What’s the difference between the Internet and the world wide web? I remember this being a question I was asked at University back in 2002 and it sparked far more debate and confusion than it would today. The reason being that the ‘www’ protocol was by far and away the dominant use of the Internet, it eclipsed the Internet so much so that you’d be forgiven for assuming they were the same thing.
These days ‘the web’ feels like really old fashioned terminology, something you’d correct your grandparents on without really being able to explain why.
If you feel like the term ‘web’ has lost its relevance in today’s world of communications you wouldn’t be on your own, but I have a feeling one day we’ll be reminiscing back on those days rather than scoffing at the infancy of where our world of Internet connected devices came from.
The birth of something special
Going back to 1989 when Tim Berners Lee created the world wide web, his vision was to reduce the barriers for the sharing of information with an egalitarian hierarchy. This encouraged world wide collaboration and made new levels of innovation possible at scale. Usage of the internet grew exponentially as per Metcalfe’s law, networks get more useful the more people use them.
This abundance of information led to a real need for organisation and this is where search engines came in – you don’t need me to tell you who won that battle. This I’d argue was the first time Tim Berners Lee’s vision was being altered given the impact Google had over how they rank content.Whilst the web in its design was still egalitarian, Google’s significant role in how we access the world wide web meant the users of the web had voted for their governor.
Publishers and businesses had to be very wary of playing by Google’s vision (not Tim Berners Lee’s vision) and there’s been some big cases such as Interflora in 2013 where manipulation of this vision has led to expulsion. Not many companies can bring down a business overnight by flicking a switch, but this just shows how much power Google has over the world wide web.
Social media – The world wide web’s new flame
Throughout the late 2000’s began a mainstream wave of a whole new way to access content from the world wide web, why seek out your own content when you can kick back and wait for your friends to deliver it to your doorstep? Among others, Facebook and Twitter became a whole new way for people to discover content, and for publishers to amplify their audience.
Search and social worked hand in hand, people with specific intent looked to seek out their content via search,
and social gave them the opportunity to share. It was a marriage made in heaven and for the time being played nicely with Google’s vision over content quality. Why would anyone share content that didn’t offer high quality information that gives visitors the information they are looking for?
The web was dominated by Google, but since the value of their product fed off delivering the best possible user experience of the web’s content, this wasn’t such a bad thing. And social’s ability to amplify content reach meant publishers could really invest in delivering quality content to their audience off the back of their ad revenue models.
Social outgrows the web
In recent years, whilst search was still the predominant focus for maximising readership, publishers and brands started to stray from Google’s vision for the web’s content due to the growth of social platforms. Instead they chose to innovate with ways to make their content fly across social, leveraging their loyal advocates by piggybacking off their influence within their own social communities. ‘New wave’ publishers like Buzzfeed switched their entire focus on writing content ready made for people to share and even provided tips on how to make content go viral.
Whilst having years of successfully dominating search engine competitors such as Microsoft’s Bing, a whole change of ecosystem was on the horizon. It was becoming increasingly clear that Facebook in particular was evolving to become a real threat to Google’s dominance over the world wide web. By June 2015 research by Parse.ly stated that Facebook had overtaken Google as the largest referrer of traffic.
This is huge for any content creators as it meant there was potentially more to gain by writing content to be shared rather than content to be found. There’s fundamental differences in these approaches and it will likely change the way we consume content from now on.
Closed ecosystems create their own rules
Google had a significant role to play in the web, but they will be known as enhancing the experience and helping people get the most out of it. They govern unsavory content from being indexed and if it’s not indexed it’s pretty much invisible, cast to the depths of the deep web.
Facebook is completely different, it’s a closed ecosystem to the web. You can find it via the web but you shut the door behind you. The problem with a closed ecosystem is it sets its own governance; when Facebook sold advertisers ‘Fans’ only to obliterate their owned media value further down the line there was no Internet police you could turn to. Facebook’s platform, Facebook’s rules. Deal with it.
Even with a closed ecosystem the web’s content is still valuable right? It’s the blood pumping through the veins of the internet surely? Distribution pipes are one thing, but social still needs content to be shared and that content comes from the web.
