Voice of an Innovator

ReadabilityReadability: reinventing Web content for readers and publishers alike

I've always been a voracious reader. Back in 2009, I found myself hunting around for the "print view" button more and more while reading on the Web. I didn't actually want to print anything. I just wanted a version of the same Web page that was more readable and free of clutter.

It was useful, but "print" views weren't very consistent from page to page and often weren't available at all, so I decided to try to hack a way to find the readable content of a page and display it for reading. Over a couple of weekends, I pieced together an algorithm that studied a Web page and then carved out the body of content worth reading. The code was originally written in Javascript and took the form of a "bookmarklet" (in essence, a bookmark link that called external code). The first version of "Readability" didn't work on every Web page. But it worked on many and, after a couple weeks of use, was a revelation. Underneath the clutter of the modern Web was a totally different experience - clean typography, easy reading and a sense of control.

Still, Readability needed work. Fortunately, some incredibly gifted programmers worked alongside me at Arc90. They brought my idea-as-code to a whole new level, rendering it effective on just about every Web page. As with many other projects, we released Readability as open source under the auspices of the Arc90 Lab.

I didn't expect much to come of it. I was wrong. Usage exploded. People downloaded it and used it everywhere. They hadn't known that it was possible to enjoy reading on the Web. We gave them a new option, and that felt good. Readability has since been ported to just about every programming language and is leveraged in many applications.

In early 2010, labeled as "Reader," Apple made Readability part of its flagship Safari Web browser. That was a wake-up call. Readability had been deemed a necessity by a company known to be very, very careful about features. Soon after, Amazon integrated Readability into a refresh of its popular Kindle e-reader (labeling it as, "Article View"). It didn't stop there. Readability has become an important part of the plumbing of the Web. It runs everywhere, on just about every device.

As all this activity took place, the Arc90 team felt we had to do more with the technology. In mid-2010, we decided to make Readability into a full reading-platform, which launched this past February. The new offering is pretty straightforward: Users pay a set rate of $5 or more every month, and as they surf the Web, they can either turn on Readability's reading view or queue articles for reading at a later time.  At the end of the month, we look at everything that has been read and distribute 70 percent of the user fees on a pro-rata basis to the domains visited. Any publisher - from a national magazine to an individual blogger accruing more than $50 - that registers its domain then gets a check.

Of course, stripping out a publisher's ads can conceivably cost them revenue as well, but while publishers can opt out of Readability, none have done so to date.  

This may be because the people who truly care about elegant reading are a small minority of the overall Web audience and don't represent a large number of ad impressions.  But these people are an important, influential audience - including bloggers, writers and other media professionals.

Publishers also know that Readability doesn't share or pirate content, and doesn't resell content without permission. Rather, it saves a clean version of the content and makes it easier for the user - and only the user - to read an article on his or her computer screen or mobile device.

Indeed, Readability strips out everything but the article copy. It shows no mercy. Ads are just one part of a page. Readability also strips out lists of related articles, lists of links, embedded Twitter feeds, etc. - anything that distracts from the story itself.

In many ways, Readability represents a reboot of the Web - an attempt to recapture what makes the reading experience so enjoyable: a distraction-free environment in which one can read comfortably. By setting up a more-direct link with readers who care about long, serious, written work, publishers have an opportunity to reclaim good will they may have lost on the Web. Hopefully, this will be a lucrative link for the publishers.

We sell the service as exactly that - a service. We're in the business of making the Web easy for consumers to read - and rewarding those publishers who welcome a more-readable Web.

We're also sure that advertisers can find a place inside the Readability platform, since the reading view represents exciting, new context for publishers' content.

As I spoke with publishers prior to Readability's February launch, I was told repeatedly that cluttered, noisy pages ruin their brands. Many publishers have even created their own campaigns to foster better reading experiences, so they were impressed by Readability's respect for writers and editors, as well as readers.

The relationships built during these talks with publishers have proved critical to Readability's success. We were even privileged to have Sarah Chubb, former head of Conde Nast Digital, join our board of advisors.

Readability now has several thousand subscriptions and we will soon cut our semi-annual checks to publishers.

Despite our success, we don't think we've found the perfect model yet. But the reality for big publishers is that the Web broke their model and they no longer have a monopoly on distribution. For some time, their solution was to keep adding content - ads, links, etc. - that would raise impressions and click-throughs.

But that solution ended up changing the very nature of editorial content - as people wrote to gain Google hits rather than to please readers. But search results are not why we read, and not why we write. It's not why people got into the media industry.

Part of Readability's goal is to help people have a conversation not about what gets published on the Web, but why it gets published. We believe we've succeeded in starting that conversation. But another Readability goal is more concrete: to build a platform that explores new ways to support writers and publishers who create the content readers love.

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