Could platform convergence benefit publishers?

By: Rob Corbidge, 28 September 2023

oil rig platforms drilling in the stormy sea of social media, origami style

As search and social platforms rush to replicate the successful features of their rivals, what is left for them to distinguish themselves in the marketplace?

Many publishers in the B2C sector have lost control of the distribution pipeline. We all know this, yet the reminders hit hard. Only this week, a mid-size UK publisher detailed how they'd lost traffic in the most spectacular way.

Seeing Google Discover-sourced traffic slip from 28 million sessions in the first half of 2022 down to a single visitor from that same source this week, Digitalbox CEO James Carter explained in an interview "the reliance on the major platforms for traffic is one of the most notable challenges we face".

Carter said the company had "followed all the Google playbook suggestions", meaning his mature publishing business had followed Google's technical and content guidelines to the letter, and even undertaken extra work on Core Web Vital Scores to polish their offering.

They are not a naive business. Digitalbox are busy strengthening their subscriber base and pivoting towards on-platform video content distribution already, and we wish them luck. They have distinctive brands in the UK and a good track record of publishing.

However, their Google Discover plight is a story we all know, and many in publishing and media have been the victims of, or spectators to, the truth that as the platforms give, so they take away.

Offering some hope on the horizon for those who create quality content is the extent of platform convergence.

TIkTok is trialing search - using Google no less. YouTube are pushing Shorts to get into TikTok's market, ditto Meta's Reels. TikTok has tried 10-minute videos and may yet return to them. Instagram wants to be a shopping product. X wants to turn the shell of Twitter into a version of China's WeChat. And so on and so forth. 

Interestingly and uniquely, Threads seems to be trying to stamp out the embers of anything interesting on the platform and in return wants users to join a world notable only for its blandness.

So as the platforms converge on the feature level more and more, will they become indistinguishable from each other? Or at least, similar enough that they may only be differentiated by audience, and even that, not exclusively?

This week Reddit has recently followed X in introducing a trial that will see top contributors paid for their efforts. As Reddit surges to the top of Google searches after the Helpful Content Update, the introduction of such an incentive to make popular posts could backfire on them - Reddit has been gamed many times before.

Yet in all this are some essential crumbs of comfort, perhaps even whole slices.

Content is what matters, and the best way of differentiating an offering is in the content. You go to a place for this stuff, you go to another place for this stuff. The ability of platforms to differentiate themselves by type of content, rather than just format types - and format types increasingly belong to no single entity - is limited. 

That is unless they pay for it, and use some kind of curation system, such as editors or the human upvotes of Reddit, to define what is good and what is bad.

As they all come to resemble one another, it is logical to seek difference in content, and the only reliable way to achieve such difference is to pay for it.  

Even YouTube's all-things-to-all people offering is straining at the edges as they adopt more stringent content policies, and they have been paying creators longer than any of the others.

The endgame is likely in that platforms effectively have to become publishers, or place particular value on the types of content publishers produce. 

Meanwhile, a reputable business can go from 28 million sessions to one in the blink of a Google Discover update. The real discovery is that they don't give a cent about publishing.