Facebook, Google Squeezing Publishers Again

The platforms giveth, then they puncheth you in the face. That's judging by the seemingly endless reversals by Facebook and Google as they first try to win publishers’ favor, then screw them over big time, with changes — justified on grounds of “user experience.” (Their own commercial interests never come into it, naturally.)

In the latest reversal, Facebook is again taking an ax to organic reach for publishers’ content on its platform, limiting the number of Facebook fans who will actually see a particular piece of editorial content in their newsfeeds. That’s the anecdotal evidence from publishers, including the Chicago Tribune, as well as smaller blogs and official Facebook pages.

Chicago Tribune digital editor Kurt Gessler took to Medium to share his own analysis of the newspaper’s Facebook traffic in recent months, showing that the average (median) organic reach for its Facebook posts has declined from around 35,000 in January to around 17,000 in mid-March.

In the same vein, Gessler noted the number of posts receiving reach of 10,000 or less increased from eight in December to 80 in January, 159 in February, and 242 in March – even as the newspaper’s Facebook fan base steadily expanded, suggesting that if anything the audience should have grown.

Overall. Gessler estimates Facebook isn’t showing its posts around one-third of the time. A number of digital publishers responded to Gessler saying they’d seen similar trends, echoing press accounts showing a steady decline toward less organic reach.

Separately, another threat to publishers emerged this week with Google’s announcement that its new Chrome browser will include an option for automatic ad-blocking targeting ads deemed to deliver a bad user experience. While the details aren’t clear, including just what standards Google plans to enforce, there’s plenty to make publishers nervous and for obvious reasons, The Wall Street Journal notes.

It’s always hard to argue with “user experience” as a justification for limiting ads, but skeptics note that integrating an ad blocker under Google’s control into Web browsers will just hand Google even more control over publishers’ business. That’s even more concerning, of course, in view of Google’s own massive online ad business, which presumably won’t be unduly impacted by whatever system is adopted.

On that score, CEO Neil Vogel tells the WSJ: “The risk here is this could concentrate a lot of power in the hands of one organization that is not neutral and has vested interests in all sides of this.”

Publishers casting about for alternative ways to reach (and take possession) of their audiences are giving another look to older channels like email, according to Keith Sibson, vice-president of product and marketing at email platform PostUp. He noted publishers can also benefit from growing concern among advertisers about brand safety on the platforms.

“It’s a good opportunity for publishers to try to rekindle the direct relationship with advertisers and audiences.  Publishers themselves have become reliant on those very same platforms as traffic sources … One good way to hedge the risk centers around building a direct relationship with your audience is through channels like email. We’re not telling anyone to quit Facebook, Google, but don’t let it become their primary business,” said Sibson.

When it comes to audience-building strategies, Sibson said PostUp clients have had success converting traffic referred by the platforms into subscribers: “Of course, they do programmatic like everyone else, they get traffic from Google and Facebook like everyone else, but they view them as an opportunity to convert temporary short-term traffic into a long-term relationship.”
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