What Are Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), and Should You Care?

Digital Marketers: Get Ready for Yet Another TLA* in Your Lexicon: AMP

(*TLA: Three Letter Acronym)

Sneak Peak: What You’ll Find in this Post

  • What Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) Are
  • Who is Behind the AMP Project
  • How AMP Pages Affect Search Results
  • Development Considerations and Obstacles
  • Some Preliminary Data on CTR Impact
  • AMP Skepticism

the amp project logoWhat is AMP?

Even if you’re not a tech-head you might actually have heard of AMP, since lately this recently introduced (Fall of 2015) mobile website standard has even been covered by Fortune and Forbes, the latter of which makes the following statement in a recent online article:

[Google] has always favored optimal mobile traffic, launching its Mobilegeddon update last year (and a follow-up this year) to reward sites that offer user-friendly mobile experiences, but the expanded rollout of AMP in search results could be even bigger. (Italics added)

(Note: If you don’t understand the Mobilegeddon reference, don’t worry about that now.  I’ll touch on it a bit in my next post on this topic.)

If you don’t know much about AMP, and yet if you depend on digital marketing, you should start paying attention.

Tech alert!  The following paragraph gets a bit techy, but I promise you’ll get past it quickly and you don’t need to remember it.

“Accelerated Mobile Pages” refers to a way to build mobile-friendly website pages using special website development resources and elements.  Essentially, much like structured data, AMP includes technical extensions to traditional HTML (which is a technical specification that underlays the construction of all websites).  Beyond using an extension of HTML (à la structured data), AMP also includes a special JavaScript library and a dedicated page cache provided by Google (don’t worry, by the way, that’s as technical as I’m going to get and even that bit I just mentioned can now be placed in your mental delete file).

The bottom line for AMP is that these pages conform to an open standard developed with a (supposedly) straightforward goal: make pages load faster for mobile devices and give users a better browsing experience.  According to AmpProject.org:

“The Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) Project is an open source initiative that embodies the vision that publishers can create mobile optimized content once and have it load instantly everywhere.”  (Italics added)

Hey, that sounds good to me.

Note the language of the above quote is focused on “publishers.”  Although an online publisher can effectively be any website, the initial emphasis of AMP has been on content publishers such as news outlets.  As if to drive home this emphasis, the homepage of the AMP Project showcases a user reading an article on the Washington Post website.

screen capture of home page of amp project showing Washington Post website

AMPProject.org homepage as of this writing. Beyond the appeal to “publishers” in the text, the photo shows a mobile user reading the Washington Post online.

Who is Behind AMP?

It’s hard to find out who really is behind the AMP initiative by casually browsing AMPProject.org.  There is a long list of companies making use of AMP, but the most I was able to get out of the site itself was “an open source initiative.”

Tellingly, in the early days of AMP awareness, all the way back in November of 2015, eWeek observed that the effort was being “spearheaded” by Google.  According to eWeek

“This Is a Google Project First and Foremost

“While several companies are technically involved in AMP, Google is their leader. Google is the one that first introduced the service and is working with other firms to get it off the ground. Look for Google to continue to play a central role in AMP both before it gets off the ground and after.”

A possible motivation may go beyond the “good of the masses” line offered up by AMPProject.org.  A post at Fortune magazine for the prior month offers this insight:

“Although the man behind the Google effort, head of news Richard Gingras, doesn’t like to describe it as such, AMP is clearly a response to Facebook’s “Instant Articles.”

combination of google and ampproject logos

The AMP Project is an open source initiative, but Google is reported to be the driving force behind it.

Ain’t competition a lovely thing?

Perhaps coincidentally, AMP does a pretty good job of keeping visitors more engaged with Google search than with the websites themselves (example: once you click on an AMP result from the carousel, you can easily slide the next result over from a different site, and then a single AMPish back arrow at the top takes you, not to the last page you visited, but to Google search results.

AMP content also offers less navigation and functionality, meaning there’s less to distract you from re-engaging with Google.  But most importantly, AMP puts Google and its partners in the driver’s seat when it comes to serving ads and deciding what functionality will be permitted.  It isn’t paranoid to presume that functionality that runs contrary to Google’s obvious desire to monetize every pixel on the Internet won’t get much play.

 

How Do AMP Pages Show Up in Search Results?

A common feature of the results Google shows for many common news-related queries is their “top stories,” and that’s where AMP has already played a role; Google will indicate next to a top story whether the link goes to an AMP page by the employment of a cute little lightning bolt.  On mobile devices, top stories currently show as a “carousel,” namely a series of results, each with a dominant graphic, that a user can scroll across the page without moving the page up and down.

