote:

"But what's happening now is that attention is shifting fast from desktop browsers — where Google's Chrome is dominant (and supports ad blocking!) — to mobile browsers. In particular, to Apple's Mobile Safari, which dominates usage statistics on mobile. . . . And with iOS 9 and content blockers, what you're seeing is Apple's attempt to fully drive the knife into Google's revenue platform."
Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab wrote of the coding requirements that publishers would have to meet in order to benefit from Google's AMP. In his view, these restrictions would favor Google's own ad-serving and analytics platforms and force publishers in some cases to code their contents in two separate formats, one for the open web and one for AMP. In AMP, they would not be allowed to use any coding -- so-called third-party scripts -- that is used in almost all ads and analytics packages. In other words, advertisers would have to adopt formats that favor Google platforms, and publishers would be able to get their analytics, and thus knowledge of their users, only through Google.
"Google notes that AMP isn’t a business partnership the way that Instant Articles or Apple News are; there’s no ad rev[enue] share to consider. But AMP tries to do something maybe even more significant: change the way that the web is built, killing off some technologies and advantaging others.
Google’s incentive here is obvious: It makes its money on advertising, and the vast majority of that advertising is on the open web. If Facebook (or some other platform, but seriously, Facebook) provides a markedly better mobile experience than the open web does, those advertising opportunities (and that user data) disappears into Zuckerberg’s Walled Garden of Earthly Delights."
Facebook recently announced that its Instant Articles will be available to any publisher as of April 12.

Google announced the rollout of AMP last week. Mark Bergen of Re/code reported that Google is promising publishers who adopt its AMP format will see their pages load up to 10 times faster on mobile devices because much of the code that delayed loading is stripped out.
"Unlike Facebook, Google doesn’t take a cut from publishers running on its platform. Directly, that is. Publishers can run ads within AMP as they normally do, but with only a select few ad-buying tools, including Google’s massive ones. There are restrictions — notably on an automated ad-buying practice called “header bidding” that lets publishers buy across several ad sources. Several ad industry sources said this restriction will likely push more publishers to turn to Google to run ads inside AMP."

Lucia Moses of Digiday reported that publishers have a number of questions about how AMP pages will affect their revenue, particularly in video.

"With growing consumption and ad rates, video is hugely important to publishers. But some publishers remain unsure about how well AMP will support their ability to publish video content and advertising. Google has a basic video player for AMP, but whether it can provide all the metrics that advertisers want is unclear."
What does seem clear is that publishers do not dominate the technology that determines how they reach their audiences and how they monetize those audiences. Even large media companies like the New York Times are beginning to look more like content providers than institutions that function like one of the pillars of democracy that we know as the Fourth Estate.


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