Publishers React to AOL’s Mobile Browsing App

When AOL rolled out a mobile browsing application this week at CTIA, it also opened up a can of worms. The technology formats any Web site in an attempt to better fit the content to the small screen of a mobile phone or other portable device.

Sometimes the appropriate content is targeted, other times it picks out navigational links instead of content, depending on the structure of the page. At the same time, it usually strips ads from a page, a practice that has some publishers up in arms.

“At best, this implementation by AOL damages our credibility with readers by providing access to navigation that is out of context and leads nowhere. At worst, AOL is displaying the full text of articles while eliminating the ads. That goes beyond any reasonable definition of Fair Use and seems indefensible,” Chris Elwell, SVP and GM of Jupitermedia’s JupiterWeb properties, told ClickZ News. (disclosure: ClickZ was part of JupiterWeb prior to August 2005.)

AOL sees things a bit differently, saying the added exposure is good for publishers, since publishers without a site optimized for mobile devices had no way of reaching visitors without this kind of technology.

“This is only good for publishers. It brings them a brand new audience with no added work,” Craig Eisler, AOL’s SVP of wireless, told ClickZ News. Because there was no chance of showing an ad to that user before, the publisher isn’t losing anything, he said, adding that most users will visit the publisher’s site with a regular browser once they get back to their desk at work or home.

When a user searches through AOL’s mobile interface, text ads will appear in the results. It’s only when a user opts to browse, or clicks through on a search result, that the page is reformatted by AOL. The technology is provided by Infogin via a deal that was announced in December.

Eisler envisions search, especially local and shopping search, to be much more popular on mobile devices than general Web browsing which will tend to be more of a “boredom application” users will play with while they’re killing time.

These arguments aren’t enough to convince Elwell, whose network includes some sites that render properly and others that do not. “AOL is like Tom Sawyer trying to convince the other kids to whitewash the fence. They stand to benefit from this arrangement much more than publishers do,” he said.

Other publishers agree with AOL view that giving mobile users something to see can be a good thing for publishers, even if they don’t immediately see the benefit. “Services like AOL Mobile Search are a good thing, mostly because they are helping us to get users accustomed to the mobile content experience,” said Jeff Burkett, director of sales development for Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. “As the demand grows with users, publishers will develop better mobile sites and rendering solutions that are tuned more specifically to their needs. The advertising will come after that.”

As long as the service has a limited number of users, it has limited implications, said Jim Spanfeller, president and CEO of Forbes.com. “If it involves a miniscule amount of traffic and a way for people to be exposed to mobile Web content, nobody’s going to get hot and bothered. If it scales, at some point in time people are not going to be happy. They’re going to have to find a way to compensate the publishers.”

Spanfeller said Forbes and other publishers are beginning to make more mobile content deals, either through video or a mobile version of their site. Limitations and lack of standards in cellular technology have held back widespread adoption in the U.S., but Forbes is hedging its bets on the future.

“I’m not convinced the 3-inch screen is going to be a huge environment for Web sites or video. I’m also not convinced it won’t be,” Spanfeller said. “We don’t want to be left on the outside looking in, so we’re going to go out and test it,” he added.

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