Google’s AMP is bringing some much needed speed to mobile but the transition won’t be easy for publishers

A week after launching, the Google-led Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) initiative has raised more questions than answers for publishers concerned over its capacity to generate advertising revenue, writes Seb Joseph and Jessica Goodfellow.

Despite the teething problems, it is too early to chuck out the baby that is AMP with the bath water, and get overly concerned. It is clearly in its infancy in terms of its offering for advertisers and publishers have bought into the principle of what it’s trying to do in terms of offering web users a faster and richer experience on mobile.

Does that mean short-term pain? Yes, probably because in order to fulfil those lofty promises, Google is overhauling its current ecosystem of the mobile web, so there’s naturally going to be a few obstacles. However, some would argue that this is another attempt for the Alphabet-owned company to prolong its dominance of the online advertising business.

Ads in AMP still need to be figured out

One major stumbling block will be getting advertisers up to speed with AMP; at the moment an AMP experience is light on advertising, with there being a noticeable lack of ads around many articles viewed by The Drum during one session. Google will need to find a way to get more creatives down the HTTPS connection, with one unnamed publisher executive lamenting the seemingly pointless situation as it stands. “AMP has kind of gone live before anybody is ready. Yes, we get traffic but if we can’t put ads on it then what’s the point?” said the source.

Google argued that AMP allows monetisation and gives publishers full control over their ad inventory and how they sell it, adding that they have always had that since the preview launch.

Other media executives remain hopeful; they believe AMP is going to evolve like anything does in this space and back it to find the right balance in the long-term. “If this was the finished article you would probably be concerned,” Piers North, strategy director at Trinity Mirror.

“A lot of the stuff they are trying to do is a challenge for mobile web advertising at the moment, because it is very programmatic, which has meant a lot of ad tags, which has meant a lot of rich media in terms of heavy creative.”

North went on to explain his opinion that the biggest challenge in the short term is the requirement for the ad tools to be using the HTTPS protocol. “So for the programmatic part of the ecosystem that is a problem…. If the ecosystem figures that out more will come down HTTPS and that will help,” he added.

What AMP’s ads mean for publishers right now

At the moment the AMP framework is fairly strict; publishers must adhere to Google’s guidelines around how a page is built and the technology used. Some third-party software suppliers and ad tech companies don't necessarily have the technology in place to be AMP-compliant, meaning publishers can’t receive ads through them, arguably this is an extension of the ‘walled garden’ allegations already laid at its door.

Google begs to differ and has claimed it wants to support existing business models, though admitted it still has to firm up how advertising will work within AMP. Publishers can already traffic ads using ad servers of their choice, retain full over ad placements, support multiple demand sources and formats (including native ads), and provde viewability measurement.. It also includes integration with 20 plus ad tech vendors. “We will work on bringing more publisher and ads ecosystem partners on board as we expand,” a Google spokeswoman added.

The down side of such a drastic change from a publisher perspective is that it requires them to strip out the JavaScript used in their page construction. As a result, it then renders much of the ad tech they use to serve ads on their page more-or-less redundant, which obviously is a concern - after all there’s still a need for those companies to generate ad revenue in some way shape or form.

With this in mind, some publishers are wary of being used by Google as a proxy to pressure advertisers and agencies into adopting AMP. However, it’s unlikely media owners will try and exert too much influence given that it could mean they end up turning down lucrative revenue.

Instead, Paul Lomax, chief technology officer at Dennis Publishing, believes there will be a push from the online business to talk up the better experience to advertisers as well as outline its potential to curb ad block rates. The publisher has only brought The Week onto AMP for now, though Lomax said it would move all its titles over if the “advertising is sorted quickly”.

“At the moment conversations about the challenges of AMP seem to be happening at the ad ops and engineer level, which might be too low-level for real change to happen. It's going to take a top down approach as well. I'm not sure whether Google have spoken to agencies about the impact on them yet, and I don’t know if agency execs are aware it’s a problem - their problem - yet. It might take months for the decision makers to realise this is having an impact on their campaigns. Hopefully this happens before further roll out,” he added.

