Readability has lately found itself plunged into some of the same hot water as aggregators Flipboard and Zite. Originally conceived as a reformatting service to let people read articles on the web in clear, easy-to-read formatting, without distracting advertisements, the service revamped itself and expanded into a subscription service to pay publishers for skipping their ads. This didn’t work out terribly well for Readability, and so it recently went free instead of trying to convince people to subscribe.

But one particularly obnoxious feature that Readability introduced at the time of its revamp is that when you reformat an article with Readability, you don’t get a link to the original article in your browser, or in your social media if you share it. You get a link to the reformatted version on This has always been rather annoying to me, and was the main reason I stopped using Readability at all—if I’m going to reformat an article to read it, I don’t want to have to jump back to the original page to grab the actual URL. (Evernote Clearly, which I now use, reformats articles while keeping the link to the original post.)

The only thing I’m really surprised about is how long it took someone in the content industry to notice and complain about this. Yesterday called this “sinister behavior,” pointing out that, when shared, such a URL drives traffic to Readability’s site, but doesn’t necessarily encourage it to go beyond the reformatted version to visit the original article (and see its ads, etc.).

Readability quickly responded, noting that on the desktop its shared links actually lead to a frame which shows the original article along with an easy option to run it through the reformatter, but it had been sharing the Readability links on mobile devices because there wasn’t any handy equivalent to a frame on those. It’s still trying to come up with something of that nature, but until then Readability has changed the sharing behavior of its app going forward so that it redirects mobile users to the original content.

On ReadWriteWeb Jon Mitchell takes a look at Readability, calling it “the middleman nobody needs.” He points out that Readability’s subscription-based revenue sharing model was always a bit presumptuous, given that publishers who wanted to participate in that revenue sharing actually had to sign up for it. He also compares Readability’s behavior to competitor Instapaper, which does not take all the same liberties Readability did, and does not interpose itself between readers and the original sources of the content.

Meanwhile, Readability has posted a further statement to its blog, explaining that overall it wants to help usher in the future of web-based content by making sure that creators of that content can get paid for what they do.

We’re experimenting because we do not believe that, ten years from now, advertisers will be happily paying for CPM banner ads on a site that people leave to read in some other app. And we don’t believe that publishers will support over the long term paid apps which generate no revenue for the publisher. The model we’re experimenting with definitely has its challenges, and we’re going to be careful about how we handle change because we made a public promise by way of our model.

How on-line papers and magazines will get paid for content is rather up in the air right now, and someone does need to figure out a workable solution. In a physical paper, you can’t block the advertisements out of your attention, but nothing could be easier on the web—and once the ability to do it became available, readers adopted it in droves. Even Apple, which makes a significant part of its revenue from the sale of digital content, added Readability-like reformatting and saving-for-later features (using Readability’s own open-sourced code!) to Safari (much to Ars Technica editor in chief Ken Fisher’s dismay).


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