The Web Giants Are Raising The Performance Bar On Everyone

Guest author Mehdi Daoudi is the CEO and cofounder of Catchpoint Systems.

Throughout 2015, tech-industry leaders have made a series of bold moves under the noble guise of preserving Web performance—the speed and reliability of Web pages—for end users. There’s no doubt these companies ardently support creating the fastest, most reliable, and convenient digital experiences possible. 

But there are other motives at play, leading to fallout for several industries. So if you do any business on the Web, or via an app or mobile site, your revenues may be at risk.

Mobilegeddon Is Here

In April 2015, Google announced that a new mobile-search algorithm, dubbed “Mobilegeddon,” would begin penalizing sites not optimally designed for mobile use, resulting in lower site rankings in both mobile and desktop search results. 

In November, Google expanded this algorithm to penalize mobile sites featuring app-install interstitials that hide a significant amount of site content upon rendering. You’ve likely seen these come-ons that suggest you install an app rather than show you a mobile Web page.

It’s not clear if we should consider these interstitials ads in the traditional sense. House ads, maybe. Ideally, better use of deep linking into apps would obviate the need for them. But whatever you call them, they can be aggravating for mobile users, and Google is justified in taking a stand against them. 

But by discouraging—or at the very least, increasing the risk factor for companies considering—interstitials, Google is actually erecting a barrier to what has been a common means of promoting apps. Lower app adoption would cause the perceived value of in-app advertising to decrease, and likely sway companies away from in-app advertising and back to the more traditional realm of online advertising—which is where Google makes most of its money.

The App Switch

Apple, on the other hand, has a vested interest in encouraging companies to switch from advertising on websites and mobile sites, to in-app advertising, a potential goldmine for Apple. In news that rocked the online advertising industry—particularly news sites, which depend heavily on advertising-driven revenues—Apple announced that iOS 9 would support ad-blocking capabilities on mobile websites in its Safari browser. 

Once again, Apple positioned this news in support of end-user experience. But it’s hard to ignore the obvious—that ad blocking is aimed at traditional websites and mobile sites, not in-app ads; that ad blocking is not possible on the just-announced Apple News (increasing the perception of the service as a “port in the storm” for performance-challenged news publishers); and that ad blocking hurts ad serving (Google’s bread and butter).

What’s really going on here? No one is saying that Google and Apple aren’t genuinely interested in creating the best possible online experiences. But the recent announcements are skirmishes in a bigger war for Internet dominance, with these behemoths and others trying to stifle each others’ business models, sway advertising trends in their own favor, and gain a bigger piece of the online advertising pie. The end-user experience argument is their Trojan Horse, and other companies, large or small, are unwilling pawns in their master plans.

This battle is mainly being played out in online news. Facebook recently entered the fray by announcing Facebook Instant News, a program that natively hosts publishers’ content in the Facebook app news feed. In Facebook Instant News, articles can be downloaded in milliseconds, a vast improvement over the current industry average.

Facebook noted that publishing partners in Instant News would retain ownership over their online advertising revenue streams. But rumors are circulating that Facebook will eventually—directly or indirectly—tap into this revenue. 

For example, Facebook may have the option of charging the richest publishers for premier placement. And at a higher level, Instant News is just another sign of Facebook’s insatiable drive to be the online destination for everything. Furthermore, increasing eyeballs and time spent on Facebook would, of course, drive up the premium for Facebook ad space.

Enter Google again. In response to Facebook Instant News, Google and some partners announced AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) in October. AMP is an open-standards project designed to improve the mobile Web and enhance content distribution for publishers, while allowing these publishers to continue to host their own content and deliver compelling, effective ads. 

Not surprisingly, Twitter is a major partner in this endeavor, and it appears a viable alternative for news publishers who desperately want to improve performance, but don’t want to sell their souls to Facebook. Maybe Google is being “Mr. Nice Guy”—but maybe this was also a preemptive strike against Facebook, designed to lessen the appeal of Instant News and ultimately protect Google’s current position.

The Performance Free-For-All

Trying to make sense of all these moving parts, how they all fit together and what they all mean, is difficult. However, it’s clear is that the tech-industry titans are vying for control and trying to mold a version of the future Internet that’s most conducive to their individual businesses. 

This involves doing everything in their power to increase their share of the online advertising pie by generating more advertising-related revenues themselves, and in many cases, sucking the blood out of news sites, most of which are already dealing with declining profit margins.

Which behemoths will prove victorious in these battles? No one knows for sure, but we do know a fast end-user experience is their ultimate strategic weapon. They are using consumers’ and businesses’ increasing appetite for speed and convenience to undermine each other as much as possible. In the process, multiple industries are being forced to change, and some risk losing the game entirely. No one likes being forced into a position, but in this case, like it or not, stellar performance has advanced from being a must-have-to-win to a must-have-to-survive characteristic.

Photo by Steven Pisano

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