BARRY COLLINS

Web­site own­ers face a Hob­son’s choice – to AMP or not to AMP.

PC Pro - - November 2017 Issue 277 - Barry Collins is the for­mer ed­i­tor of PC Pro and cur­rent co-ed­i­tor of The Big Tech Ques­tion ( bigtechques­tion. com, since you ask). @baz­za­collins barry@me­di­abc.co.uk

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.

AMP is Google’s at­tempt to speed up the mo­bile web. In­stead of send­ing mo­bile users to the orig­i­nal web­site, which could be laden with rich ad­verts, JavaScript and wid­gets that could slow the ex­pe­ri­ence down, AMP pro­vides a cleaner, Google-hosted ver­sion of the site. That light­ning sym­bol means you’re go­ing to be served your con­tent in­stantly – a pow­er­ful draw for mo­bile users, and a kick in the boxer shorts for those of us with­out it.

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

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