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Monday, 14 September 2015

Google ties up with Twitter to challenge Facebook's Instant Articles

In a world where many people read everything on mobile phones, a few seconds of load time can mean the gain or loss of millions of readers and advertising dollars. Now Google wants to help publishers — and itself — by speeding things up.

Google is working with the social media service Twitter and major news publishers like The Guardian and The New York Times to create a new kind of Web link and article storage system that would load online news articles and digital magazine pieces in a few milliseconds, according to several people involved in the project. That is a fraction of the 5 to 10 seconds it can take to load a typical website.

The project is still in its early stages, and many details are still in flux, according to the people involved, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the partners had not yet made an announcement.

The goal is to develop a universal standard for publishers — one that could be used to load articles more quickly wherever they appear. But accomplishing that while retaining the look and feel of those pages has proved difficult.

The effort is also an attempt to protect the Web from the onslaught of mobile applications and steer publishers away from the closed, proprietary systems that are being built by companies like Facebook, Apple and Snapchat.

"Google and Twitter are rightly fearful that publishers are going to start doing something specific for Facebook and they will become an afterthought," said Danny Sullivan, founding editor of Search Engine Land, an industry publication that closely tracks Google and the search industry.

The move is one of several Google initiatives meant to increase its influence with publishers. The company is also exploring ways to use its search engine to increase traffic to high-quality publisher content.

Google makes most of its money from ads sold on websites, including its own search page. For its part, Twitter, which depends heavily on conversations around news articles for its traffic, wants to keep visitors on its platform longer. The new technology would also more prominently display tweets embedded on Web pages.

Twitter and Google declined to comment on the project, which is expected to be announced with initial test partners within the next four to six weeks. Eileen Murphy, a New York Times spokeswoman, confirmed that The Times was one of those initial partners and has been helping Google develop the format.

The tech news site Recode first reported on the project Friday.

According to the people involved in the project, publishers would have to slightly alter their articles' Web coding and make it available to be copied, or cached, so that it could be quickly loaded on Web browsers, Twitter or other services, even those that don't participate. But articles would look and behave like anything else on the Web — complete with banner ads, photos and links to other articles.

Pinterest, the picture-sharing platform, is also involved in the project. The new method is also expected to work on blogs created on the WordPress publishing platform.

The more time people spend with mobile devices, the less they use the Web. This year, U.S. smartphone users are projected to spend 81 percent of their time using mobile apps, versus 19 percent using the mobile Web, according to eMarketer, a research firm.

People often favor mobile apps because they are faster, cleanly formatted and are constantly updated to take advantage of the evolving features of new smartphones.

Despite the migration to apps, much of the content inside popular services like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest continues to come from Web links. And compared to many apps, the Web feels clunky and slow, adding seconds of load time that can prompt impatient mobile users to move on to something else.

Facebook, which is the largest source of referral traffic for many news publishers, began testing a format it calls Instant Articles in May with a handful of large publishers like The Times, BuzzFeed, National Geographic and NBC News.

Facebook hosts the content on its social network and presents it in a streamlined format that loads up to 10 times faster than a typical mobile Web article. Facebook also offers these publishers the choice of selling their own ads on their articles or sharing the proceeds of ads that Facebook sells.

Apple will soon begin offering curated news content from many publishers through an Apple News app built into the latest version of its operating system for iPhones and iPads. And Snapchat, a messaging service, has been working with publishers on custom article formats for its app.

While the new article format proposed by Google and Twitter could be appealing to publishers, it doesn't address what is likely their bigger worry: their increasing reliance on social networks, especially Facebook, for readers.

Google may still be the undisputed king of Web search, but Facebook is starting to have more sway over publishers. In July, Facebook eclipsed Google for the share of referral traffic to publishers — about 40 percent versus 38 percent for Google. Just two years ago, Facebook drove about 12 percent of referral traffic to publishers, according to Parse.ly, which tracks traffic to Web publishers.

Vivian Schiller, an independent media consultant who has been an executive at Twitter, NBC and The Times, said Google's proposed new format would still leave publishers vulnerable.

"Facebook is so incredibly dominant they can still leverage publishers to create Instant Articles. It also doesn't solve the other problem for publishers, which is that social media is the new home page."

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