Digital publishers have long had a love-hate relationship with Facebook and Google: the tech behemoths have opened up access to huge audiences but have also undermined the business model of online news by controlling the ability to reach and monetize visitors.
Moreover, traditionally the two companies have not been good partners to content creators - consistently profiting from the original content being shared, without having to pay for it. Over and over, they've ignored concerns, been uncommunicative about changes, and treated the shaky economics of online publishing as not their problem.
However, recently things have shifted: as Google and Facebook have increasingly realized how vital high-quality content pieces — and therefore publishers — are to the success of their platforms, they've changed their tone and tried to be more helpful.
This doesn't mean that the tensions have all disappeared, but it does mean that the companies are making moves to be better partners. Specifically, Google and Facebook have tried to improve their relationships with publishers by focusing on these four key areas:
1. Improving Tools and Fixing Issues
The content publishing and discovery tools provided by Google and Facebook have sometimes felt like a bit of an afterthought. While other areas such as advertising have gotten lots of attention from product teams, the needs of publishers have often had to take a back seat.
That seems to be changing. As part of its "charm offensive" to woo news outlets Facebook has been adding fresh, publisher-friendly features to its platform, such a tool that lets creators test the performance of multiple versions of a piece of content. With the recently announced slew of investments in local media, Facebook has taken steps to shore up its goodwill with news publishers.
Recently, Google partnered with Wordpress and others to develop a publishing platform for small media publishers, with an investment of $1.2Mn. Google is also devoting resources to improving the publisher experience by finally addressing longtime issues with its News product that made it difficult for some sites and articles to be found.
2. Integrating Subscription/Membership Options
Over the past few years, as digital publishers have increasingly moved to business models that incorporate subscriptions, Facebook and Google have not been much help.
That, too, seems to be changing. The platforms appear to have realized that in order to thrive they need publishers to stick around for the long-term, and in order for publishers to stick around for the long-term it must become easier to engage and convert potential paying subscribers.
To help, the companies have been trying to improve the process through features such as adding subscription options in Facebook Instant Articles and making it possible to one-click subscribe with a Google login.
3. Working With Publishers to Increase Revenue (Sort Of)
Of course, simply making subscription easier is not going to solve the difficult business challenges facing many publishers.
Because there remains a massive disconnect between the profitability of the organizations distributing content and the organizations creating content, the alliance between search/social platforms and publishers remains shaky.
Google and Facebook are trying to ease these underlying tensions a bit by working with publishers to increase revenue via content commissions (i.e., Facebook paying news organizations for video for its Watch platform) and better terms on some agreements (i.e., Google offering publishers a larger cut of some subscriptions made through its services).
However, there are limits to this largesse: Google and Facebook continue to vigorously fight proposals such as Europe's "link tax" that would directly shift more revenue to publishers.
Related Reading: All you need to know about Paywalls in Digital Media
4. Creating Programs to Help Quality Publishers in a Time of Rapid Change
Publishing and tech are both complex fields that are rapidly changing. Given that, it's necessary for publishers to work with each other as well as with Google and Facebook to find solutions to current and fresh challenges. Fundamentally, there aren't many easy answers and there are advantages to teaming up.
The platforms seem to understand this and have created programs to help organizations share best-practices and navigate the evolving landscape. The Facebook Journalism Project launched in early 2017 and is dedicated to building a "healthy news ecosystem," while the Google News Initiative launched in 2018 with the aim of "building a stronger future for journalism."
Ultimately, it is unclear whether these programs will produce meaningful results. Nonetheless, they do signal an important change: Google and Facebook appear to have finally realized that their fates are intertwined with those of publishers and that everyone benefits through true partnership.