Feb 9, 2021 - Technology

Publishers see new life in the old open web

Illustration of open digital documents in a field

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

After years of focusing on producing content for the latest hot app, investors, tech leaders and newsrooms are starting to pay renewed attention to publishing on the open web, where independent publishers have more control over data and distribution.

The big picture: The open web — content that's accessible via any web browser, easily linked to, and doesn't require logging in to an account — is winning new attention even as "walled garden" apps like Facebook continue to dominate online distribution and the Google and Facebook duopoly controls most of the digital ad market.

Driving the news: WordPress VIP (WPVIP), the enterprise arm of WordPress.com, is acquiring Parse.ly, a content analytics platform that's used by thousands of digital publishers.

  • WordPress VIP and its sister company WordPress.com are both built on top of the open source WordPress software that has long been a mainstay for creating sites on the open web. Parse.ly provides tools to measure those sites' performance and traffic patterns.
  • The deal is the first large enterprise software acquisition for Automattic, the parent company to WordPress.com, WPVIP, Tumblr and other open web platforms. Automattic raised $300 million two years ago in a round led by Salesforce to invest in open web technologies and platforms.

Other tech visionaries are toying with ways to revitalize publishing on the open web as a means for content creators to retain independence and control and users to escape the drawbacks of today's giant platforms.

The Washington Post, inspired by its owner Jeff Bezos, has built a suite of advertising tools called Zeus Technology to help publishers and advertisers on the open web compete for ad dollars with big tech firms like Google and Facebook.

  • "Our mantra always been to build a new ecosystem on the open web," Jarrod Dicker, the Post's VP of commercial technology and development, told Axios last month. "This is the Amazon Web Services element to the product that makes it unique."

Twitter recently posted an update to its Bluesky project, which is aimed at developing open protocols for a decentralized, Twitter-like social network. In it, the company highlighted a list of existing open web technologies that it could potentially partner with or support.

Shopify's growth has exploded during the pandemic. The e-commerce platform is built so that anyone can set up on online store and sell their products on the open web.

Catch up quick: Today's "open web" is really just the original World Wide Web itself — conceived 30 years ago, popularized in the '90s, driver of both the dotcom-era boom and the Web 2.0 renaissance of the mid 2000s.

  • It's still alive and kicking, but it's been eclipsed in the mobile era by apps and platforms that operate as separate silos, hoard user data and don't often provide easy ways to link in and out.
  • Users access those services via smartphones whose software worlds are controlled by large companies (Apple and Google).

Yes, but: Every one of today's tech giants professes allegiance to the open web in different ways.

  • Google's original search business put the open web at the heart of its mission, and the company still views itself as the web's biggest champion.
  • Apple put its web browser on the iPhone from the very beginning.
  • Facebook built its social network on the foundation of the web, so much so that it was late to accept the mobile era's smartphone primacy.
  • Amazon's original bookstore and eventual "everything store" were built as websites, and even today, AWS, its growing cloud business, powers open web businesses as well as mobile apps.

What's next: Many open web projects today involve decentralization schemes based on blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies to route around big companies and fund publishing efforts in new ways.

The bottom line: Some developers and investors never gave up on what they view as the ideals of the open web, and they see an opening today as the social and political downsides of the mobile era's massive platforms have become more evident.

Go deeper