Search – the hero to save mobile publishing

Rupert Goodwins
Written by Rupert Goodwins

You know that wonderful world of mobile connectivity we’ve been sold? The one where we can use marvellous mobile devices and fabulous data networks to drink deep of the miraculous ocean of Internet info? I bought into it. You bought into it. We were conned.

Like all good con tricks, it’s mostly true.

We have the devices, and they are marvellous. We have the networks, and they too are engineering masterpieces. And the ocean’s there – but it’s not miraculous. It’s too polluted to sustain life – and what’s worse, we’re all paying to have it shipped to our door.

Every time you tap your screen to read a news story or an article online, an entire wave of useless crud comes down – self-running videos, huge adverts, promotional boxes – which choke your browser, clutter up your screen and raise your blood pressure. It’s not unknown for a thousand times as much data per page to be wasted on that as on the thing you actually wanted to read – and guess who pays the bill for that wireless data? We do, you and I.

And because there’s so much of the stuff and it’s so useless, it generates hardly any revenue – so the publisher has to put more and more on to keep afloat, and we pay more and more to have it shovelled into our eyeballs.  Eventually, the publisher gets around to sacking all the journalists and just putting up whatever will get your click: the end result is megabytes of nothing, an angry user, and – eventually – no publisher.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. You wouldn’t believe the sort of shoddy, cut-price tricks go on behind the scenes in the various layers of agencies who link advertisers – who don’t understand the Internet, let alone mobile – and publishers, who are in desperate competition with each other in an ever-evaporating puddle. Shoddy, cut-price tricks have always been the stock in trade of agencies, but the Internet has let them refine their art to new depths.

Here’s just one. A company wants to advertise its gizmos, and goes to an agency. The agency says “Aha! GizmoWorld Dot Com is the best site for you. It’s got quality writers who attract quality readers who will buy your stuff!” It then buys some advertising on GizmoWorld – not very much, mind. Because the agency can track who reads the adverts, it can also track what other, much cheaper sites they go to. “Sorry, GizmoWorld”, the agency says, “We didn’t get what we wanted. No more advertising.” The agency then goes to the other, cheaper sites, buys some cheap advertising, and tells its gizmo-making client that it’s still reaching all the best readers, so pay up.  It pockets the difference. GizmoWorld runs out of money, and the readers – that’s us – are left with the dregs.

Which is why you and I have to put up with so much dreck online, and it’s only going to get worse.

There may be a way out of here, leaving the jokers and the thieves. Once upon a time, people paid for newspapers and magazines – not very much, and certainly not as much as they cost to produce. While the cover price paid for printing and distribution, its real value was to signal to the advertisers – who actually keep publications alive – that the readers actually wanted to read the publication. This still works for some publications, who can charge online subscription, but it’s in the nature of the Internet that there can be only one Economist, one Wall Street Journal; anything other than the sector leader will find that paywalls just bounce people away.

But let’s say that you could, if you wanted, pay a little money and get an hour of mobile Internet access that delivered on the original promise – stuff you wanted to read that didn’t come drowning in a septic tank of stench, that arrived swiftly and let your mobile browser run like a champ, that didn’t eat up your data allowance like a shark with the munchies. No subscription, no locking to a single publication, but for a few pence, when you felt it necessary, it delivers a magical place.

Here’s how it could work. Someone, somewhere, builds a mobile search engine that, like Google, does its best to find the content you want. Unlike Google, it also massively downgrades sites that have too much bloody useless advertising – believe me, if we can spot it, robots can spot it too. Publishers who want to be found by that search engine merely have to produce their articles and news in a format that has very little advertising. They can do that alongside their existing output: as long as it’s clean and respects the reader.

This nirvana has lots of good things. It delivers readers who care, who are invested in good stuff, so what little advertising the system tolerates will attract decent rates. It gives Google a kick in the shins. Google isn’t a search engine company, t’s an advertising company.  If it tried to manipulate search results by their advertising content, it would be taken to the regulators so fast small children will be blown over by the shockwaves. The clean search engine can’t cannibalise publishers’ existing advertising revenues, because they practically don’t exist anyway – there’s an industry saying that online revenues are a tenth of that from print; mobile revenues are a tenth smaller again.

And we’ll get decent reading, much smaller data usage, and a mobile experience that isn’t a con job.

All it needs is a tweaked search engine, a frictionless way to pay pennies when you want, and publishers who want to get free of the tyranny of the middle men.

I think we’ve got all of those pieces. Let’s put them together.

photo credit: Reading and Rocking in Melrose, Florida via photopin (license)

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Rupert Goodwins

Rupert Goodwins