To hear publishers tell it, Google's plan to help sites' pages instantly load on mobile isn't a shot across the bow at Facebook, which is doing the same thing. It's a shot at keeping the mobile web and the publishers on it relevant at a time when audiences' attentions are shifting to mobile apps they don't control.
On Wednesday, Google announced an open-source product called Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) that will instantly load pages from participating publishers -- including Hearst, The New York Times, Vox Media and The Washington Post -- when clicked on from Google search, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn or potentially anywhere online. That product is very similar to Facebook's Instant Articles product that was announced earlier this year and does largely the same thing but can only be accessed within Facebook.
While Facebook's Instant Articles may make it more appealing for mobile audiences to check the news within Facebook's app, AMP is a way to ensure that the mobile web keeps pace so those people don't begin to feel like Facebook is their only option for fast access to news. And AMP is open-source, which means it will be constantly and publicly evolving with input from anyone, and relatively laissez-faire when it comes to publishers' business dealings.
"From a publisher perspective, it's attractive because it appears I don't have to enter into a business relationship with Google. They leave, if you will, control of both the editorial and business side of my enterprise in my hands," said Kinsey Wilson, exec VP-product and technology at The New York Times. A Google blog post announcing AMP said that only ads "that don't detract from the user experience" will be permitted on AMP pages, but a Google spokeswoman said that specific policies regarding ad formats have yet to be outlined.
The initial version of AMP unveiled on Wednesday -- which is far from a finalized version but all there is to go off for now -- is effectively Instant Articles for the open web, with a lot of the pros and cons that implies. Yes, pages will load quicker, but they'll also lack a lot of interactive elements. Yes, a lot of ad-tech code, including some ways to track people's browsing, won't work, and neither will the ad-tech that verifies an ad was seen by an actual human. Yes, Google says it won't specifically give AMP articles a boost in search rankings, but it does rank sites based on how quickly their pages load.
Publishers don't have to host their content on Google's servers in order for their articles to instantly load or cut Google any of the ad revenue from their AMP-powered articles. They only need to use an AMP-compatible content delivery network that compresses the time it takes to send a page's code to someone's browser by caching that content. Google will provide such a caching system, but publishers will have the option to use one they've built themselves or one built by another company. And AMP-powered articles aren't limited to running on Google's platform.
"You don't have to be coming from Google to reach an AMP page. The AMP page can exist after any link really that points to an AMP experience. That's probably the most fundamental difference: that the AMP [article] can exist anywhere on the mobile web," said Vox Media's VP-Growth and Analytics Melissa Bell.
While Forrester has reported that 85% of the time people spend on their phones is being spent within mobile apps, the mobile web remains an important traffic driver for many top publishers. For example, more than 60% of The Washington Post's digital audience is on mobile, and "mostly that's mobile web," said Cory Haik, executive director of emerging news products at The Washington Post.
"When Google talked to us about AMP, we were like 'Oh, wait a second -- Yes, the mobile web!' Because that's sort of the wild, wild west of the web and web standards. HTML is built for desktop," said Ms. Haik, referring to the language used to construct web pages.
The problem with the mobile web that both Google and Facebook are trying to fix is the way that web pages load, a problem that has become one of the top reasons people are installing ad blockers, which are able to block ads in AMP articles. Currently, more data-heavy elements on a page like ads and oversized images can force the rest of a page's content to wait before they can load, even if someone wouldn't see those heavier elements until they scroll further down a page.
AMP and Instant Articles effectively reorder the way pages load, which factors into how they're able to appear to load instantly even if not entirely. What's actually happening is that different parts of the page are loading at different times, so that an article's body can appear even if some of the images or ads it contains aren't ready. It's like a restaurant serving individuals as their meals become available instead of waiting for an entire table's food to be ready. As a result of this process, socially driven news aggregation service Nuzzel, which is one of AMP's platform partners, reported that a non-AMP version of a New York Times mobile page had taken three seconds to load while the AMP-ed version took less than 500 milliseconds to load "without even using a cache."
"What is the best experience for people to get things instantaneously, and then what is the best experience for the user as they're reading or interacting with the content?" Ms. Bell said.
Both AMP and Facebook have also sought to clean up ad-tech's impact on page-load speeds. Both largely cut out third-party ad-tech middlemen that would load pieces of code on a page to do things like track people's browsing behavior. Instant Articles do permit third-party traffic analytics tools like comScore, but not calls to third-party ad servers. And AMP allows for calls to certain third-party ad servers like Google's own DoubleClick and AOL's ADTECH to receive ads to run on a page, though it doesn't yet allow for advanced analytics.
The ad-tech ecosystem's "messiness and complexity has now built up to a point that it's having a negative impact on the end-user experience. And all of these efforts are going to help clean that up to some extent," said Hearst CTO Philip Wiser.
AMP and Instant Articles don't only offer ways to clean up what's going on behind the scenes but also what is presented to audiences. Based on the examples that Ad Age has encountered through Google's mobile demo and through Facebook's iPhone app, both the AMP and Instant Articles formats appear to strip away much of an article's surroundings -- like comments sections, menus that would normally appear atop an article's page and some of the "related articles" boxes that show up below an article -- that could weigh down page-load speeds. It's like street racers removing all the seats from their cars aside from the driver's seat in order to lighten the load and make room for what really matters.
"We're doing all this work to figure out how to do more video, putting photos in line with stories, serving up these rich elements within content, but on the mobile web it's a problem to load. It's incongruous with performance, but now it will not be," Ms. Haik said. "So the consumer experience will change in the way that they're going to get a more enhanced version of a story on mobile, and it will instantly be there."
"When you start to try to arrive at some common agreements about how things perform and how things act, you have to make choices in terms of, like, we're not going to have insane interactivity and jumping robots across the page or something like that," Ms. Bell said.
Ms. Bell emphasized that AMP, like Facebook's Instant Articles, is another distribution option. Not all of the content that Vox Media produces will make sense to AMP-ify, just like it wouldn't make sense to turn every article into a Snapchat story or YouTube video or podcast.
"We think of ourselves as multimedia publishers," she said. "We're working on getting our content in different formats than just websites, but we still believe strongly in websites. So I don't think it's as big of a departure or step as people have been thinking it is."
Perhaps the bigger step is publishers like those interviewed for this article not working only with Facebook or only with Google, but with both in order to preserve competition and not repeat the record labels' mistakes when it came to Apple's iTunes. Rather than arrange digital distribution deals with iTunes' predecessors, record labels killed those companies so that by the time the iPod became the number-one MP3 player in the market, "Apple had the strength," said Mr. Wiser, who was the head of digital at Sony Music when the label signed its iTunes deal with Apple.
"I see parallels here in that the industry really needs to engage and be thoughtful about the change, but the reality is the change is already here in terms of how consumers are engaging with our content," Mr. Wiser said.