Last week Facebook rolled out their latest feature for publishers — Instant Articles. It immediately started a discussion about the future of publishing and social media. Some warn publishers against using them and losing control over their content. Others say this is already happening, so Instant Articles shouldn’t be treated as a threat. I decided to take a look at both sides and see what this is all about.
What are Instant Articles?
As the name suggests, these are fast, interactive articles that can be consumed by readers much quicker than before. Mobile readers especially — as the feature is related to the Facebook mobile app and created with mobile readers in mind.
Instant Articles open in the Facebook mobile app instead of directing readers to outside sites using the Facebook browser. So Instant Articles will load much faster — ten times faster, as Facebook claims. (and it could seem like forever, waiting an average of 8 seconds to load an article while staring at your phone!)
Loading time is not the only novelty in Instant Articles. They also include a set of interactive features such as:
- Zoom-in feature for photos by tilting your phone
- Auto-play videos played while you scroll through stories
- Interactive maps
- Audio captions
- Inline liking and commenting on individual parts of an article.
Looks pretty awesome, right? So where’s…
Remember when business pages were introduced on Facebook? The simple question was: would you swap your website for a Facebook page? And your answer was “of course not!” But why not?
Let me tell you why not. You should never lose control of your website. You wouldn’t want someone else — Facebook in this case — to decide who can see what you post (by changing the Edge Rank algorithm every now and again). And where would you be if Facebook suddenly decided your site violated Facebook policy and deleted it? What would you do then?
Control is key
Of course, you’ll never have absolute control over what you publish on the Internet (unless you keep it on your computer and show it to your friends yourself.) Google plays with your search results. Your hosting company has a big say in whether your readers can access your content. But still, you are the owner of your site.
On Facebook, you turn over control of your content and its distribution to Facebook (although Facebook says you actually keep it — more on that later).
It’s pretty much the same with Instant Articles.
When your article appears in the Facebook app, your readers never leave the network and no longer click through to your site. So even if Facebook claims that you keep control over the content, some say you’re giving your audience away to Facebook. (I’m not sure I can agree with that: your readers are already on Facebook in the first place, and Facebook is where they come from to your site, right?)
Of course, it’s clear that since they won’t land on your site, they won’t be able to click through to your other web pages. (But if they’re on their mobiles and simply click an article in their news feed, would they click through at all? Just wondering.)
I talked to our SEO manager about this yesterday. As an SEO guy, he very much opposes giving Facebook control over your content. As he put it, it’s a step from being “owned” by Google to being “owned” by Facebook, and Facebook has many more limitations. I agree, it is the next step — moving our content from search engines to social networks. But I’m not yet convinced that this will be as bad as he depicts — you know how SEO guys are 😉
It does seem that Instant Articles make the publisher of the content much less relevant. After all, people will be reading the articles on Facebook.
Are there any upsides?
There seem to be quite a few: increased engagement for one, thanks to all the interactive features. The reach of Facebook shouldn’t be undervalued (what portion of the traffic to your site comes from Facebook?)
And then there’s the improved experience for users who read the articles on the go. They might be more engaged than when reading the “traditional” way (and that’s assuming they don’t quit while the site is loading).
Facebook also allows publishers to use their own ads in the articles (at least, for now) and keep the revenue. This policy compensates for the fact that publishers can’t direct readers to pages that promote their products or services. Publishers will also be able to track data and traffic with comScore and other analytic tools.
Should you be worried?
Honestly, I would say — not yet. First of all, Facebook has rolled out the feature with 9 of the biggest publishers, such as the New York Times and the Guardian. They will make it available to more publishers in time and say they’ll listen to feedback closely. So it’s not something an average publisher or business should worry about yet.
But it is an important step in content distribution.
As always with Facebook, we can expect the feature to change and evolve over time. The potential risk is that, once Facebook lays their hands on your content, they will not let it go easily. And another issue might be that Facebook will probably favor the Instant Articles over “standard” ones. We see that happening with Facebook embedded video, which now gets much more reach – and engagement – than videos linked from YouTube and other video services.
In a short while, you may face a choice between handing your content to Facebook for the sake of better reach and engagement versus keeping control and losing a good deal of reach and traffic.
We might be in for a content distribution revolution here!
Will Instant Articles catch on? Let’s watch closely and see.
I’m curious what you think — let me know in the comments!