Anil Dash pointed out this weekend, arguments about the ethics and functionality of save-for-later apps like Instapaper and Readability have reached the same fever pitch as Blogger-vs.-WordPress-vs.-Tumblr had a few years ago. It's a matter of passion and honor (and name-calling) for industry leaders, but users just go on using the apps they like.As
That's as it should be, but there's definitely something worth arguing about for people who publish on the Web. Read-later apps are competition for noisy, ad-ridden websites. They represent a simple fact: Users hate our sites. What should we do? Should we let Readability handle our money and user experience as a middleman? I think we can come up with much better ideas than that.
Websites should think of Instapaper as competition. People are spending their reader-experience (RX?) dollars elsewhere, period. They don't want to pay publisher sites with impressions on ads they don't value, so they pay Marco Arment for a better reading experience. If publishers want to get those RX dollars, they have to deliver a great experience Instapaper can't provide. It's pure and simple competition.
Readability is more complicated. Its middleman model takes that bothersome aspect of reader experience out of the publisher's hands. Just like Instapaper, Readability provides a clean, beautiful place to read where the reader can make all articles look just the way she wants them to. But Readability goes further than Instapaper.
Readability wants publishers to like this arrangement. It wants them to let Readability subscribers provide a new revenue stream to make up for the lost ad impressions. In exchange, Readability and its users will control the reading experience and the value of the content. All articles will look the same for the reader.
Publishers shouldn't settle for that. Even if Readability's experiment works and makes publishers a few bucks, it's not a future of its own. Sites that want to matter (and profit) in the read-later age have to provide value that goes beyond articles that can be scraped and saved.
How does @anildash manage to write so much and yet avoid the central issue: Readability wants to decide how much our content is worth!— Al Shaw (@A_L) April 1, 2012
Websites Worth Visiting
If publishers want to stem the tide of impressions and money lost to read-later services, their sites need to not suck. (We're working on it.) But that's just the first step. There's still enormous value for users in saving all their reading - from all their favorite sites - for later in one quiet, beautiful place. Publishers need to let go of that. Give readers their articles.
It would help, of course, if articles were legible and ads were valuable in the publication itself. That's a worthy goal, too.
But there are so many ways content sites can be worth more time and money than they can collect from articles and advertising. Here are a few.
You can't save something for later that's happening right now. Live blogs are the only places to get up-to-the-second updates on a story in progress. Twitter works to a point, but live blogs can be better tuned to the way a team works and they can support more kinds of media. Publishers can make their sites indispensable destinations for people who want to watch news happen right now.
Sites can also be destinations for live shows. The information may not be time-sensitive, but tuning in live allows for interaction and participation. At ReadWriteWeb, we're experimenting with formats for this using Google+ Hangouts. The live posts don't happen on our site yet, but that's the goal.
This is similar to the live aspect, but it doesn't have to involve people at the helm. Sites can build dynamic applications that watch data sources and updating constantly. Whether it's social media streams, box scores, weather or poll results, data-driven live content cannot be Instapapered.
Even if it isn't live, content that takes lots of bandwidth and server-side support, like videos, slideshows or giant graphics, can't be easily saved or reformatted. This is hardly a revolutionary idea, but it's part of the package.
This is the most important one. Sites can't afford to be one-way tubes of information anymore. Communities of people build up around them, and there needs to be a comfy place for them to live. The people who make the site also have to be there if they want the community to develop any feelings for the place.
Make the site the best place to meet other people who love it for the same reasons. It's a surefire way to get them to visit. The Verge excels at this. Forum posts on The Verge look just like real Verge articles, which makes them feel just as important. They get TONS of interaction. Every Web publisher talks about wanting to "start a conversation" with its articles. It should follow that the publisher's site is the best place to have that conversation.
Don't Settle for Meh
In tech, we like to think that great new services will "change the game." It makes for great headlines. But it never works out in such a clear-cut way. All those blogging tools we argued about years ago exist side-by-side now, and none has transformed publishing all by itself. They each contributed ideas that moved things along.
Read-later apps will function the same way. Instapaper set a high bar for reader experience that publishers have to reach. Readability wants to monetize that experience and share the revenue with publishers. But even if publishers can someday depend on that money, they shouldn't. There are so many ways to make websites worth visiting. We should all stop settling for mediocrity that works for now.
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