At the dawn of the internet age, we all hoped that giving more people the wherewithal to publish their own content would democratize the news and information landscape. But everyone quickly realized that publishing was a far cry from reaching an actual audience. If you wanted your content to be consumed, it first had to be found. That’s when Google came onto the scene. Now we rely so much on the search giant to weigh the merits of webpages that every time the algorithm is adjusted it causes a huge scramble among content providers to update their strategies. But Google isn’t the only company with this much disruptive power anymore.
Anytime the term social media is mentioned, the first platform that comes to most people’s minds is Facebook. So, when Facebook makes a major change, you can be sure everyone in the content game will take notice—including Google. Now we have a new disruption called Instant Articles, which lets providers publish content directly on Facebook instead of posting links that take readers back to the publishers’ own websites.What does it mean for digital marketers?
Instant Articles is in limited release, so it’s currently only open to big players like The New York Times and BuzzFeed (remember when it would’ve been odd to see those two mentioned in the same sentence). But digital marketers are already in a tizzy. This is because social media in general, and Facebook in particular, refer a good deal of traffic to businesses’ websites. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Facebook is responsible for an average 60% of referral traffic to publishers’ sites. With Instant Articles, publishers will still be able to reap the rewards of directly sold ads, but as pageviews to their home sites diminish, they may have a harder time selling ads because of the lower circulation numbers.
The reasoning behind Instant Articles is that Facebook users will have a much better experience viewing articles on mobile devices if they can stay on a single app instead of waiting for an entirely different website to load. But of course this also puts Facebook in a strong negotiating position with content providers.
What’s most disturbing to inbound marketers, though, is that it’s going to be much more difficult to convert visitors into leads and nurture them if they’re consuming content on someone else’s website. It’s also going to be much harder to get any meaningful data to measure progress and guide future strategy, since a large portion of your traffic is going to be on the other site. And links to Facebook articles won’t contribute to your site’s authority, so you could lose out in the SEO arena as well.
The first response to Instant Articles from HubSpot, a leading inbound marketing company (and Aptera partner), was from Kipp Bodnar, who writes,
“When you make a deal with Facebook, you give up control. When you give up control, you give up the ability to predictably drive growth and revenue – which is exactly what marketers aim to do. Through their website, blog, and other marketing assets, marketers work to drive conversions and properly educate potential customers. By using Instant Articles, marketers and publishers aren’t just giving up control of their distribution over to Facebook – they are also giving control of their audience over to Facebook.”
Bodnar makes the important observation that the 60% figure cited by the WSJ is for referral traffic, not total traffic. A study by Conductor he links to finds that social and referral traffic make up just 17% of the average site’s total. While 64% comes from good old-fashioned organic search. Bodnar concludes that marketers shouldn’t bother lobbying Facebook to get their blog content distributed through Instant Articles. Instead, we should all continue courting the Google search engines the way we have been for years. I have to wonder if he sees the irony in hoping that Google will, at least in a sense, save us marketers from Facebook.
Just two days after Bodnar’s post went up, his HubSpot colleague begged to differ… somewhat. Joe Chernov argues in his post that marketers needn’t worry about the new publishing tool. The main problem he finds with Bodnar’s case is that it presumes inbound marketers should have control, when in Chernov’s view “the fundamental premise of inbound marketing is that the consumer (in our case, the reader) is in control.” He goes on:
“Admittedly, if Instant Articles is rolled out to brand publishers, we might find ourselves having to rethink our SEO strategy – in the conventional, Google-centric sense of the phrase, anyway. And I’d be surprised if the 'container' supported the calls-to-action that are so vital to lead generation. But, provided we are able to pair the right topics with the right blend of words and images, then what we stand to gain is at least on par with what we sacrifice. That is, new DNA in our customer gene pool.”
Change is coming, in other words, so we’d better figure out a way to make the best of it. And the silver lining Chernov sees is that Instant Articles is designed to encourage sharing. Our current SEO strategies rely on attracting people deliberately seeking out information in our areas of expertise. With social sharing, though, people can find our content even if they don’t know they’re interested in it. These are usually the hardest people to reach, and your content would be coming to them from someone they likely know and trust.
Anyway, Chernov assures us, Instant Articles won’t lead to any major disruption. He recommends marketers experiment using the publishing container to distribute more time-sensitive and news-y content, stuff that probably won’t attract much organic search traffic long-term anyway. I would add that it might be a good idea to post think pieces (like this one) on Instant Articles too, since they can be hard to find through search and tend to get a lot more play from shares.
I’m not sure Chernov fully addresses Bodnar’s concerns about ceding so much control over your content distribution to Facebook. Sure, in the end, we have to give readers what they want, but the problem is Facebook knows that as well as we do. Not only will readers be far more likely to return to their Facebook feed after reading your post than they will be to consume more of your content or move further through your marketing funnel—but over time it will likely get increasingly difficult to get those readers to go anywhere else. Bodnar cites evidence showing that Facebook’s move to allow videos to be posted directly on users’ feeds has put them on a course to overtake YouTube as the platform of choice for consuming videos. This could happen with articles and other content as well.
The danger then isn’t just that marketers will lose control over individual readers’ experience of the content; there’s a chance businesses’ own websites and blogs will begin to play a diminished role in online content consumption. In such a future internet marketing dystopia, if you want to reach potential readers—potential customers—you’re going to have to go through Facebook. And most marketers remember all too well working to create outstanding Facebook profile pages for their companies, thinking they’d have a great platform for pushing out new content—only to have Facebook turn around and implement a pay-for-play model. The strategy seems pretty clear: get em hooked, then jack up the price.
But it will be interesting to see how Google responds if something like this scenario starts to play out. If Facebook starts looking like the king of content distribution, that detracts from the importance of general searches. This is because people will spend a larger portion of their online time viewing shared articles as opposed to searching for new ones. And there’s nothing stopping Facebook from eventually giving you the option of searching for articles among those posted by providers you’re following or shared by friends. Fewer people would ever bother leaving Facebook to do a Google search.
To prevent this from happening, Google may find a way to adjust the search algorithm so that it credits a providers’ homepage with link authority garnered through Instant Articles. That would go some way toward preventing the loss of organic search traffic that would make providers more dependent on Facebook. If enough quality content remains outside the container, people will still have ample incentive to use the big search engines.
Or Google may find another way to respond to Instant Articles. Or Facebook’s move may not have much of an impact after all. It’s too early to tell. For now, though, I have to agree with Bodnar: this is a really smart move for Facebook. But marketers should probably be a little leery.
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