Safari 5's Reader feature and the future of web content

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Apple quietly launched Safari 5 on Monday; Jobs didn't even mention it during his keynote. Apple says Safari 5 is faster than Chrome; I don't have a testing lab but it seems plenty speedy. I've taken it for a test drive on both OS X and Windows 7; in the past Safari somehow hasn't felt "right" running under Windows but this version feels better in that "I can't quite put my finger on it" kind of way.

But I'll leave deconstruction of the browser's strengths and weaknesses to someone with a test lab. I want to talk about this new Reader feature.

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Here's how it works, to an end user. You load an article page. It loads just as you'd expect it to, with ads and sidebars and widgets and what have you. You then click on the Reader button that appears in the location bar. A window pops up over the web page with just the content of the page showing. It's a very clean display with no ads, widgets or distractions. (See image below.) If you've used Readability it'll feel familiar.

As someone who spends a lot of time reading on the web, I certainly see the appeal. Everyone hates ads, after all. But as someone who earns his living from a web site, this is vaguely horrifying to me. Yes, the ads load; that much is good news. But as soon as you hit that Reader button they get covered up. Worse, if it's a multi-page article Reader will show you all pages without ads.

The problem is that advertisers on the web care a little about you seeing the ads, but they care a lot about you clicking on them. I've never understood this, myself. I don't click on any of the ads I see on TV, after all, and advertisers accept that those are effective. But rational or not, it's what online advertisers want to see: click-through rates. And click-through rates will plummet if this Reader concept catches on.

So what happens next? Clever people reverse engineer the process that Safari uses to ascertain that a page is Reader-able, and determine how to disable it without impacting the end-user experience. Work has already begun on figuring this out. Then if the Safari/Reader combo catches on and starts impacting click-through rates, changes will be deployed. Of course, Apple will no doubt then change the metrics, and voila, a web-based arms race. Lovely.

(Of course, that's the 'stick' solution to the problem. The 'carrot' solution is somehow convincing advertisers to create ads that are actually of interest to readers. Give us some value, or some humor, or something interesting to look at. Make us want to see the ads!)

The irony of Apple releasing this ad-foiling browser feature during the same show they made a big fuss about their new iAds platform for serving ads in iOS apps hasn't been lost on anyone. Read Ken Fisher's piece, Apple's "evil/genius" plan to punk the web and gild the iPad for starters.

I know you hate ads. But you hate paying for content too, right? Ads put the financial burden on the shoulders of advertisers, not readers. A widespread tool to obscure ads isn't going to help anyone in the long wrong.

A recent article in 'standard' Safari 5
The same article in Safari 5's Reader view
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