The pipes take over
As Facebook’s oxygen is still content found on the web, Google are still happy. Content is written in HTML, collected by Google crawlers in the free web, indexed and ranked accordingly. More content for Google, to be found through intent, and then shared across Facebook.
If Facebook is so important to publisher’s content distribution then surely they’re in a position to just eat the web? What’s stopping them? As they govern their own ecosystem they can offer incentives to publishers to just go direct to them rather than going all traditional with the web. Well that’s exactly what they’re trying to do by launching Instant Articles.
This is a platform which publishers can use to provide great tailored experiences to their audience, super fast loading and importantly an integrated ad revenue model which is immune from the ad blocking epidemic. Who knows, maybe further down the line Facebook will use this enhanced user experience as a way to justify an increase in organic reach for publishers who take up Instant Articles. Maybe as uptake increases they’ll insist content is uploaded exclusively without a duplicate version being published on the web? All speculation at this point but again, your platform, your rules.
Why would Facebook target the web? Tim Berners Lee’s innocent creation hasn’t hurt anyone! Facebook was born out of the web, how else would you find it? The problem they have is a growing jealousy of the big profits Google make for organising content. But if content isn’t uploaded to the web then Google’s product begins to lose its usefulness.
“Google makes the lion’s share of its money on search, and Google search doesn’t work if the web isn’t searchable” – The Verge
Facebook could potentially be on a path to starve out Google’s product, with the world wide web being a casualty caught in the cross fire.
Mobile Devices escalate the gang warfare
When creating the web, Tim Berners Lee created the open platform infrastructure for this to live on. It sneaked up on the likes of Microsoft, for whom it represents a missed opportunity of catching it in a box and rebranding ‘Windows Web’ – Has a nice ring to it.
The big boys weren’t going to make the same mistake twice, and when consumer habits evolved to Internet devices they had their chance to put their own spin on the web. Step forward Apple, their iOS platform took the internet’s connectivity and created their app store. The App store offered developers a way to create rich applications that could be hard coded to the Apple device and powered by the Internet – Importantly this is a walled garden available only to Apple users.
The scale of Apple’s marketshare for mobile devices, added to the sweeping trend of accessing the Internet via a mobile device. This means that this closed ecosystem is a significant player in the world of closed ecosystems. The app store offers great utility and content and…. yep they’re also trying to eat the web’s content too with Apple News.
With such a threat to their lifeblood, Google are having to match the ecosystems with their very own. Back in 2005 they made the savvy purchase of Android, which would effectively become the ecosystem used by every phone manufacturer bar Apple. They’re even planning to keep the web on life support as they incubate its migration to an existence on mobile devices. They’re doing this through announcing a partnership with Twitter to create AMP, Accelerated Mobile Pages. which will allow publishers to enhance their HTML content when it’s being served on a mobile device – One of the biggest growing pains of the our device evolution is load times, so Google are moving quick to remedy this.
Given both Twitter and Google rely heavily on the web it makes complete sense for them to team up and preserve it. Although Twitter’s rumors over expanding their character limit from 140 to 10,000 would lead to speculation that they’re eyeing up their own closed ecosystem for publishers.
A game of thrones
So there you have it, in the space of ten years the Internet landscape is virtually unrecognisable. Who would have thought when Tim Berners Lee created the world wide web that it would be the target of multi billion dollar tech companies?
Whilst I must say the three rivals have transformed the distribution of information beyond the wildest dreams of Tim Berners Lee, we are heading down a path of lost innocence that I believe by the time we see the repercussions it will be too late. By moving from an open platform accessible to everyone, we will live in a world where the ecosystems we play in are tainted with a self serving motivation.
At the moment we’re free to play the field between tribes and they’re all roughly talking the same language. Tribes have a habit of demanding loyalty, and as they start to make you choose one over the other it will ultimately shape the way we communicate, which might not necessarily be shaped in your best interests.
The moment you step out of the free web and into a controlled environment you hand control over to the gate keeper.