AMP’s long game
At one year, the open-source Accelerated Mobile Pages project has hit the gangly teenage stage. Columnist Barb Palser sums up what’s happening now and makes recommendations for publishers adopting the format.
Ten months ago, AMP hadn’t launched in Google search; today, it’s almost impossible to perform a mobile search without getting AMP results. Publishers are reporting up to 15 percent of total mobile traffic going to AMP. The speed and scale of AMP’s growth is unprecedented for a new web technology.
Yet in some respects, AMP is still in its adolescence — experiencing a few growing pains and causing some confusion. Some publishers are reporting improved revenue performance from AMP; others report the opposite. There’s also a lingering misconception that AMP is a Google product, which shades the way publishers think about it.
Now is the time for a deeper discussion about AMP, to clear up the confusion and unpack the mixed reviews from publishers. It’s time to think about AMP’s broad purpose and potential, how publishers can nurture it and why it could be one of the most important things they do in 2017.
NOT Google’s answer to Facebook Instant Articles (FBIA)
Google’s leadership role in the AMP Project and the project’s timing (announced five months after Facebook announced Instant Articles) led to the general understanding — frequently reinforced in news reports — that AMP is “Google’s answer to Facebook Instant Articles.”
Maybe that construct was helpful in AMP’s early days. It gave publishers a familiar frame of reference and an uncomplicated reason to participate. If FBIA was a way to gain an advantage in Facebook’s walled garden, then AMP was seen as a tactic to drive performance in Google search. The opportunity to appear in Google’s prominent Top Stories AMP carousel and other AMP-only experiences motivated thousands of publishers to start creating AMP versions of articles.
AMP and FBIA do share a couple of common principles. Both are based on irrefutable evidence that the clutter and bloated code on most websites are killing user engagement and monetization — and that a fast, clean user experience will not only please consumers but also improve ad performance. To rapidly impose order on so much chaos, some standardization is required.
But AMP is far more flexible and expansive in its goals. While FBIA lives in Facebook’s walled garden, AMP is a framework for overhauling the open web. Today, Google is the primary source of AMP traffic to publisher websites, but any platform (even Facebook) could link to AMP content and any publisher or tech company can build anything they want with it. More than 8,700 developers worldwide are engaged in the open-source initiative, and large platforms such as eBay and Reddit have suggested they might retire their standard web code and use AMP exclusively.
As the AMP format becomes richer and expands beyond Google’s environments, the differences between AMP and FBIA will be more important than the similarities.
Ecosystem support (It takes an industry)
AMP’s audacious mission wouldn’t be possible without the broad participation of ad tech companies, analytics companies and other critical services that publishers rely on to support their digital strategies. So far, more than 70 ad tech companies, 25 analytics companies and 13 video platforms have created AMP-enabled products.
This industry participation gives AMP deep roots and separates it from walled-garden formats or individual efforts to improve web performance. Some critics have suggested AMP is unnecessary because publishers can clean up their own code — but that argument misses the reality that most websites are a mesh of third-party integrations, with third-party code often taxing performance more than anything in the publisher’s control.
The only way to clean up the web is for advertising and technology companies to unite in the effort — which AMP has, incredibly, accomplished.
Now it’s up to publishers
With the AMP standard established and the ecosystem aligned, why are some publishers still hesitating or giving AMP mixed reviews?
The too-simple answer is that AMP doesn’t support all of the ad formats and technologies available for standard web pages. Indeed, some formats and capabilities are still in development — and others may never be supported because they’re the very practices that are driving website abandonment and ad blockers today. However, there is a growing library of AMP-enabled rich formats designed to support premium rates while also respecting user experience.
Publishers who express disappointment with AMP revenue often haven’t opened AMP inventory to direct sales (which commands the highest CPMs) or fully integrated their ad strategies and third-party revenue products. Many also have stripped-down AMP implementations which are missing engagement-driving elements such as links and navigation.
Further, many publishers still rely on revenue from non-viewable impressions. AMP waits until a user is near an ad position to call the ad; this significantly improves viewability and click rates, while reducing non-viewable impressions. So yes, publishers who are getting paid for unseen ads will probably notice the difference with AMP — but they’d be wise to wean themselves from that practice anyway.
The difference may be a function of a publisher’s fundamental understanding and expectations of AMP. Publishers can’t be blamed for thinking of AMP as just another off-platform format. With that frame, they’re likely to invest modest effort and see modest results.
But if they begin to think of AMP as a bridge to their new mobile web strategy (because let’s face it, the bad practices of today’s mobile web are crumbling), they’ll take a broader view and a bolder approach, investing more energy to make it work for them. Ideally, this would include exposing their AMP content to users outside of Google search, and opening AMP’s high-viewability, high-performance ad inventory to direct sales.
AMP isn’t perfect, and it’s far from finished, but its progress is remarkable. In 12 months, the AMP Project has launched a new web publishing standard and distribution framework, signed on dozens of leading tech companies and achieved a critical mass of publishers and developers to propel it forward. Not bad for year one.