Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages are here to stay - should you jump in?

Google

Many moons ago, the internet was awash with poorly designed and developed websites. Under construction GIFs littered the browser landscape, and notes informing users that sites were “best viewed at 800x600 pixels” were commonplace.

Then, in January of 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone. Though far from the first mobile device with an integrated web browser, it was the first that closely emulated the desktop browser experience. This was an amazing technical feat, but it served to show how ill-prepared much of the web was for such a shift in browsing preferences. And that preference has only grown. According to a recent comScore whitepaper, digital media time has grown rapidly since 2010, and 92 percent of that increase is attributed strictly to smartphones.

Businesses had to manage these new developments; from creating separate mobile and desktop sites, to building mobile apps that mirrored desktop content, to the removal of Flash (which the iPhone did not support), everyone scrambled to come up with solutions for delivering their content across the suddenly expanded device and browser landscape.

Enter Responsive Design, a method of delivering content seamlessly across ALL devices – from the smaller screen sizes and underpowered processors of mobile devices, to the larger screens of overclocked desktops, to everything in between.

Utilizing the same content for desktop, tablet and mobile, responsive design serves up optimized content for the device it is being consumed on. A win all around. The early, dark days of producing multiple versions of identical content for different browsers seemed to be behind us.

Not good enough. Google thinks a new solution is necessary.

Introducing Accelerated Mobile Pages

Following discussions with publishers and technology companies, Google determined the mobile content ecosystem needed improvements. Feeling mobile content was too slow and cumbersome, they introduced Accelerated Mobile Pages.

Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP, optimizes content specifically for mobile devices. AMP pages are built in a new format ­– a very stripped down set of functionality defined and governed by the open source AMP spec. At their core, AMP pages are just HTML pages that will load in any modern browser.

Unlike traditional HTML pages however, AMP is restrictive in what it allows (limited JavaScript functionality, inline CSS, statically sized resources). This allows AMP to deliver a much more streamlined experience for the mobile user. And to further speed up delivery, by default AMP files are cached in the cloud to reduce load times on devices. Thanks Google!

The limited technical functionality of these pages, along with the caching option Google has provided for AMP pages, leads to pages that are incredibly performant on mobile devices.

Potential drawbacks

Unfortunately, all of that comes with some drawbacks. Because of the limited JavaScript and CSS functionality, AMP pages can’t do everything typical pages might do. AMP pages are built for a low level of interactivity, mainly for consuming content in straightforward article format.

AMP is also an immature standard that will grow and evolve. There are benefits to be gained from being an early adopter (as of this writing, sites built with AMP listings appear in a special designated section at the top of the page of Google's mobile search results). However, as the standard continues to change, developers need to constantly evaluate their AMP pages with an eye on the standard to keep them updated accordingly.

While the AMP format is fairly close to standard HTML, extra work will be required to "AMP-ify" your site, whether starting from scratch or adding AMP pages to a new build. AMP does not necessarily remove the need to develop responsively for various browser sizes (including tablet and mobile sizes), so AMP may require additional cost apart from the standard responsive build of your site.

To add to the noise, similar concepts have been introduced by other large media companies (Facebook with Instant Articles and Apple with Apple News), each with their own set of standards, benefits and drawbacks. Making the choice of choosing how to deliver content even more clouded.

To AMP or not to AMP

By now, you may be asking yourself if AMP is right for your content – or even necessary at all. The ideas driving AMP are sound, but do we really need one more standard to adhere to?

As a developer, first hearing about AMP was concerning – one more standard? Duplicate pages to build? These are issues Responsive Design worked to eliminate, and Google is bringing them back? As a user however, AMP’s positives cannot be ignored. AMP vastly improves the mobile browsing experience by loading pages almost instantly on mobile devices.

With Google’s backing, and with a number of significant sites already on board, the question of whether AMP is necessary or not is moot – AMP is here and it’s not going away. Whether it is a good fit for your site’s content is a bit more nuanced.

To find the answer you can start by evaluating your content and understanding how your audience is consuming your content. Taking these steps will begin to help you decide if building out AMP pages for your content is appropriate.

A few examples:

For an organization constantly releasing text-and image-heavy articles with little interactivity, AMP-optimized pages make sense; especially if the content is generated on the server and easily output as different pages and formats. It is no coincidence many of the participants listed on AMP Project are large news organizations or content publishers.

On the other hand: For immersive sites, single page applications, and highly interactive sites with custom JavaScript, AMP versions may not make sense. Due to AMP’s severe limitation on JavaScript, rebuilding such sites as AMP pages would require a rethinking of features and priorities.

There are a large number of sites that reside in a gray area; where AMP pages might or might not make sense. In these cases, AMP could be a good fit – or it may make sense to spend time optimizing the mobile responsive experience of the site versus developing completely separate AMP pages for content.

Conclusion

There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer for whether or not you should be using AMP right now. But that’s good thing! Your content is unique, and the decision of how to deliver that content should be tailored to match the content itself.

For content creators and developers alike, AMP is another tool in your toolbox. Familiarizing yourself with AMP's benefits and drawbacks will help inform the decision of if, and when, it should be used. And deciding WHEN to use a tool is just as important as using the tool itself.

Paul Mealy is director of interactive at Pop, a Seattle-based digital agency

Get the Newsletter

Keep up to date with the latest news and insights.

Subscribe
PM

Paul Mealy

All by Paul