There has been a lot of (justifiable) complaining lately about just how awful browsing the Web on a mobile device has become. The main culprit? Page sizes, which have grown rapidly in recent years. HTTP Access reports that the average site today is now double the size of the average site from just three years ago. Bigger page sizes mean increased page load times, a problem which is especially noticeable when browsing on the smaller screen and slower connection of a mobile device.
You can guess why it’s gotten worse. As phones have gotten more powerful and mobile networks have gotten faster, publishers have felt less inhibited when it comes to increasing page sizes than they did at the dawn of the mobile era. These days they’re loading up their sites with not just banner ads, overlays, and video players, but all manner of ad network trackers and beacons. More people consuming content on mobile devices means advertising dollars and ad networks, giving publishers opportunities to make money off of their mobile traffic that they didn’t have just a few years ago. But the real reason why publishers have become so comfortable with making the reading experience on mobile miserable is because they can get away with it. The reality is that they don’t care if you hate them.
It sounds crazy, since you’d think that most websites would care a whole lot about keeping their audience happy, but the rise of social — and really we’re mainly talking about Facebook — as an enormous driver of traffic has changed the nature of the relationship between websites and their readers. Why? Because Facebook has become the primary interface for hundreds of millions of people for experiencing the Web. We don’t usually think of it in this way, but the News Feed breaks that direct relationship between websites and readers by unbundling sites into their individual components (i.e. articles and videos) and then re-aggregating them into a largely undifferentiated stream that’s algorithmically customized for each user.
However, there’s a big difference between someone choosing to go to a site because they enter the URL into their browser, click a bookmark, or subscribe to their newsletter, and someone who ends up at a site because they clicked a link which someone shared on Facebook. That difference is the depth of the relationship that the user has to the site.
When you break that direct relationship between readers and publishers, you also take away a powerful incentive for publishers to offer those readers a high-quality experience. If there is going to be little or no reputational hit to the brand — or if the brand doesn’t even matter all that much anyway — someone coming to your page and being exposed to a ton of advertising isn’t a bad thing at all.
Given the precarious position most publishers are already in, even a small decrease in income can be extremely painful. I can tell you from my time at AOL that desktop ad blockers had a material impact on revenue for several properties and it’s hard to imagine mobile ad blockers not doing at least some damage. But, I also know from the user’s perspective why mobile ad blockers would be so attractive — they’ll go a long way towards making the Web usable again on your phone.
However things turn out, in the short-term, publishers are going to find themselves in an increasingly tough position. It’s already become a lot tougher to rely on Facebook for traffic. The competition for eyeballs keeps ramping up as more and more publishers figure out how social works.
Peter Rojas is an early stage investor with betaworks. Prior to that, he was VP of strategy at AOL and co-director of Alpha, the company’s experimental products group. He is also the co-founder several startups and websites, including Weblogs Inc., Engadget, Joystiq, Gizmodo, RCRD LBL, hackaday, and gdgt. A full version of this article can be found at bit.ly/1OWyblU.