Have you made plans to push Accelerated Mobile Pages out to your readers yet? Yes or no, we’d love to hear your perspective in the comments.

What has brought AMP back into the news this month is that Google is now saying that they will be rolling out AMP results to all their organic listings.  They have, for example, partnered with struggling etailer eBay to advance AMP pages in the world of ecommerce.  They have also offered a demo search here (only available when you browse there with a phone) that will give you a preview of regular organic search results where AMP-contained content is listed with the lightning bolt.

Forbes is not the only publication waxing enthusiastic about the impact of AMP on the Internet and the implying that Google will force rapid adoption of the standard.  Christopher Ratcliff, the managing editor of Search Engine Watch, a widely followed website in the SEO business, puts it like this:

“To date there are more than 150 million AMP docs in Google’s index, with more than 4 million new ones being added every week. You still have time to implement AMP if you haven’t already, but you’d better get your lightning fast skates on!”

Ratcliff expressed his own preference for seeking out AMP content in search results (“Personally I now seek out pages with the little lightning symbol when I’m on my mobile,” Ratcliff says).  I can see why he does, AMP content does indeed deliver on its promise of faster page loads.

Currently however, such pages are not that easy to find.  I recently tested a bunch of searches on the preview tool that Google offers to show how they will be displaying AMP results.  Out of a multitude of searches for common queries that are not related specifically to news, the only AMP results I found outside of “top stories” were for Forbes and the Washington Post.

screen captures of amp lightning bolt in mobile search results

On the left, an AMP lightning bolt appears below a “top story” featured in the Top Stories carousel on a mobile device.
On the right, another mobile search for a much less “newsy” topic: the national debit. Note the AMP content from the Washington Post in the traditional organic search result listing

Not Everyone is Enthusiastic

It’s understandable that many website developers are AMP skeptics.  AMP represents a further layer in development complexity and one more standard with which to comply.  Since currently AMP, by Google’s own admission, does not cause a web page to rank higher in search results (known as a ranking factor), the question is, “why bother?”  This is especially the case for developers who have already worked hard to implement responsive design (another Google recommendation) and have perfected fast delivery times using existing web development tools.

AMP also creates something of a “walled garden,” as Fortune observes in its article last October (refreshingly less sycophantic than the Forbes article cited at the outset).  The only Javascript that will run on AMP content is the library controlled by the AMP Project (i.e. Google).  The only ads that will run are those from AMP-participating ad networks.  The only Javascript-based analytics that will run, apparently, is AMP-blessed analytics (read “Google Analytics”).

Other thoughtful opinions detailing not merely the advantages but also the possible problems with the AMP Project can be found at NiemanLab and DigiDay.

Additionally, AMP seems to run contrary to the current Holy Grail, “responsive design.”  The value of responsive design was to allow a single document to handle the formatting of content for mobile or desktop, thus removing the management nightmare of maintaining one set of pages for mobile devices separately from the set used for desktop machines.  AMP does not use this model, and takes developers back to a world of separate paths of development and added maintenance hassles.  As the NiemanLabs article observes, it amounts to “forking” HTML (in other words creating two related, but essentially non-interchangeable, languages for the development of websites).

schematic showing responsive design plus accelerated mobile pages

But it goes beyond merely a maintenance hassle.

Barry Schwartz, Founder of the Search Engine Roundtable, another website SEO geeks like me pay attention to, is less optimistic than Ratcliff for a more basic reason: conversions from search.  His opinion is based on some data that indicate Christopher Ratcliff might not be typical in his preference for AMP content.

Schwartz reported the (admittedly non-scientific) results from an examination of his own traffic, which seems to indicate that AMP-flagged pages in search results actually performed more poorly in drawing traffic to the site.  His numbers ran like this:

Click-through rates (i.e. the percentage of searches who clicked on a listing in a search result after seeing it):

  • All Google search traffic:  0.82%
  • Mobile Google search traffic:  0.47% (43% worse than all search traffic)
  • Google mobile search traffic to AMP pages:  0.23% (72% worse than all search traffic, 47% worse than regular mobile traffic)

Schwartz’s conclusion:

“I am not sure AMP is a good thing for engagement…I am holding off moving my plain non news sites from mobile friendly to AMP”

The details of Schwartz’s case study, which covered 10 million impressions, are reported here.

 

In my next post, I’ll dig a bit more into the question of whether you should be rushing into the world of AMP, and as a little bonus I’ll give you my own skeptical position on bleeding-edge adoption of Google initiatives.
The Buzz About AMP: What Are Accelerated Mobile Pages? was last modified: August 27th, 2016 by Ross Barefoot
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