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Oct. 21, 2019, 10:29 a.m.

Apple should do for news in Safari on mobile what Google has done for news in Chrome

Your iPhone is very good at directing your attention. What if it could be a little bit better at directing it toward news?

This brief piece by Bradley Chambers at the Apple-centric website 9to5Mac lists a few things that he thinks could be done to improve Safari, the web browser that comes preinstalled on Macs and, more crucially, iPhones and iPads.

He proposes switching the default search engine from Google to DuckDuckGo — unlikely given that Google pays Apple $12 billion a year for that position — and adding some user-friendly tips for those new to Apple’s apps. Fine enough. But he also mentions one idea that, while perhaps of marginal importance for end users, would be significant for publishers:

Apple News headlines

Apple News is a crucial part of the macOS and iOS experience now. I have some issues with the paid subscription version, but the entire app experience is great overall. As it continues to expand to more countries, Apple could include vetted articles from prominent sources on its Apple Start Page. As all publishers continue to fight against fake news spreading, Apple could be a key player in informing the public of what’s happening around the world every time they load Safari.

Yadda yadda fake news yadda — to heck with the health of our democracy, let’s just generate some pageviews!

What kind of an impact would Apple putting headlines, taken from Apple News, on the Safari new tab page have? Well, we have some data on that, from when Google did the same thing last year in its mobile version of Chrome. The spike in traffic to publishers was real and significant. Here’s some information from Chartbeat data:

If you use Chrome on your phone or tablet, you’re probably familiar with the article suggestions that you see when you open a new tab in your browser. However, if you’re a publishing executive, you may not be thinking of them as a meaningful traffic source. Well, we have news for you: Research by Chartbeat’s data science team reveals that Google Chrome’s Articles for You (also known as “Chrome Content Suggestions” or “Chrome Suggestions”) is one of the fastest growing sources of publisher traffic on the internet…

This speaks to the incredible power and influence that Google has over a user’s browsing behavior and, consequently, publisher traffic. Once a user has chosen Chrome as her browser, Articles for You is almost unavoidable. It is placed prominently within a user’s mobile experience, personalized with the immense knowledge that Google has about one’s browsing behavior and interests and frequently boosted by the speed of AMP.

In a year’s time, those article suggestions in Chrome went from being a nothingburger to driving more traffic to news sites than all of Twitter. And they kept increasing: By the end of 2018, Parse.ly data found “Google (other)” referrals (which is traffic from Google that isn’t search or Google News — a proxy for these browser recommendations) were up 67 percent year over year. And it’s still a force: Parse.ly’s Google (other) category is today the No. 4 traffic source in its network of news sites, behind Google Search, Facebook, and Google News, but ahead of Twitter, Flipboard, Bing, and well, everything else.

The Safari new tab page on iPhone currently defaults to showing your bookmarks and frequently visited pages. Put up some top headlines from Apple News — using its mix of editorially selected and customized to your interests — and you’d be directing a lot of human attention toward news.

How much? Headlines in Safari would have only a limited impact on desktop, where Safari has a roughly 9 percent share of the market in the United States. But the story is different on mobile, where Safari’s U.S. market share jumps to 52 percent on phones and 73 percent on tablets. (Those numbers all decrease once you leave the U.S.; worldwide, Safari’s shares are 7, 20, and 66 percent across desktop, phones, and tablets, respectively.)

Given that this is a mobile-dominant play for audience, pushing headlines in Safari could be an even bigger deal than in Chrome in the U.S. And — not to be accused of Apple snobbery, but — publishers, especially premium publishers, are generally more interested in iOS users than Android ones because they tend to better customers — higher income, higher education, more news consumption.

Apple News has turned itself into a very significant source of traffic (if not usually revenue) for publishers, with some ranking it their third-most-important traffic driver behind Google and Facebook. Apple’s most recent muddled stab at it, Apple News+, hasn’t connected with readers or publishers. The most important path for users to reach Apple News now is push notifications, but those come at the individual story level, which can make it hard to promote the “premium” content Apple would like to upsell you to. But if Safari was regularly showing you five or six top headlines, it wouldn’t be too hard for it to throw in a “premium” headline now and then to give you a reason to pay $10 a month.

There are a lot of things to fret about when it comes to news in 2019, but one I’ve become increasingly concerned about the past couple of years is the number of people who are withdrawing from news consumption altogether. Or at least from purposeful news consumption; you can’t be online for all the hours we all are without having news bump into you now and then. But an increasing number of people — their attention sated by the infinite distractions on their phone, their interest dulled by poisonous politics — are just checking out of news. I’m increasingly convinced that, at scale, this is a problem that only two companies — Google and Apple, the people who control the mobile operating systems through which we interact with the world — can truly address. Even if a Safari user never taps on a headline, simply being confronted with them a few times a day or week could have a prophylactic effect, giving them some ambient awareness of the world around them and protecting them at least a bit from misinformation and disinformation.

Apple is a company that likes to consider itself a force for good in the world; this would be a nice way to show it.

Image based on a photo by Yiran Ding.

POSTED     Oct. 21, 2019, 10:29 a.m.
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