There are two things that rule the web and they are mutually exclusive: a high-quality, rich-content experience and speed. Both of these become even more critical on smaller screens and mobile devices. Facebook has been losing on both these fronts. Its mobile app takes forever to load an article just as Google and Amazon studies show that a 0.5 second increase in load time results in a 20% drop in traffic and a 100ms increase in load time leads to 1% fewer sales.
For Facebook the urgency to solve this issue has been compounded by yet another factor: relevance. There are only so many pictures of parties, babies and cats that Facebook users can share with each other before the data Facebook has on them becomes insufficient to understand relevance in terms of adverts they may want to see.
People don’t just talk about pets and kids and family parties. They also talk about what is happening in the world around them. Culture, society, movies, books, politics and science. All of this reveals aspects of a person’s personality, their likes, dislikes and potential needs and it all comes from content. The thing is content on Facebook is not always easy to share. An article shared with my Facebook friends will be seen by about 5% of them, organically on desktop and probably none on smartphone or tablet. Content shared with those few who may want to see it and click on a link to open it will most likely produce an end-user experience that will make it less likely for them to want to repeat it.
Facebook Wants All Your Content
A social network without content however very quickly becomes a Ground Hog Day trap where its members are doomed to, eventually, forever repeat the experience of their presence there. Facebook knows that which is why with Instant Articles it proposes to address all of this.
An experiment, at the moment, running only in the US with a select group of publishers, Instant Articles creates a Facebook-specific way of publishing content in Facebook only that Facebook will host. The end result is a fast, sleek reading experience for the network users with additional functionality thrown in that actually uses the medium to its full potential.
All this is in line with the “frictionless sharing” philosophy that Zuckerberg has reiterated time and again at f8 events. Getting more eyeballs on content, faster, with more pizazz and keeping them there is not a bad thing from a publisher point of view. It leads to longer engagement, better connection with the audience and, arguably, greater brand value for the publisher.
That’s where the good things stop, however.
Counterbalancing them are the stories about Facebook’s authoritarian and fickle News Feed algorithm which is coupled by Facebook’s authoritarian and fickle style of doing things in general and its total disregard for rules and regulations on content ownership and privacy all of which are in total keeping with Facebook’s “walled garden” approach.
Will It Work For Marketers and Content Providers?
Beyond ideology and algorithm ranking concerns is the question of whether Facebook’s approach will work for those who produce content in order to have an audience from which they can make money. As things stand right now the short answer is “yes”. Facebook needs publishers to produce content for it, without content it is unlikely to manage to improve the end-user experience, without improving it, it is unlikely to increase engagement on mobile or find better ways of targeting advertising in that environment.
We have seen that trajectory before, of course, as developer Paul Allen’s cautionary tale makes clear. Facebook is banking on getting all this content of course this and has added one more initiative that is aimed at utilizing it better via a mobile search.
There are many pieces coming together and as the New York Times article on this points out, there are undeniable short-term benefits to this and Facebook, for now, has removed all barriers.
Will Facebook’s Content Grab Approach Work?
The one argument against using Facebook too much was that “what happened on Facebook, stayed on Facebook” and in order for a brand to also have traction in search, it needed to engage in activities and work specifically targeted at improving its visibility in search.
In principle, with Facebook hosting publishers’ content and helping it become ever more visible that argument seems weaker. Facebook’s massive 1.4 billion size (at the time of writing) and convincingly long capture time of its members’ attention, are hard to resist. But that is not the whole picture.
To reveal it we only need to follow the money. Google does search well because it allows it to contextually target advertising from which it still makes 70% of its revenue. A poor search experience leads to fewer searches and fewer ads displayed. Poor search results relevance also affects the quality of ads shown which impacts the click through rate (CTR) and drives down revenue.
Facebook ads do not require search to work. Facebook captures user profile data directly by tracking activity within its walls and uses it to serve ads. It means that Facebook will use content to better understand (and target) its members but has little motivation to use search to do so, plus it may no longer be quite able to do so. There is only so much good search engineering talent to go round. Lars Rasmussen who made headlines when he left Google to become Director of Search at Facebook in 2010 has now jumped ship to pursue his own project leaving a hole in his wake. This also suggests the trajectory of the Facebook Instant Articles project.
Why Search is Important
Search is key for three main reasons:
The engineering that makes search behave intelligently enough to deliver targeted, relevant results to an end user with sufficient serendipity to also broaden their search horizon and delight them, in some way, uses signals that determine the importance of relationships between digital profiles, digital profiles and websites, websites and content, content and real world values. The transition from “strings to things” and “things to actions” that Google search is making possible is not necessary (or even feasible) within Facebook.
As long as a digital profile sees and interacts with an article Facebook’s monetary requirements are not only satisfied but are well on their way to grow. Whether that digital profile is real or not, whether the content is great or not are secondary considerations. And that is the Achilles Heel of the entire project.
To counter this Facebook might decide to make Instant Articles available to everybody. If a sizeable portion of its 1.4 billion membership blogged, wrote, photographed and created content on the platform you might argue that search working well is not really necessary. After all, Facebook works on the principle of the small world connections so with enough content shared by everyone one could argue that all the relevant content required will actually surface.
That is, actually true, but unlikely because of a simple requirement: cost. Hosting all that content requires computing capacity and data centers are expensive. When even Google has to make decisions based on creating efficiencies and economies in computational resources Facebook is unlikely to be able to do better. Plus, without a decent search it also loses the ability to make breakthroughs that allow it to optimize and make better use of its existing computational power.
The Bottom Line
Instant Articles represent the next, logical step for Facebook to grow its ad revenue income and improve the Facebook mobile experience but they represent a risk for publishers who will lose control of their content and are unlikely to ever replace the rich diversity of content found on the web.