Published on Sep 01,2017
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It is no secret that Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to rule the world. And the latest weapon he’s unleashed in this quest for world domination is Instant Articles. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you must have a slight inkling of what it’s about; after all, the media went berserk over it, with some saying it was a great leap forward while others proclaiming the world would go up in flames the day Instant Articles went live. Amid all this hyperbole, the real essence of the story was somewhat lost. Here is a no-nonsense low down that will tell you all there is to know about Instant Articles:

Why Instant Articles?

Instant Articles are a part of Facebook’s recent strategy to establish itself as an epicentre of high-quality content. We’ve already witnessed Facebook Videos achieving exceptional growth ever since Facebook started encouraging users to upload native videos rather than provide links to third-party video sharing websites. Users are incentivized to upload videos to Facebook as native videos are likely to gather more views, due to the changes made to the EdgeRank algorithm. This strategy seems to have worked as Facebook is quickly gaining ground on YouTube in terms of daily views. The result is users spending more time on Facebook – whereas previously, users followed a link to watch a video on another site, now the video experience is available natively.

Instant Articles are being launched with the same goal in mind – to keep users on Facebook for as long as possible. If you’ve liked Buzzfeed’s Facebook page, you get updates when new content is published but you’re ultimately redirected to Buzzfeed’s website to read the full content. This is what Facebook wants to change – it wants you to be able to read the content in the confines of Facebook itself. Without publishing a single article by itself, Facebook wishes to become the biggest content provider in the world thanks to its massive user base. More users, more revenue and a sterling reputation as a content provider – that’s what Facebook stands to gain.

What are Instant Articles?

Currently available only on mobile and that too to a small test audience, Instant Articles can be accessed through the app or from the individual pages of the nine publishers Facebook has roped in to provide content during this testing phase. These include The New York Times, Buzzfeed, BBC, National Geographic and Bild. Clearly, these are all prestigious institutions publishing high-quality content and Facebook needs them to push it’s new service as an incredible, unparalleled mobile reading experience. And has it succeeded? In one word, yes.

Those who have experienced Instant Articles are raving about the quick load time (external links to content load is about 8 seconds while Instant Articles are reportedly 10 times quicker), magazine-like cover photos, videos that blend in seamlessly with the text, the ability to comment on or share only a specific part of the article, and audio captions that can read out the entire article if you’re too lazy to read it on your own – all in all, a mobile reading experience unlike any other!

What’s in it for the publishers?

Content publishers are the key to Facebook’s new operation and it is doing its best to lure them into the fold. Facebook has offered a lucrative deal to the nine publishers it has roped in until now. It has given complete control over their own content (the publishers are free to upload their contributions to Instant Articles and on their own websites as well). No restrictions on the type of content that is published (Buzzfeed is allowed to disseminate its sponsored articles), and most importantly, 100% of the ad revenue, if the publishers sell and serve the ads themselves (if publishers request Facebook to sell the ads on their behalf using its Advertising Network, Facebook takes a 30% cut).

Further, sweetening this deal is that Facebook’s algorithms will push Instant Articles as much as possible so that the publishers gain unprecedented visibility among users, boosting their traffic even more.

But will the Facebook-publisher relationship stay this fair forever?

Right now, Facebook needs the publishers dearly to get people on board its new product. But once that happens, publishers may find themselves in a situation where they don’t have the leverage they enjoy now.

Facebook is promising the publishers increased engagement and traffic in return for content. Currently, The New York Times gets about 14-16% of their traffic from Facebook. If Facebook’s Instant Articles bid is a success, that number could increase drastically, leaving the publication utterly reliant on Facebook traffic. In that situation, the publishers will lose the leverage they have now; a re-evaluation of the deal may then yield unfavorable terms for the publishers.

Traffic from search engines still exceeds Facebook referrals but all that could change with Instant Articles. When publishers host content on their own, inbound links from other sites lead back to the publisher’s website. This in turn boosts the website’s Google ranking and increases search traffic in the long run. But with Instant Articles, all links lead to Facebook, not the publisher’s site, which can mean that publishers end up trading search traffic for Facebook traffic, further leaving them at Facebook’s mercy and exacerbating the problem mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Finally, for smaller, lesser-known publishers, Instant Articles could be both a bane and a boon. With the precedence Facebook has promised to give to Instant Articles, it can be a powerful tool to increase engagement and gather new followers. But Facebook algorithms change frequently – a few years ago, all brands, big or small, were falling over each other to create a Facebook page as it promised greater engagement with the users than their websites. Fast forward a few years, and changes to Facebook’s algorithm have meant that organic reach is down to single digits and you need to pay money in order to get some semblance of engagement from Facebook. It isn’t impossible to imagine a future where the same might happen to Instant Articles.

As the initial test run is now over, Instant Articles will be rolled out gradually over the coming months with more publishers and more articles promised by Facebook. Only time will tell whether it brings Zuckerberg the crown of world domination or becomes one of those products that are all hype and no substance.

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