Facebook Pushes Speedier News Publishing

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The FINANCIAL — Facebook Inc.’s move to directly host news articles marks Silicon Valley’s latest attempt to appeal to impatient mobile consumers, according to Nasdaq.

On May 13, the company announced an initiative, dubbed Instant Articles, in which nine media organizations will publish content directly on Facebook’s iPhone app, rather than just links. Participants include the New York Times, National Geographic and BuzzFeed.

Facebook said this experiment will allow users to access articles about 10 times faster than they can now. The average load time? Just eight seconds, Facebook said. But for smartphone users, that’s a lifetime.

“Speed matters and doubly so in an impatient world where our attention is fragmented,” said Bubba Murarka, a partner at venture-capital firm DFJ, who previously led Facebook’s product-development team for Android and who is an investor in a startup called Twin Prime, which focuses on speeding up native apps.

Faster downloads can help Facebook bolster its dominance on mobile devices, where users increasingly spend their time. Having users stick around longer would give the social network better data on its users, which it could then parlay into showing users more relevant–and lucrative–ads.

Publishers hope Instant Articles will help them gain a foothold in the fast-growing mobile world. A recent Pew Research Center study said nearly two-thirds of American adults own a smartphone, up from just over a third in the spring of 2011. A separate Pew study found 39 out of 50 news sites have more traffic coming from mobile users than from desktop.

It also offers closer ties with the social network that is the leading source of referrals to their sites; some say Facebook accounts for as much as 70% of their traffic.

“People don’t want their Facebook experience interrupted–they want their content consumption to happen within their newsfeed,” said Shaul Olmert, founder of Playbuzz, a publisher of quizzes and lists that have been very popular on Facebook.

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To entice publishers, Facebook is allowing them to keep all the revenue from any ads they sell to accompany their content. Publishers can sell excess ad inventory through Facebook’s advertising network and keep 70% of the revenue.

But many publishers are wary of Facebook’s growing power as a portal for news on smartphones, heightened by their lack of control over the algorithm that governs users’ newsfeeds. Facebook has a history of tweaking the algorithm in response to user complaints, which in turn took a toll on publishers’ online traffic and advertising dollars. The Wall Street Journal isn’t participating in Instant Articles.

Facebook said Instant Articles will be ranked in its newsfeed using the same criteria as other types of content– namely the number of users who “like,” comment or otherwise interact with the articles and how much time users spend reading them.

If users embrace the faster loading speeds, those articles are likely to find their way into more users’ newsfeeds, industry executives said.

Tech companies long ago drew a connection between slow loading speeds on the Internet and their bottom lines. Amazon.com Inc. said previously a delay of even one-tenth of a second in loading its website nipped about 1% from its sales. In 2009, Google Inc. said slowing search results by 100 to 400 milliseconds–less than half a second–meant users conducted between 0.2% and 0.6% fewer searches.

On mobile devices, the stakes are even higher. In 2013, Google recommended to website operators that their mobile pages should load in less than one second. At that time, just 16% of Fortune 100 websites came close to that threshold, according to a report from the marketing firm The Search Agency.

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The publishing initiative also underscores Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg’s increased emphasis on Facebook’s mobile strategy, including the acquisitions of the photo-sharing app Instagram and messaging service WhatsApp.

Today, Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram are each among the 10 most installed and used mobile apps in the world, according to a recent report by mobile-intelligence company Quettra Inc.

That suggests that consumers increasingly view Facebook’s mobile apps as must-have utilities rather than niceties. Roughly twice as big a share of Facebook users visit the network daily as at other social networks, Barclays said in a report Tuesday.

“On mobile, Facebook’s kingmaking ability is similar to Google’s on the Web,” said Ankit Jain, Quettra’s founder and a former executive at Google Play.

Faster loading speeds will encourage publishers to add more images and videos to their articles, which may help draw even more users, said S&P Capital IQ analyst Scott Kessler

Last year, Facebook attempted to create its own news app, called Paper, but less than two months after its launch, downloads fell sharply. Facebook says it is still supporting the Paper app.

Wednesday, just five articles were published across Instant Articles, one each from the Atlantic, New York Times, NBC News, National Geographic and BuzzFeed. More articles are expected to come soon.

The first of the “Instant Articles” were not only faster but had different fonts and eye-catching features, including auto-playing video and clearer photos. But they weren’t necessarily more popular. BuzzFeed’s first post, a list called “13 Steps To Instantly Improve Your Day,” was liked about 2,000 times, fewer than other stories posted on May 13, including “21 Stages Of Leaving An Assignment To The Last Minute,” which nabbed about 7,300 likes by the evening.


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