How Facebook Instant Articles Can Win Back Publishers

With their strong focus on user experience, Facebook and Google have frequently talked about how consumers don’t like slow-loading pages, especially on mobile. As a result, both companies changed their algorithms to favor fast pages in their feeds and search results.

It was somewhat of a relief for publishers, then, when both Facebook and Google put out high-speed mobile page load options for publishers that in theory can help increase traffic and favorability on the platforms. However, now that publishers have had some time to test the two offerings, it’s clear that the values of Facebook Instant Articles and Google Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) have so far not been equal. I believe AMP has shown significantly more value for most publishers.

On mobile devices, page abandonment from slow-loading content can be very high. Upon launch, many publishers viewed Facebook Instant Articles as an important feature to embrace, as the vast majority of Facebook traffic is on mobile devices.

However, restrictions on content design and monetization options have resulted in limited opportunities, ultimately impacting long-term customer relationships. Facebook Instant Articles is basically an image feed, where content is pulled into a standard template with rigid advertising and layout standards controlled by Facebook.

Many publishers have also found that they don’t see much of an increase in traffic from participating in the program, and they get very little data to analyze how to improve their offerings. Over the last few months, publishers have started to back out of Instant Articles because they’re not seeing an increase in revenue or traffic while they’re doing more work.

Conversely, Google AMP has proven to offer strong benefits and more flexibility for publishers, even though it has garnered less attention. AMP puts publishers in control of the user experience, allowing publishers to collect a much wider range of data, and it allows for many more direct monetization options using publishers’ own ad units.

Publishers can design AMP pages much more like an extension of their own mobile website than is possible on Instant Articles. There aren’t strict limits on ad-to-content ratios or links to generate emails or app downloads, and templates can be tweaked to the publisher’s preference. Publishers can sell and use the ad units they know work best for their content, which makes it much more likely to achieve a lift in revenue when using AMP over a regular mobile article page. Add in the wide number of metrics available through Google Analytics, and publishers have a lot of insight and control over what works and what doesn’t.

Formatting content to work with AMP also automatically improves the page’s organic rankings on Google Search, resulting in traffic surges for most participating publishers. Even if Google hasn’t said that AMP pages rank better specifically, they do openly consider overall mobile friendliness and page-speed factors in their search algorithms. AMP articles have also been shown in a separate carousel at the top of the search results page, which generates additional traffic growth and visibility.

The two products are relatively new to the market. Facebook still has a good chance to win publishers over and improve upon Instant Articles, and it should use AMP as a model. After some negative publisher pressure, Facebook added new features, including promotional links for email signups and publisher app downloads, as well as several new ad unit types that can be added to their templates, but they still have a ways to go.

Publishers should keep talking to Facebook and encourage the company to follow Google’s example in three dimensions: traffic, revenue flexibility and customized design. Facebook’s Journalism Project promises to help high-quality publishers, but Instant Articles so far benefits Facebook more than anyone else. If publishers are going to spend the time and effort to use Instant Articles, they need to see a meaningful lift in traffic and revenue, and today, that’s still not happening. Google AMP literally amplifies traffic through search results and links back to the publisher site.

Facebook must give publishers more flexibility to generate revenue in the short term while also maximizing lifetime customer value. This is where issues like data analysis and links to the publisher’s own content are crucial for establishing long-term engagement.

Publishers also need more levers to customize the design and user experience to ensure maximum engagement and brand relevance. This not only matters for creating user loyalty, but also to help fight against fraud, domain spoofing and fake news. If Facebook forces all brands to use identical templates, users become immune to publisher brands and low-quality and copycat content gets the chance to flourish. Facebook needs to give good publishers the tools to differentiate and enhance the content they spend so much time and money creating.

Today, most people are viewing content on mobile devices. For publishers to reach them profitably, they must focus on a mobile strategy that maximizes engagement over the long term. Facebook shouldn’t just be focusing on user experience (or its own traffic) to the detriment of publishers, which are the ones creating a huge amount of high-quality content for the platform. Over the long term, both “customers” – Facebook users and publishers – need to be well accounted for.