Monday, 02 January 2017 04:40

Google Helping Mobile Publishing? Some Publishers Are Not So Sure


SAN FRANCISCO — Last month, Federico Viticci, who runs MacStories, a news site devoted to Apple and its products, made a change in how the site publishes articles for mobile gadgets. MacStories, he declared, would no longer support a Google-backed method for faster loading of mobile web pages, called AMP.

Mr. Viticci said MacStories’s pages already loaded quickly without Google’s help. He also didn’t like the idea of Google’s obscuring his site’s links — with AMP, they read instead of — in the interest of expediency.

“Feels good” to no longer use the Google standard, Mr. Viticci wrote on Twitter.

Mr. Viticci’s experience underscores the ambivalent relationship that some web publishers have developed with what was supposed to be Google’s great boon for mobile publishing. When Google introduced Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP, in October 2015, it said the new format would help publishers with one of their biggest headaches on smartphones: Browsing mobile websites was so frustratingly slow that many smartphone users abandoned pages before they opened.

AMP has since delivered on its promise of faster mobile web pages. Even so, publishers — of smaller sites, especially, or individual bloggers — are beginning to worry about giving too much control to Google in exchange for zippier web pages. What’s more, Google’s approach to AMP has rankled some critics already suspicious of the company’s outsize influence on the internet.

Much of the publishers’ unease is rooted in Google’s presentation of AMP stories, which appear as if they are Google articles. That’s because Google, to speed up AMP, stores copies of publisher’s pages and serves them from its own internet network. So when a reader clicks an AMP link, the address bar at the top of the page displays instead of the actual web address from the publisher. 

“It looks like a Google story,” said Danny Sullivan, founding editor of Search Engine Land, a web search news site. “That’s part of the reason why you’re getting the nervousness from some of these publishers.”

30GOOGLE2-blog427 Google Helping Mobile Publishing? Some Publishers Are Not So Sure
A CNN article served up via Google AMP, a method of loading mobile web pages more quickly.

Google said that it had designed AMP to prioritize speed and that it wanted to help — not harm — publishers, who get full accounting of traffic, data and advertising revenue. Publishers also retain control of their content and design. Google said serving up articles from its own internet network was the best way it knew to achieve the AMP speeds, which are as much as four times faster than a regular mobile web page.

“We always try to present the content that is the best experience,” said David Besbris, Google’s vice president of engineering.

Google started AMP in 2015 because it worried that competitors like Facebook were drawing web surfers inside their networks with faster-loading articles and keeping them there. For Google, those rival sites were siphoning people away from the open internet, where the search company — which created the internet’s most valuable property by organizing the expanse of the World Wide Web — typically operates.

Now articles that use AMP appear prominently in Google search results on mobile devices. A Google search for “Donald Trump” on a smartphone brings back a horizontal carousel of articles from media organizations like Slate and The Wall Street Journal at the top of the page. If someone clicks the first story in the carousel, he or she is moved into a browser and can swipe instantly from one story to another without leaving Google’s network.

Another benefit of AMP for Google is that it keeps activity on the web, and away from apps. More browsing on the internet means more web searches, and, in most cases, that means more Google. This is even more pronounced on mobile devices, where Google accounts for about 95 percent of all global web searches, according to StatCounter.

Since AMP’s launch, the open-source project has won over many big publishers who praise Google’s responsiveness. They say readers are engaging more with ads on AMP because they actually get to the stories and it’s a better experience. There are more than 600 million pages running AMP on over 700,000 different domains, including publishers such as The New York Times and non-media sites like eBay.

30GOOGLE1-blog427 Google Helping Mobile Publishing? Some Publishers Are Not So Sure
Pages delivered by AMP have a web address, a source of concern for some publishers.

David Gehring, a former Google employee and the chief executive of Relay Media, a company that works with publishers to convert pages to AMP, said the format had been positive for publishers grappling with shrinking revenue in the shift from print to online advertising. He estimated that up to 10 percent of mobile web content was already on AMP.

Yet Mr. Gehring also said Google suffered from “tone deafness” when it came to explaining the benefits of AMP, such as the ability for publishers to syndicate articles across the mobile web without losing advertising or traffic.

That tone deafness has rubbed some publishers the wrong way. In October, the software developer Alex Kras created a stir when he wrote a post titled “Google May Be Stealing Your Mobile Traffic,” in which he recounted what had happened when he used AMP on his technology blog. After he enabled AMP on his WordPress publishing software, Mr. Kras said, his old posts displayed and there was no easy way to redirect readers to his own site.

“It made me feel like my site wasn’t my own,” Mr. Kras said.

He later said the title of his blog post was inaccurate, but stood by his concerns that AMP could cost publishers mobile traffic, an assertion Google denies. Mr. Kras said smaller publishers had more to lose if they used AMP, since big publishers have more name recognition and readers are more likely to remember them as the source of a story.

“Little guys like myself don’t have this luxury,” he wrote in another blog post after meeting with Google officials.

Still, Mr. Kras decided to keep AMP because it was fast. "For that, a lot of little things can be (temporarily) forgotten,” he said.

30GOOGLE3-blog427 Google Helping Mobile Publishing? Some Publishers Are Not So Sure
More than 600 million pages are running AMP.

Google may be starting to acknowledge some publishers’ concerns. Last month, Google told Search Engine Land that it planned to make changes to AMP in 2017 to make it easier for publishers to offer their own links and for readers to be redirected to their sites. Google did not elaborate on its plans.

Several bigger publishers say they are pleased with AMP and do not see anything worrisome with Google.

“Google has been a good partner,” said Mark Silverstein, the head of business development at The Huffington Post, which is planning to push almost all of its news content into AMP. “When they make decisions, they do a good job of explaining why they reached that decision.”

Emily Smith, head of content operations at Condé Nast’s Wired magazine, said supporting AMP had pushed its mobile articles to the top of search results. For web surfers conditioned to believe that the most relevant information is presented first in search results, it’s important for a media organization to be near the top.

“It’s like being above the fold in a newspaper,” she said.

About 15 percent of The Washington Post’s traffic comes from AMP pages. The Post is now using the lessons from AMP to move its articles to a separate, faster-running mobile platform that runs like an app but does so over the web.

Joey Marburger, director of products for The Post, said that its readers were scrolling further on AMP stories, but that it was building its own fast system to gain greater control over ads and features.

“We have to be where our readers are coming from,” Mr. Marburger said. “But it’s also important to have more control over our own content.”


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