It's not exactly news that Facebook and (especially) Google dominate a large portion of what happens online. Add in a few other major players—Apple, Amazon, Microsoft maybe, you know them all—and the supposedly wide-open internet increasingly seems like the private playground and captive market.
Google's "buy" button?
Two unrelated events last week brought that reality home for me. First, and most importantly, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google is planning to add a "buy" button to its ubiquitous search results pages. Google hasn't confirmed the report, and the Journal says the buttons will appear only on a small percentage of mobile devices (not desktop Web browsers), at least at first.
But make no mistake, this is huge.
Google owns the lion's share of search activity, and most online retailers depend heavily on searches and search ads to reach their customers. If Google can intercept even a portion of that traffic with its own shopping services, literally everyone else will suffer. Google has made a habit of gradually putting more and more stuff on its search results pages (from movie show times to sports results), gradually squeezing out content and e-commerce providers from the most lucrative spots and the best chances to connect with customers. This "buy" button is just the next step on the path to ruling every part of the online value chain.
Facebook's Instant Articles
At first glance, Facebook's new Instant Articles doesn't pack the same impact, but it too represents another step in the consolidation of online power in a relatively few hands. In this case, though, content creators, not e-commerce companies, are the ones at risk of being disenfranchised.
Facebook bills Instant Articles as "a new way for publishers to create fast, interactive articles on Facebook," which will ostensibly load much faster then sending readers out to the Web.
The operative words here are "on Facebook." The new service for Facebook's iOS app—initially embraced by the New York Times, BBC News, and several others—lets content publishers either sell ads against their own content or let Facebook sell them for a percentage of the take. But hosting this content within Facebook will inevitably weaken the brand differentiation of the original publishers and elevate Facebook as the apparent content provider. Facebook has ultimate control over what appears where, how it looks, and what content might be eligible for the Instant Articles treatment.
There's no indication whether or how Facebook intends to use this power to influence what content goes out, but clearly, this is a step toward Facebook taking over more and more of the distribution end of online content. That may be inevitable, but it isn't good for publishers, whose connections to readers—not to mention their role in the overall process—keeps shrinking. As John Herrman noted in The Awl, the bottom line is that Instant Articles puts ever more power in the hands of Facebook, not the content creators.
And that, my friends, is the point. It's not that Google or Facebook are intrinsically evil or dangerous (I hope not, I use ‘em both every single day). It's just that the real power online is increasingly consolidated in a small group of big players. This isn't the beginning of this process, nor is it the end. To get an idea of the slippery slope here, check out Danny Sullivan of MarketingLand's prediction of what Google Instant Results might look like in the future. That's not how I think things ought to work to create the most vibrant, innovative internet possible.