Safari 5’s “Reader” and the Death of Web Publishing

Safari 5 Reader

In all of the hullabaloo surrounding Apple’s announcement of the iPhone 4, it was easy to miss the announcement of Safari 5, the latest version of Apple’s web browser. And it was even easier to overlook the announcement of one of Safari 5’s features. But now that Safari 5 has been in the wild for a bit, this particular feature has been getting more and more attention, and I think there’s more to come as people work through its potential ramifications.

The feature in question is “Safari Reader”, which allows you to view a streamlined version of a website’s news articles and blog entries. Or, as Apple puts it:

Safari Reader removes annoying ads and other visual distractions from online articles. So you get the whole story and nothing but the story. It works like this: As you browse the web, Safari detects if you’re on a web page with an article. Click the Reader icon in the Smart Address Field, and the article appears instantly in one continuous, clutter-free view. You see every page of the article — whether two or twenty. Onscreen controls let you email, print, and zoom. Change the size of the text, and Safari remembers it the next time you view an article in Safari Reader.

Most users will probably consider this a very welcome feature, especially in light of the fact that web advertising has consistently grown more obnoxious over time, thanks to obtrusive techniques and gimmicks such as fly-out ads (which lurk in a webpage’s corner and “fly out” when you mouse over them), “in-text” advertising (which highlights certain words on a webpage and displays a popup with ads when you mouse over those words), and splitting articles across multiple pages (which increases the number of ad impressions for the entire article). Safari Reader provides a nice escape from these things and gives you quick and easy access to nothing but the content that you came to the website for in the first place.

(Admittedly, this isn’t anything new. Readability is an add-on for Firefox, Chrome, and Safari that does much the same thing. Ad blocking software has been around for a long time. And many sites offer their content ad-free, or relatively ad-free, in their RSS feeds. But as far as I know, this is the first time it’s been a browser-level feature.)

Apple’s WMD

However, when seen from another perspective — specifically, that of web publishers who rely on advertising to pay the bills — Safari Reader could be a wake-up call. Or, as Jim Lynch puts it, a “weapon of mass destruction”.

[Safari Reader] is absolutely disastrous for web publishers! As if people using ad-blocker extensions in Firefox isn’t bad enough, now Apple has made it so that an extension isn’t even necessary. Now the ad blocker is built into the browser and, to add insult to injury, users don’t even need to click to view multi-page articles.
Apple has essentially destroyed the web publishing model completely with the release of Safari 5. This is the equivalent of dropping a nuclear bomb on the entire web economy. It’s a weapon of potential mass destruction for web publishers. Publishers now have absolutely no control over how their content is displayed in a browser and if the content can even be monetized in a significant way or not.

First off, Lynch’s site is a perfect example of why someone would want to use Safari Reader in the first place. I can’t remember the last I’ve been to site that littered with advertising, and all of it obnoxious.

That aside, is there any credence to his concerns? I can certainly imagine some web publishers and advertisers quaking in their boots at the thought of people being able to see their content sans ads. If other web browsers were to implement similar functionality, then it could have a deleterious effect on publishers’ revenue. But is it a “nuclear bomb” that requires the sort of drastic action that Lynch proposes?

If I were Google, I’d consider a lawsuit against Apple for this. What kind of business will Google have if ad blockers are deliberately built into browsers like this? Where is most of Google’s revenue going to come from?
A government inquiry into Safari Reader might also be a good idea. I’m not big on the government being involved in business but I think somebody needs to start asking some questions about why Apple put this feature into Safari. No other major browser has a feature like this built into it (yet). It could be construed as a malicious act on Apple’s part, since it deliberately designed its browser to purge advertising and reformat content.
It really is a direct attack on the web economy on Apple’s part and I think it simply cannot go unanswered by companies like Google, and by web publishers who are so dependent on advertising to pay their bills. Apple is playing some serious dirty pool here, under the guise of giving Safari users a new feature.

