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Google AMP & FaceBook Instant Articles: solutions for reader engagement?

The age of internet has brought a barrage of growing pains for publishers. As the architecture of the internet is increasingly re-designed and re-directed, publishers are having to adopt an experimental approach toward engaging their readership. But the experiments aren't always necessarily conducted by choice, but also by necessity.

With Facebook and Google being the largest discovery platforms for information on the internet, publishers have had to adapt according to how these information giants are guiding the way users get access to information.The two most recent changes are the advent of Facebook's Instant Articles (IA) and Google's Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP). Both of these new developments have been introduced in the past two years, encouraging a rise in what is being termed "off-platform publishing".

Overall, it is in a publisher's best interest to get internet users to visit their native website to consume content. This allows the publisher to engage the reader more directly as well as increase revenue per visitor. But, with the rise in Facebook and Google's control of internet traffic, they have the biggest influence on how this priority is achieved. Introduced last year, Facebook's Instant Articles feature allows publisher's content promoted through Facebook to be loaded within the Facebook app. Essentially, this feature 10x's the load time for articles, providing a smoother browsing experience. Below is a video demoing IA's functionality and discussing its implications:  

To compete, this year Google introduced its Accelerated Mobile Pages feature which basically accomplishes the same objective as an Instant Article, but in Google's search experience. At face, these additions may appear to be sweet, but the sour underneath is the question of if these features will actually drive more readers to publisher's native websites.

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Both IA and AMP lead to faster load times for content, but are they withholding the user from actually visiting the website the content is from? The Wall Street Journal illustrates that this is a question that many pilot customers of the Instant Article feature were asking last year as they were initially "finding it difficult to extract as much revenue per article from Instant Articles as they do from pages on their own websites." This problem is assisted by the primary limitation of the number and types of ads that publishers could use in Instant Articles. In response to the backlash of the IA adopters, Facebook IA product manager Michael Reckhow said his team was addressing the issue head on for future development.

Another issue adding to the fire is the changes Facebook is making to its master algorithm. In June 2016, Facebook shifted their algorithm to favor families and friends over publishers and brands. This change, in effect, reduced a lot of the traffic being directed from Facebook to publisher content. Presently, Facebook Instant Articles appear to be struggling in design as well as coordination with the larger whole of Facebook's system, leaving some publishers behind and others moving toward the other innovations.

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Speaking of which, Google's AMP appeared this past year and may be temporarily addressing the concerns with IA. The benefits are faster load times, higher exposure, and improved SEO rankings. But, in an article written for Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab, author Helen Havlak emphasizes caution in the use of this new Google technology.

First, she identifies AMP as a major source of new referrals for the pioneering adopters, which is consequentially a dangerous temptation. She emphasizes that being able to optimize news against search results gives publishers reach to an "enormous number of new readers". This feature of AMP will tempt publishers to create content based on anticipated search demand vs. true, genuine news. Additionally, AMP also limits the publisher's ability to control the appearance of their content, effectively narrowing the gap between what internet content appears to be real and fake. Apart from these initial concerns, publishers like The Verge are concerned about their long-term ability to convert AMP page viewers to native site explorers, much like the case with Instant Articles.

With the recent appearance of these new technologies, it is difficult to speculate their long-term effectiveness as tools for reader engagement. Presently, it seems publishers have mixed feelings about the situation. What will be important going forward is how Facebook, Google, and publishers communicate to develop these tools to make producing and finding content on the internet a better experience for all parties involved.

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Maranda Jones

Marketing Director at SquareOffs #OnwardandUpward

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