The past few weeks have seen something of an inflection point for everyone in online media, including not just publications, but also the many companies that serve and feed off them.
Here's a quick recap of what's gone down.
- Apple began allowing for its smartphone users to block ads on their devices, and thousands took part.
- Google announced AMP, a mobile publishing framework that seeks to radically simplify article pages for mobile users.
- Facebook rolled out its Instant Articles program, which also aims for a simple layout but takes the extra step of hosting the content.
- The Internet Advertising Bureau went on the offensive, then reversed course, admitted that the advertising industry had royally messed up, and offered ideas to fix it.
All the while, developers, publishers (independent and otherwise), advertisers, and writers have all burst into discourse about the future of publishing and the mobile web.
Rather than discuss these matters point by point, here are some broad takes from our perspective on this interesting time in our industry: three things we're happy or optimistic about, and one we're not so bullish on.
Pro: People are Talking About the Speed of Websites
One major effect of the ad blocking discussion is that it's elevated the conversation about web performance. The speed of websites is a topic of discussion that until recently had a pretty limited audience. Other than frustrated users grumbling into the void about slow websites, the performance conversation was mostly driven by a handful of groups: 1) a cadre of performance-obsessed application developers at companies like Vox, The New York Times, and NPR; 2) vendors (like Yottaa!) in the web acceleration space; 3) vendors in the APM space, such as SOASTA; and 4) a small number of thought leaders at established web companies like Google, Yahoo, and Akamai. Not exactly mainstream stuff.
Now performance is suddenly front and center. The Atlantic recently remarked on the "industry-wide revolt against page loading speeds," while the NYTimes.com published a study of the effect of advertising on mobile page load times. Countless other articles have been written on the topic, including many in publications that don't specialize in tech.
This attention is somewhat validating for those of us who have been working on, and writing about, this problem for years.Told ya so! But that's less important than the actual changes that are happening as a result of this bunch of activity. For example...
Pro: More Companies Will Start Thinking More Holistically About UX and Performance
Performance issues, obvious as they are to end users, still play second fiddle to other initiatives in many organizations. The typical online publication relies on patch fixes to solve for specific issues and might occasionally enlist a team for a discreet performance project dealing with front-end optimization.
Instead, the model to shoot for is a company-wide focus, a culture of performance, from the top on down to each individual contributor. That includes developers, operations, content producers, and marketers, too – since those little scripts marketers love to add to their pages are pretty much the bane of app performance. Any time updates, additions, or revamps of web apps occur, performance should be analyzed and accounted for.
With ad blocking and native apps now tangibly impacting their primary revenue stream, we may suddenly find that a lot more media executives are thinking about web performance, making for a realistic chance of this kind of performance culture to take hold in more organizations. Which is why...
Pro: User Experiences, and Ads, Are Going to Get Better
The product of focusing on performance won't just be faster websites, but a more nuanced take on user experience. That's because when you really dig in and think about performance, you discover that it's not really about speed. That is to say, it's not a black or white issue, where a certain load time is nirvana, or ads are inherently evil. It's about creating an experience where, yes, the most important content loads lightning-fast, but less important stuff can wait until later (or never load at all), and ads and other third party content are dealt with appropriately – that is, incorporated smoothly without disturbing the experience.
Organizations that are great at performance almost always come to this conclusion, resulting in industry-leading UX. Just look at Amazon. By some conventional performance measures, their pages are miserably slow. Yet the experience is phenomenal, because it's been sequenced to match the needs of real users, not optimized for a certain numerical threshold.
Some of the pressure to improve is also going to be transferred from publishers themselves right onto the ad exchanges, advertisers, and media planners. As mentioned at the top, the IAB has new guidelines for improved web advertising. And as publishers seek better control over their user experiences, the way ads work will likely see gradual change.
Con: Regression of UX? Probably Not Going to Fly.
Google's AMP and Facebook's Instant Articles amount to a regression of user experience, by stripping out the majority of the features that make the current web distinguishable from Web 1.0. On the surface the projects make a lot of sense if you look at trends in how the mobile web is consumed. We know that the genuine desire among users to simplify the reading experience has not only begotten the ad blocking movement but also spawned apps like Pocket and Flipboard, "zen mode" options on certain websites, and the success of publishing platforms like Medium, with it's spartan layout.
But there are limits, and those will become evident.
For one, publishers have come to depend on extensive and sophisticated tracking and add-ons for editorial decision-making, selling advertising, and driving features that keep users browsing. Removing those entirely will not fly for a lot of publishers, especially those that can't rely on a brand name like the New York Times to ensure a stable readership and revenue streams other than digital display (like subscriptions, print ads, and ancillary products).
Moreover, the industry has seen awesome progress in how data is visualized, stories are told, and web apps interact with each other. Chaotic 10 MB apps aside, some leading publications have worked hard and succeeded in creating very compelling environments for consuming media. Sure, translating those experiences to mobile has been rocky to date, but we should seriously question if that alone is a good reason to give up and throw it all away.
Think of how much mobile experiences have progressed from the days of janky m.dot sites and thumbnail-sized Blackberry screens. The past 5 years have seen the advent of RWD, RESS and adaptive serving, 5 inch smartphone screens and faster processors. What's to say that the next 5 years won't yield the same pace of progress, allowing for ever richer, more interactive experiences on mobile? Ones that actually work well? Stripping down articles to achieve better performance feels like an overkill solution for a short-run problem. Something about a baby and bathwater comes to mind.
The web's growth has always been an additive process, and that's not going to change at a large scale. Some publishers might find success with AMP or IA for a portion of what they publish, but others will work to find a way to deliver performant experiences on mobile while keeping, and even increasing, the bells and whistles.