The mobile Web is ripe for streamlining. But to whom does that responsibility fall? Tech companies like Facebook and Apple have recently made such attempts by creating their own hosted platforms designed to cut page-load times and improve the mobile reading experience. Last week, Google made its move. But unlike Apple and Facebook, it’s not adding onto the Web but instead rethinking its very construction. Google’s new AMP (accelerated mobile pages) is an open-source project that deals with slow mobile page-load times by removing the third-party and author-written scripts typically used to track user behavior and present ads. AMP may lighten the load for mobile readers, but it places a new burden on publishers.
Writes Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, Google’s move re-contextualizes a previously open space in which publishers were free to create apps and platforms that do what they want. And that’s dangerous. “This is another stop on the path to powerlessness for publishers — another case of tech companies setting the rules,” he writes, before conceding that “maybe it really does take a giant like Google to be the one to save publishing from itself.”
Google is asking publishers to turn off their scripts, write their pages in a custom version of HTML, and then let Google send cached versions of those pages that will load fast enough to shift the paradigm on one of the mobile Web’s biggest holdups yet: the noticeable lag from when a user opens a link until the resulting page is fully loaded on their screen.
The Facebook/Apple approach doesn’t make much sense for Google because its business model relies on advertising from the open Web. Conversely, Facebook and Apple’s platforms guide users away from the open Web and into a third-space where they alone control revenues. So it makes sense that Google would feel threatened and respond in a way that favors its own infrastructure. “Google’s natural domain is the open Web; any threat to the open Web is a threat to it; and therefore Google is going to do everything in its power to keep content out in the open, rather than being walled off inside third-party apps,” writes Felix Salmon for The Guardian, one of AMP’s initial platform partners.
The content may stay out in the open, but AMP places significant restrictions.
First, however, it’s important to note that AMP has obvious benefits to readers: fewer trackers, loading text before rich media or ads, and stripping a page’s CSS so the presentation is streamlined (albeit very Web 1.0). The Next Web reports that partners include Adobe, Twitter, and WordPress, which will create a CMS plug-in for AMP, and Twitter says its Tweet and Vine embeds will also work on AMP.
But AMP is much less advantageous to publishers, aside from giving those using it a few seconds’ head start on the competition. For starters, it limits the kinds of rich media that can exist on mobile, a burgeoning area of development. Advocates say that’s OK, because AMP isn’t an all-encompassing solution and is best-suited for publishers’ bread-and-butter content: static article pages with text and a few images. Additionally, publishers will need to build a second version of their content in the AMP HTML format (assuming no one’s going all-in AMP just yet) and that’s something smaller organizations may not have the resources to do. And though Google doesn’t say this explicitly, Benton notes, its SEO ranking algorithm factors in page-load time, so AMP is another reason why a page might load higher. Publishers use scripts for ads and to garner, sell, and analyze reader behavior, so they’d need to find another way to study readers in action and drive revenue from their sites, which remains an ongoing struggle. And, finally, Google is peddling back on decades of web-standards development, asking publishers to write their pages in a way that only works with Google’s technology rather than the open HTML standards that maximize on how content can spread.
Whether publishers will go all-in on AMP remains to be seen, particularly as they find alternatives to the trackers and data-gathering that is key to advertising partnerships. The rise and acceptance of mobile ad-blockers by publishers may also contribute, helping to shift the tide from defending against the use of such technology by readers to finding a more sustainable revenue generation alternative altogether.