Website owners face a Hobson’s choice – to AMP or not to AMP.
The opinions business has an awkward habit of biting you on the backside. There I was, only a month ago in this very column, bleating about how unfair it was of the EU to pick on Google for exploiting its search monopoly, and now I’m about to kick lumps out of Google for the very same reason. Still, I’m nothing if not even-handed. And searingly hypocritical.
A few months ago, the editor of this fine organ and I launched a new website. Like many a new launch, we picked a smartlooking, responsive theme for WordPress, tweaked it here and there, bought the URL and hosting package and set sail.
There’s one thing you learn quickly when you launch a site: don’t screw with Google.
Google’s not the whole internet, but it’s pretty darn close. It both buys and sells web advertising, it supplies the analytics that websites feed off and it controls 90% of the search traffic that almost all sites crave. You do it Google’s way, or you don’t do it at all.
When we first launched the site we (perhaps naively) didn’t give too much thought to site performance. Our WordPress theme is fairly light on the eye candy, the few fancy elements are automatically dropped for mobile viewers and the page loaded briskly in our tests. Yet, that still wasn’t enough to please Google. Our site scored a mere 40 out of 100 on Google’s PageSpeed Insight test and one of the few pieces of public advice Google offers about its search rankings is that “slow” sites will be punished.
Google, however, does offer a solution: hand all your content over to it.
Google’s attempt to commandeer mobile web traffic comes in the form of AMP – Accelerated Mobile Pages. If you’ve performed a Google search on your phone recently, you will have noticed that many of the search results have a little lightning symbol with the letters AMP next to them. The carousel of news stories that appears under the top search result will all be marked AMP, because it’s an exclusive club: if you’re not wearing AMP, you’re not coming in.
The good news for website owners is AMP is reasonably simple to implement. There are WordPress plugins that do the necessary fiddling; once it’s installed, you just carry on knocking out your stories as normal.
However, there are some staggering downsides, too: your mobile site content isn’t yours any more, it’s Google’s. Mobile users are directed to a special version of your stories, cached and hosted by Google. Check out the URL of an Independent story on Donald Trump, for example, and you’ll notice the URL reads something like google. co.uk/amp/www.independent.co.uk/news/ donaldsdoneitagain. Google’s got your visitors. Your brand runs off the address bar.
If they swipe left or right on your story, they’re taken to another news site covering the same topic. Any website owner will tell you it’s hard enough to retain visitors dragged in by search traffic; now Google’s making it even easier to leave. What’s more, in its haste to load pages quickly, AMP outlaws almost all scripts. Analytics packages and ad networks are just two of the victims – unless they’re operated by Google, of course.
It’s not even guaranteed to boost performance. According to Andrew Betts, principal developer advocate at cloud platform Fastly and member of the W3C Technical Architecture Group, well optimised sites such as The Guardian or FT often outperform AMP – but even those giant publishers continue to use AMP anyway, presumably because they don’t want to be punished in search rankings. AMP’s share of web traffic is already approaching 10%, according to reports. It’s only going to grow.
And so web owners are faced with an ugly choice: ignore AMP and almost certainly suffer the consequences, as mobile Googlers are funnelled towards sites bearing that lighting symbol; or hand their content over to Google and remain at the search giant’s mercy. A year or so down the track, there’s nothing to stop Google charging sites to optimise sites via AMP or demand that they run Google ads as a quid pro quo.
So, as much as it sticks in the craw, we’re probably going to end up using AMP because we can’t afford not to. A site barely visible on Google is a site barely visible at all. One of the reasons we set up our own site was to give us some independence from the big publishers. Turns out we’re now working for the biggest of them all.
Google’s not the whole internet, but it’s pretty darn close... You either do it Google’s way, or you don’t do it at all