January 3rd, 2018

The United States of America. The bastion, nay the very zenith of capitalism is now a country seemingly turning its back on net neutrality, with US regulators (led by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai) voting to repeal the laws put in place by President Obama to protect net neutrality.

For those that are not aware of what net neutrality is, it is where internet service providers (ISPs) offer access to the internet without favouring, blocking or charging additionally for certain content, websites or applications.

There is a popular saying, especially in the boxing world, that “if it makes money, it makes sense” but many would argue that it only makes sense for those that are able to make the money. Cynics would argue that this is just another way in which the 1 percenters are able to abuse the system to fill their pockets, simultaneously preventing an internet that offers equal access to everyone. Others (and there doesn’t seem to be many of them) would point towards service providers such as satellite TV or Amazon Prime that charge additionally for certain content and that net neutrality is not a god given right.

This is an emotive topic and a complicated one at that. As such, rather than looking at whether this decision is right or wrong, we are going to look at the potential impact on digital marketers should this stick. Note that this is currently merely speculation and a decent amount of spit balling – albeit with a lot of reading around the subject!

The Scenarios

There appear to be a few main scenarios that could occur as a result of these net neutrality rulings:

  • Internet users will have multiple tariffs available with their ISPs, meaning that your website (and other websites that you use for marketing) could be restricted to a certain tariff, therefore reducing visibility.
  • Your website could be slowed down with competitors being granted access to ‘fast lanes’ and therefore a competitive advantage.
  • The cost of marketing could increase as businesses and agencies alike have to pay more with their own ISPs to access websites such as analytics tools or third party marketing platforms.

The worry for a lot of people that oppose this appeal is that the internet becomes a bidding platform rather than one based upon value – think PPC vs organic SEO. In such an environment, it tends to be those that have, rather than those that do not have, that can capitalise on the market and further compounding the issue of wealth distribution.

Reduced Visibility

Yes there are these main scenarios but in an Inception like manner, there are also scenarios within scenarios. The basic theory of your website being placed in a higher tariff is reasonably easy to understand – you are only visible to those that pay their ISP for access. Not an ideal scenario. For SEOs this is bad news. A significant part of our work is based around our own content marketing, often content that has been uploaded directly to our website. This scenario would mean a quick reduction in the potential return on investment; after all we are looking to gain as much targeted exposure for this content as possible. However, it doesn’t stop there.

Digital marketers do not just rely on their own websites being visible to all internet users, they also utilise other websites for visibility.

From an SEO standpoint the most obvious problem would be if an ISP wanted to block a search engine, for the sake of argument let’s use Google as the example. If Bing struck a deal with an ISP to ensure that they are the only search engine that all customers can access, this would drastically reduce visibility for those that have optimised specifically for Google. The good news is that the major search engines are likely to have enough cash to make sure that this does not happen.

But what of businesses that are heavily invested in display networks or digital PR? Potentially years of investment could have a stranglehold placed on it by the ISPs by restrictive access. They will have to assess the visibility of their marketing network, impacting on future investments into third party websites. It may even see a new metric emerge for those looking to sell advertising space on their site: what deal do they have with the ISPs?

Fast Lanes

A close relative to the ‘website blocked’ scenario, you may find yourself in the slower lanes of the ISP’s metaphorical highway. User experience is critical in the conversion of our website traffic into customers. Clearly a reduction in a website’s speed will negatively impact the user experience, how users interact with said website and subsequent conversions.

It goes deeper though.

It may transpire that certain elements of websites, namely video, which place more strain on an ISPs network will be placed in these slow lanes for basic tariff users. As a result, businesses that have invested heavily in video marketing may start to experience a downturn in results from their investment.

It’s not all bad though. Those that can afford to pay ISPs to ensure fast lane access to consumers could see a growth in dominance as competition starts to fall away purely down to lack of funds. That’s us being facetious by the way…..

Increased Costs

At Yellowball we are always striving to get the truest ROI figures for our clients. After all, revenue only tells one part of the story so factors such as net margins and cost per acquisition should also be taken into account. So how does this net neutrality situation impact this?

Well, what if businesses and agencies had to pay a higher tariff in order to access campaign critical third party websites/platforms? This would directly impact on the cost per acquisition for businesses, or potentially the costs for agency clients. The impact may be relatively small in the grand scheme of things but as with most of the rhetoric around the subject it does make it harder for those less established, smaller businesses with tight budgets!

We have to wait and see.

There has been a lot of doomsday style press with regards to the repeal of net neutrality laws in the U.S. Will the EU follow? Will ISPs turn out to be the devils that they are being painted as? Only time will tell. The general consensus is that it sucks for the majority of us. Users suddenly have to pay more and digital marketers may have to rethink their entire strategy. As Adam Heitzman commented for Inc., a free market resulted in wide demand for digital marketing services and a competitive environment. An internet controlled by providers paints a very different picture.

Strategies may have to change, previous investments may reduce in value and some businesses may not make it out alive. Whether the ISPs take full advantage of their control over the internet is yet to be seen, we hope not but remaining agile in such uncertain times will be crucial for those businesses that may be affected in the US.

For more information on the marketing world’s reaction to this repeal, please peruse the following articles:

Rand Fishkin’s Whiteboard Friday on Net Neutrality

Adam Heitzman Commenting for Inc.

MarTechToday

Barbara van Schewick

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