I find it difficult to describe Safari Reader as a nuclear bomb that will destroy ad-based web publishing, when ad-based web publishing, and web advertising in general, were dead from the get-go. Time and again, studies have shown that web advertising simply does not work. Unless you resort to very targeted advertising — for example, you write a blog for a niche audience and your advertising reflects that — or you resort to very “in your face” advertising, people will ignore your ads, and they’re getting better at it.

Of those two, the preferable choice is targeted, niche advertising, but more and more, I see folks resorting to “in your face” advertising techniques (Lynch’s site is a great example of this). These might produce immediate results but they ultimately annoy users and give them a negative experience that could prove disastrous in the long run, even more so than some browser feature. Safari Reader strips away that negative experience, one that favors — or seems to favor — web publishers and replaces it with one that is more positive (i.e., readers get the content they want with minimal interruption).

The Great RSS Debate

I recall a similar discussion taking place several years ago around the topic of partial versus full-text RSS feeds — that is, putting only snippets of your articles in your RSS feed as opposed to the full articles. The fear was that offering full articles in your RSS feed would keep people from clicking through to your site and seeing your ads.

What people discovered, however, was that full-text feeds had no significant impact on clickthrough rates. What’s more, users were more likely to subscribe to full-text feeds, thus increasing readership and traffic — all of which can have a positive effect on ad revenue. In other words, making it easier for people to get all of your content without forcing them to see ads actually had long-term positive effects.

I wonder about the parallels with Safari Reader. If, rather than fight functionality like Safari Reader, publishers actually embraced it and made it easier for Safari Reader (and similar functionality) to parse and render the sites, would that have a negative or positive on things like readership, traffic, and by extension, revenue?

Also, as a web designer, I wonder how this functionality might influence designers. Will they design websites that are easier for Safari Reader to access or will they try and find ways to rebel against it, since Safari Reader essentially disregards the layout and design that we designers spend hours slaving over.

A Potential Alternative

Earlier, I wrote that some publishers might fear Safari Reader and its ilk (Jim Lynch obviously falls into this category). However, I suspect that there are many others for whom Safari Reader represents a minimal threat at best, folks like John Gruber and Jason Kottke. But notice what these guys do.

For starters, they both display minimal and highly selective advertising that is trustworthy and sensible (via The Deck). They rely on sponsorships to pay the bills rather than in-text popups and multi-page articles. But above all else, they produce compelling and interesting content, content that readers obviously find interesting (hence their readership) and makes advertisers feel that it is worthwhile to sponsor them (for example, Gruber charges $4,000 to sponsor his RSS feed for one week).

I suspect that publishers such as these, publishers that treat their audiences with respect and dignity, and don’t feel forced to cram obnoxious advertising into their readers’ eyeballs, will do just fine in the wake of Safari Reader.

What Others Think

Nik Fletcher: “On this Safari 5 Reader Hysteria”:

If anything, instead of this belligerent whinging, web publishers should wise up that people visit their sites to read content. Safari Reader does hide ads, after they — along with the almost-constant barrage of Share This’, Tweet This’, Buzz This’ bullshit — are shown alongside each post, and above all: it’s not mandatory to use, or enforced any more than the RSS button. Perhaps instead of flamebait posts of Apple are out to get us’ media companies should be asking themselves how did reading content online become so sucky’?

Via Daring Fireball

The Guardian: “How Apple’s new ad-blocker could save the media (maybe)”:

In the [Absurdly Optimistic Scenario], Safari Reader and technologies like it will
(i) create a pressure to reduce the number of ads on a page, especially intrusive ones, and especially at the premium, Apple-user-filled end of the media market
(ii) create a means of demonstrating to advertisers the premium value of space on simple, elegant, readable pages.
In other words, two of the big threats to the ad-supported model, ad-blocking and excess inventory, might end up cancelling each other out. I did promise you absurd optimism.

Via Nik Fletcher

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