Facebook Instant Articles: A Solution to Publishers' Perennial Web Performance Challenge
June 29, 2015

Drit Suljoti
Catchpoint Systems

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Of all the industries that have moved to a more web-centric approach over the past decade and a half, you'd be hard-pressed to find one that has struggled more with the transition than the news media. Due to a revenue model that has traditionally relied heavily on subscriptions and in-person purchases of print publications in conjunction with ad sales, this industry was slower than most to figure out a business model that works online.

While different subscription and paywall strategies have had varying levels of success, news publishers have also had to rely heavily on online advertisements and other third party tags (e.g. profile-building pixels) – and that, of course, can create a problem when it comes to delivering a great web experience to their end users.

This is because an abundance of third party tags can drag down the performance of a website. All other things being equal, the heavier a page is (aka the more bytes that an end user's browser must download to display it) will always load slower than one with fewer bytes.

The same logic applies to a site that has to make many different connections to third party providers in order to access that data.

And on top of that, every single third party element and its connection represents a potential pitfall that, should an error occur while accessing the data, could impact the performance of the entire site.

In a Catchpoint study from March, news sites were found to have a significantly higher percentage of their site content – as well as their speed bottlenecks – coming from third parties than sites from the eCommerce, banking, and travel industries. And in a more recent survey of the top 50 news sites across both desktop and mobile, it's easy to see why:

The numbers in the table above represent the averages of the different data sets across all the sites that were tested, and they show the problem that IT Ops teams at these publications have struggled to deal with for years. An average webpage load time (i.e. the time it takes until the user can interact with the page) of over 3.5 seconds is very high compared to other industries, and it's caused by the excessive amount of data that must be downloaded, as well as all of the different third party connections.

Those numbers would be bad enough if they were just desktop sites, but the mobile category is where things really get scary. While the mobile site averages are slightly better across the board than their desktop counterparts, they're not nearly good enough.

Due to bandwidth issues on mobile networks and additional fees that are built into many data plans, content providers should be striving to trim down their mobile sites and reduce the number of third-party elements on their pages as much as possible. Yet as you can clearly see, that's not happening in the news industry due to their goal of maximizing their revenue streams through those same third-party vendors.

With this challenge in mind, several major news organizations recently decided to partner with Facebook for the new Instant Articles feature, on the Facebook mobile app. By hosting their content on the social media giant's platform, those news sites' articles can be pre-loaded for users, slashing the webpage load time on mobile devices down to practically zero. This is because the way a browser renders a page is very different from Facebook's app, which is specifically designed to deliver the fastest possible experience to the end user (pre-loading, loading in parallel/lowering dependencies, etc.).

Modern browsers currently have the capability to pre-load content, but not to the level that Facebook can. So if the Instant Articles feature becomes more prevalent, the question then becomes how the browser vendors will be able to respond.

While these news sites may be sacrificing their own mobile site traffic by not funneling users to their actual sites, the ads that can be featured on Instant Articles mean that news outlets are still able to bring in advertising revenue while maximizing their users' online experience.

For now, it remains to be seen how prevalent the Instant Articles feature will be (it's still only available on iOS; Android users still have to access the actual publishers' mobile sites to read articles), but it's a creative solution to a difficult problem. By sacrificing some of their autonomy, news organizations may finally be able to deliver their content in a manner that doesn't end up costing them readers who don't have the patience to wait for a slow mobile page to load.

Drit Suljoti is CPO and Co-Founder of Catchpoint Systems.

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