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How Facebook is Eating the Internet with Instant Articles

Posted on May 28th, 2016 by Graeme

Last year, Facebook began to allow publishers to distribute content directly on Facebook, meaning readers would be able to get their news without having to leave the platform. Skeptics will have dismissed the concept as just another example of Facebook eating the internet, as people wouldn't even have to visit traditional blog sites to read articles - Facebook would have everything.

Improving content on the Internet

After finding out more by creating some Instant Articles myself, I've seen them in a positive light for the publishing industry. The bottom line is that they create a much better user experience for readers, with potentially great side effects:

  • Instant Articles may lead to the promotion of truly quality content that caring authors spend time writing.

  • They may lead to a reduction of spammy 'content marketing' that dominates the Internet, where we see unoriginal listicles churned out with an underlying purpose of making conversions and sales.

What is an Instant Article?

When I saw a post from Tech In Asia saying they were now supporting Instant Articles, I was curious to check it out...

"Read our articles on-the-go lately? Noticed anything different?"

...and I found there was no difference!

FB Instant Articles are only available on their mobile app

It never occurred to me that Instant Articles are only available within Facebook's native app on a mobile device, as I found out when I grabbed my phone:

Compare the old experience of a non-Instant Article from the BBC (on the left) with an the new Instant Article from Tech in Asia (on the right):

Normal article
Instant article experience

Given that my phone is connected to a Wi-Fi, it's really slow to load a normal article compared to an Instant Article. It also becomes obvious what problem Facebook are solving - to take the pain out of reading on the go.

Improving the experience of reading

In the past I've often refrained from clicking articles posted on Facebook (especially on mobile), scared to be taken to some external site that would take an age to load on my 3G network. On top of that, there's chance I could be subjected to this type of janky experience:

Image by Lauren Holliday

Who wants that? Forbes is a great example of this bad experience for readers. They even go to the extent of checking whether you're using an ad blocker - and if you are, then they will block you out!

Along with many of us, Lauren Holliday (founder of Freelanship) points out how she will avoid sites with so many adverts and popups, even if their content is great:

"The Forbes experience makes me cray cray. So cray cray that I always take the risk of missing a really great article as opposed to uninstalling my ad blocker or opening a different browser, like Safari, to read the post."

All these constant interruptions take your attention away from the content, even degrading it, which is exactly what Instant Articles solve.

Cutting out the crap

Instant articles reduce the number of adverts and popups on a page, whilst creating a well formatted piece of content that's easier to read. Hopefully, this will start to defer those whose sole focus is on call to actions (rather than the message they're telling) from writing at all. Without a call to action, why would they produce content?

Writers still have to make a living, so Facebook has provided a less obtrusive, more consistent way of including ads, as shown in one of my own Instant Articles below (left). Aditionally, related instant articles are shown at the bottom of your article (see below right):

Instant Article advert
Related instant articles

For an article to be published as an Instant Article on Facebook, it must follow their set of design and development guidelines, which in short:

  • Strip out all the JavaScript (meaning all annoying popups are gone)
  • Remove call to actions from the end of articles (no more requests to sign up for things you don't want)
  • Remove inconsistent advertising (Facebook provides their own native way to insert adverts)

The result is a better reading experience on the go. Facebook highlights more benefits here:

The future of publishing

After noticing instant articles were identifiable with the lightning bolt icon, I started seeing them everywhere - hosted by different providers such as Google and Apple.

Lightning bolt icon

Google have a version called AMP:

Google AMP in mobile browser
AMP articles

Apple have Apple News:

Apple News article

LinkedIn are playing catch up

LinkedIn have only just started implementing their own version of instant articles - at least they're thinking about it!

With all that Instant Articles bring, I don't know why you can only access Facebook's through their native app. Unlike Google's AMP, they're not currently available on mobile browsers.

I also expected instant articles to be available on desktop devices from the start, despite them being described for mobile only. This is probably because we're used to thinking across devices (often mobile first) these days, expecting a similar experience across every screen size.

A reduction in call to actions and popups are quite significant to my reading experience, so I think it would be great to see this concept carried across some day, just to reduce excessive JavaScript and popups.

Article composed with the online wysiwyg editor. Please subscribe for a membership to remove promotional messages like this one from the edited documents.

Have any thoughts?