Facebook, the News, and Why Speed Matters

“Hey, did you read that news story about that thing?”

“Oh yeah, in the New York Times, right?”

“No, on Facebook. What’s the New York Times?”

This is not a joke. Okay, it kind of is. But it also could be the near future, because Facebook has reached an agreement with several news organizations to show content directly on Facebook.

The new feature is called Instant Articles. Let’s say you see an interesting headline on your News Feed. When you click it, the article appears within Facebook, rather than sending you to, for example, nytimes.com. 

People are already debating what this means for Facebook, for news, and for readers of news. But it got me thinking about why Facebook would bother making this feature—and why news publications would sign up.

Certainly, a big reason is to continue building the Facebook ecosystem. Facebook doesn’t want you leaving their website/app, because if you do, you might get distracted and not come back for a while.

But there’s also the speed angle. Facebook claims that Instant Articles will load up to ten times faster than the current setup. With the amount of stuff that’s on many news websites today—huge Flash banner ads, behavior-tracking scripts, gigantic high-resolution images, etc.—I believe them.

Still, even with all that going on, it might only take your computer or phone a few seconds to load non-Facebook content today. Will people really notice a few seconds saved? Sounds a lot like those “first world problems” I’m always hearing about.

Actually, Google studied page load time back in 2009. Their results were pretty surprising:

Our experiments demonstrate that slowing down the search results page by 100 to 400 milliseconds has a measurable impact on the number of searches per user of -0.2% to -0.6% (averaged over four or six weeks depending on the experiment). That’s 0.2% to 0.6% fewer searches for changes under half a second!

To be clear: slowing down load time by as few as 100 milliseconds had an impact on how people used Google.com. Even if you don’t consciously notice the difference, some part of you is growing impatient.

Again, this study is from 2009. We’ve known about load time impact for a while now. Yet we still have websites that could be loading much faster. They prioritize advertisers and effects over the user experience.

For-profit journalism is in a tough spot. In order to stay in the black, many publications have been forced to change their websites in ways they probably didn’t want to. That might have been the right move in the short-term. Now, they have to make deals with Facebook.

Anyone who is making a website or app can learn from this. The user experience must be prioritized over everything else—even content. Anyone reading this knows that “pharmaceutical marketing” and “user experience” don’t always go well together. But it’s critical that we do the absolute best that we can.

After all, the New York Times has, arguably, some of the best news-related content in the world. But with this deal, its publishers are acknowledging that that is not always enough.


JOSH RIGHTER

Copy Supervisor
Never gets tired of hearing “Righter/Writer” jokes. Often sarcastic. Owner of the world’s best commute to work at <5 minute walk.