Google’s AMP Pages Speed Mobile, But Publisher Control Remains a Big Issue

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Today’s smartphone has more calculating power than the IBM Deep Blue supercomputer that outwitted world chess champion Garry Kasparov 20 years ago. But don’t tell that to the mobile devotee who has to wait 19 seconds for his device to load last week’s widely reported article-video about a 26-year-old adventurer who successfully scaled the supposedly hardened fence surrounding the White House.

Mobile page-loading issues are so pervasive that 59% of users click off content that takes more than three seconds to load, costing news publishers numerous opportunities to lengthen pageviews into sessions and monetize their articles and videos.

The main source of the quandary is publishers and marketers adding coding to HTML page markup for advertising features such as “beacons” aimed at putting more users on the Holy Grail of the “customer’s journey.”

To give users around the world better experiences with their omnipresent devices, Google in February 2016 launched its open-source “Accelerated Mobile Pages” (AMP) — an auspicious undertaking that has attracted about one hundred digital platforms, including local newspaper groups like Hearst and McClatchy as well as national publishers USA Today, Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post and international publications like The Guardian and The Economist.

AMP Project developers have figured out how to slim down HTML code, especially with “deadweight” pages that have so much script that the data costs to users to download the pages exceed the revenue the publisher gets in CPMs.

In one case study the AMP Project published in January, Hearst’s AMP-enabled newspapers reported an 83% percent reduction in load time and a 23% increase in the click-through rate to ads.

At its AMP conference for developers held in New York City last week, an upbeat Google announced that China’s two major search providers, Baidu, and Sogou, were joining AMP, along with Yahoo Japan.

But AMP is not a silver bullet for news publishers — and that was made clear at the conference. The most serious note of caution came from one of Google’s major partners on the AMP Project, Matthew Prince, co-founder and CEO of Cloudflare, a network which provides 10% of global Internet service.

Delivering the keynote on day two, Prince said one of AMP’s biggest problems is that Google exercises too much control over how faster-loading pages get published from a central cache that puts “google” at the front of all URLs for AMP pages — even those where the content originated with publishers.

Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince

“If you’re Bloomberg News, the top of the page says ‘google,’ and that’s a real brand risk,” Prince told the conference. “But it’s more important than that. The domain that delivers the content is the one that gets to drop the ‘cookies,’ and the cookies are going to deliver the audience. … It’s not a good enough answer [for Google] to say, ‘Trust us, we’ll give you the data.’ “

“We don’t want to be in a project like Facebook’s Instant Articles. We want to be in something that open, publisher-friendly, developer-friendly. It’s very important if you’re building and curating a unique audience that you can actually deliver it.”

Prince announced to attendees that Cloudflare had created a white-label AMP cache, called Ampersand, which, unlike Google’s central cache, can exist on publishers’ own servers. “It’s your content, it’s your users, it’s your data, you should be able to have control of that,” he said.

Prince, who coded his first Internet pages when he was 7 years old — on a circa 1977 Apple II — emphasized that, overall, he and Cloudflare were happy to be collaborating with Google on the AMP Project. “It was a no-brainer that we should be involved,” he told the audience. “They [Google] don’t believe that the Project should be owned and controlled by Google.”

(Relay Media, which works with Cloudflare on AMP strategy, supports publisher AMP domains on its platform. Last fall it posted this FAQ on AMP for the layman.)

Paul Bakaus, a Google Web Developer Advocate who is the company’s face for many of its AMP tutorials, said, almost pleadingly, to conferees who grilled him on the extent of Google control of the year-old Project “We’re doing the conference to grow the AMP community and include more people. … We want AMP to be a shared solution … and not be a one-company thing.”


I asked Fergal Carr, Senior Vice President, Consumer Product, at Hearst Newspapers Digital, how AMP was performing where it was installed — at 26 websites at 17 Hearst dailies, five weeklies and one Web-only operation (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). From our Q & A:

Are load times satisfactory?
Yes, our pages have lightning-fast load time and set a high bar and target for all Hearst Newspapers.

Is AMP having any impact on revenue per visit?
Revenue per visit for our properties is on par with existing mobile pages, but we are seeing higher viewability and  “fill rates” [when an advertiser doesn’t take an ad position and it gets back-filled by public-service ads or marketing].

Is Google’s cache sending back to Hearst many “invalid” pages because of erroneous coding on AMP HTML markups, a concern expressed by Guardian developer Natalia Balthazar in her conference presentation?
Not a major concern for us as we have 94% of SFGate content on AMP at the San Francisco Chronicle and 86% of content at the Houston Chronicle available. When new features are released, Senior Product Manager Zach Roeper is in close contact with our AMP liaison at Google, so there are no major concerns.

What about concerns that Google through its AMP central cache has too much control over how publishers brand and even monetize AMP?
It’s not enough just to be on AMP.  Hearst monitors its pages daily to ensure strategic goals are constantly being met. These goals are different per market but include incremental users, scale and monetization weighed against onsite habit-forming initiatives, engagement and subscription.

If there are situations where AMP is not meeting these needs and potentially cannibalizing direct audience, it may make sense for publishers to scale back and be more selective on the content shared off platform.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.