For those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s, watching how new technologies enabled us to do things that people only dreamed about half a century ago, and then having a front row seat to the transformation that the web has gone through during the 00s, we’re now beginning to witness a regression in progress that isn’t brought about by what the machines and infrastructure of today are capable of achieving, but instead by the increasing complexity of doing business on the internet and defining what actually has value and what’s painfully worthless.
Case in point, earlier this month TripAdvisor, a wonderful service that helps people figure out what to do when they travel to a place they’ve never been before, put a stop to Google scrapping their site for content and then republishing it on Google Places pages. Why? TripAdvisor would rather have people visit TripAdvisor, bump up their page view numbers, and attract bigger and better advertising deals. The data that TripAdvisor owns is valuable, otherwise Google wouldn’t have bothered displaying and linking to it on their Places pages, but owning the front end to that data, the primary interaction point, is still where most of their revenue is being generated.
This desire, no … this need, to control where your data is being displayed is sadly a relic of the internet from a decade ago when slapping a banner ad on the top of your web page brought in enough extra revenue that content creators and service providers could keep their online properties afloat. But isn’t information supposed to be separated from the container it’s delivered in? Isn’t that the whole ethos of web 2.0 and APIs and the recognition that content is indeed, and always will be, king?
Similar thing happened to Twitter, who before had absolutely no business model, then began offering their “fire hose”, that is full access to the public Twitter timeline, to anyone who asked, before finally deciding that wait a minute, this data is valuable, so they partnered with Gnip to sell access to that content. Further, Twitter has also recently started injecting sponsored messages into user’s timelines so that they see ads regardless if they’re using the Twitter.com website to interact with the service or the myriad of different front ends available for just about any platform that exists.
Page views pay people, or at least that’s the mentality that still drives the barely two decade old phenomenon we so lovingly call the world wide web. The more people you’ve got visiting your website, the more potential revenue will be thrown at you by advertisers who could care less if your content is appropriate for their advertising campaigns; they just want attention. Have you recently been to Engadget, arguably the most popular technology blog on the net? Why are they showing ads for Pepto-Bismol, a medicine to cure an upset stomach?
Back to Twitter, it’s one of the most unique services on the internet not for what it does, but because it allows you to interact with it using whatever client you want and for all intents and purposes you never even need to visit Twitter.com to enjoy the full Twitter experience. Google Mail is on the opposite side of the spectrum. Back when everyone offered free email, and most email providers offered POP3 access so you could use whatever desktop client you wished, Google blew people’s minds by offering 1 GB of storage and a user interface that was and still is second to none. The others bumped up their storage offerings soon after, but Google made their service so awesome that they changed the dynamics of the battle for your email from “who offers the most space?” to “who can make email usable again?”. They discovered where they added value and soon started selling Google Apps to businesses and schools so they could use the same GMail user interface for their corporate and education email.
Microsoft has recognized that the future of the web will not be about slapping an AdSense box at various points on your website, but instead about selling access to the data that’s being served up on those webpages. In October they revealed “Windows Azure Marketplace DataMarket” and sadly it got little public attention, but the goal is to let companies who create rich streams of data to sell said data to third parties. It’s what many web properties have been trying to do since their inception, but have thus far failed to do so because enabling that sort of business model would have dire consequences on their primary source of income: advertising.
The problem with selling data is that there are no standard ad formats and thus no ad brokers that advertisers can go through. It’s why whenever you see a new hot property emerge, such as Instagram, a photo sharing application for the iPhone, it’s a lone advertiser, in this case National Geographic, who comes to do a business deal. It’s why companies need to have dedicated ad sales teams, it’s why advertisers need to comb the internet to see what’s new and interesting, and it’s why little revenue is made with these niche type of contracts since the first round of cash spent is usually pitiful in terms of revenue compared to other types of deals since what’s being done is labeled an “experiment”.
If I knew what the future of the internet would look like, I’d tell you, but I don’t. Some say it’s going to be web pages turned to tablet optimized applications, and it’s why Apple recently named Flipboard the “iPad App of the Year”. What Flipboard does is scrape the links that your friends share with you on Twitter and Facebook and then reformat that content with fancy fonts and custom image layouts, more importantly removing the ads that would otherwise be shown when going to said links, before finally making the newly reformatted content easy to swipe through. Recently Flipboard revealed that their business model was going to be offering a handful of companies whose content they scrape the opportunity to inject full page advertisements into Flipboard itself. Seems a little backwards. Didn’t the magazine model of publishing move to the internet in the 00s and yet somehow in the 10s we’re back to the magazine model of revenue generation?
Who is right? They people who want to own the end the end experience of content consumption, i.e. similar to how magazines have been operating since they were first published, or the people who want to read their favorite websites on whatever screen they want, displayed in the font they want, with the layout they want, wherever they may be?
That is the battle.
Image by altemark