Google and Facebook’s latest updates control publishers’ fate

Publishers went into a frenzy last week thanks to the recent changes made by tech giants Google and Facebook, following a precedent we’ve all known for a long time: publishers are beholden to tech companies. Tech companies hold all the power for publishers. Those fears are now considered fact—for better or worse.

Google has updated its algorithm to rank mobile-friendly sites higher in mobile search results, and publishers and internet users are right to panic—as much as 60 percent of websites on the internet could be impacted.

For many publishers and websites, you’ll need to check if your site is mobile-friendly. In other words, you’ll need to check if it’s mobile-friendly and then makeover your site, accordingly, for the new mobile age. Across the internet last week, a sense of bitterness united the community, bemoans over having to redesign their perfectly good websites because the most powerful internet company in the world decided to adapt. The message is clear: if Google says jump this high, publishers have to jump this high just to be seen.

To give Google some credit, an update to mobile was inevitable. The majority of digital consumption occurs on mobile, according to this TechCrunch article from 2014. Of course, Google was going to update their SEO policy to reflect the changing nature of internet consumption habits. It’s a necessary update, but one that makes it clear: Google still controls content, and thus publishers.

Just as Google controls all searches (and almost everything else), Facebook shapes the lives of publishers, for better or worse. Last week, Facebook announced some vague updates to its News Feed—and everywhere, you could hear the collective sighs of publishers everywhere. Adjustments to the News Feed algorithm include relaxing their no-multiple posts from users and publishers, nearly eliminating seeing what your friends like or comments and balancing the “right amount of content for each individual.” This means Facebook will display more of your friends’ posts while determining what news users see (i.e. removing the “bad news” in favor of content that will keep them on the site longer). As this piece in Fortune wisely states:

“All of this is frustrating enough for news companies, but what’s even more frustrating is that Facebook continues to pretend that it doesn’t influence the discovery of news or how it is consumed, even though that’s exactly what it does (as it admits in the announcement about its latest update). And that kind of influence can have a profound impact on how users see the world.”

The recent updates to Facebook’s News Feed come in light of recent talks with big publishers like The New York Times to have content live on Facebook, instead of just referral traffic. Facebook knows it needs to be on good terms with publishers, but also gets to dictate those terms. Simply put, it has all the power, no matter how much they like to deny it.

Is it defeatist to say that Google and Facebook run the lives of publishers? Yes, but it’s also just a fact of life now. Publishers have always relied on big tech companies because they miscalculated the importance the internet would play in our culture (that’s why back in the day publishers made their online content for free because they thought print would prevail). In many ways, publishers are still paying for the mistakes they made 20 years ago by underestimating the power of tech companies and for that, publishers’ fate will always be left in the hands of tech companies.

The world runs on the internet, the internet runs on content, and tech companies control which of that content we see. Content remains king, but tech holds the real power.

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Image: Jin Choi/Flickr

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