“What we want to see is what’s the loss of traffic from sites that don’t have AMP where they used to get traffic from the Google news box. The reason we want to know that is because there are lots of limitations on advertising on AMP pages.”

What CMOs need to know about AMP’s ads

Although, the speed at which Google has got AMP up and running, combined with its willingness to launch without a firmed up advertising proposition has left publishers under no illusions that something bigger is coming.

Sources with an inside track on Google’s thinking comment that Google is testing code with AMP-compliant publishers at present with a handful of ad servers - A9, Ad Reactor, AdTech by AOL, plus Google’s AdSense and DoubleClick – all integrated. However, the terms of how Google intends to generate revenue from this is unclear.

Google is also at pains to remind marketers that consumers are going mobile, and that their brand campaign dollars should follow, not just their performance advertising budgets. As an example of the “mobile revoluction”, David Black, managing director for branding and consumer markets at Google UK, highlighted with The Drum that mobile video views on its YouTube service were increasing 50 per cent year-on-year.

At the moment, AMP only shows in the mobile search news box, but one unnamed media executive believes it “could replace the whole of Google News and maybe the rankings too”. There are also rumours circulating that the presence of ad networks like Outbrain, AdSense, DoubleClick and OpenX on AMP will mean that if the ads they serve to pages don’t comply with AMP then it will limit the reach of those programmatic buys.

“It’s early days with regards to AMP and Google is after all an ad company, with a big programmatic play of its own, so there's little doubt that something will be cooked up in time to enable the Google DoubleClick Ad Exchange to function effectively,” Jeremy Makin, vice president of sales for IBT Media EMEA.

“However in the mean time the key point from a marketing perspective is the speed of page load. Fast-loading pages will move further up Google's mobile search rankings, so will be seen more often, and because more pages are being served and users are sticking around on, faster mobile sites for longer, and visiting them more frequently there is an increase in the number of ads that are able to be served and hence a payback for publishers that adopt early.”

News publishers could gain a huge advantage by using AMP. The AMP listings dominate the mobile search results pages, potentially meaning more traffic for news publishers that utilise the lightweight HTML standard. The Guardian, the New York Times and the Daily Mail are among early AMP adopters that have hailed the feature, which has been developed in close partnership with the industry.

The issues may occur later for advertisers who depend on clicks to generate revenue as their mobile audience grows accustomed to the lightning fast speeds of AMP and may avoid navigating away from these pages, due to slower page loads.

“Publishers who generate revenue based on [page] impressions of their ads rather than clicks should see the benefit of AMP, due to the increase in traffic, whereas publishers who depend on ad clicks may see the opposite effects as readers may be reluctant to navigate from a fast AMP page to a website which is slower to load,” said Jonathan Verrall, associate SEO director Jellyfish.

Many have speculated that AMP was Google’s attempt to arrest the trend towards mobile Internet users accessing online content via an app (which would tend to favour its rivals Apple and Google), in order to encourage audiences to continue consuming such content predominantly via a web browser (which would help perpetuate its current dominance).

Interestingly, Google is also swapping out normal page links in normal search results on mobile for AMP pages. So while publishers stand to get traffic that they wouldn’t have got if AMP wasn’t installed, the traffic they would have got without it is now being sent to AMP pages. It means that normal search results are increasingly likely to be replaced with an AMP alternative. The early live examples have proven that AMP does deliver a superior user experience, but frustratingly for publishers those articles are currently hard to monetise.

And whilst the future of advertising formats on AMP aren’t clear or defined, one thing is for certain – by owning the medium, Google will have a direct influence on the format of the mobile ad industry.

“Just like Apple helped to kill off Flash after claiming it was slow and unreliable for the mobile web, Google have taken the initiative with the mobile web,” said Kieran Bass, Roast strategy director.

“They’ve invited publishers to the mobile advertising party of the future. So far they’ve created a great guest list, but it remains to be seen how much control they exert over the dress code of the future ad formats and networks, particularly those that benefit them.”