'It's not our project' says Google of AMP as the open format gains advantage over Facebook’s Instant Articles

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Google is winning the battle against Facebook and Apple to be the favoured platform for news publishers – but don’t expect Google itself to start claiming victory.

The rapidly-expanding Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) project, launched just over a year ago with the promise of reducing download times on the mobile web, was and still is widely seen as Google’s answer to Facebook’s fast-loading Instant Articles. But not by Google, which prefers a narrative that characterises AMP as a collaborative format not a proprietary one.

“I get a little bit irritated when sometimes people call it Google’s AMP, because it’s not,” insists Madhav Chinnappa, Google’s director of strategic relations for news & publishers, in an interview with The Drum at Google’s new UK headquarters in London’s King’s Cross.

“AMP was created as an open source initiative and that for me is the reason for its success. When we do get compared with other platforms, particularly Instant Articles, I always try to make that point. They are fundamentally different. If you are going to make a paradigm I would say it is about ‘open versus closed’.”

Most people know AMP from the revolving carousel of top stories that appears on their phone screens in Google search. The idea grew out of Google’s Digital News Initiative, which itself is aimed at improving and monetising online journalism. Yet Google is at pains to emphasise that AMP has been adopted by a host of other tech platforms, from Microsoft’s Bing search engine to Twitter and LinkedIn, and now even by its greatest competitor Facebook, which revealed last week that it is making Instant Articles compatible with the rival format.

Chinnappa is happy to say that AMP has been “quite an amazing success”. By the end of last year AMP was driving 7% of all traffic to American publishers. But rather than point to the 2 billion AMP pages and 900,000 domains created in the 15 months since the project went live, he would rather highlight the 8,000 developers, from a variety of companies and backgrounds, who are collaborating openly on the software development platform GitHub to improve the service. “That’s evidence of how this is structured – it’s all out in the open,” he says.

Facebook gets AMP-ed up

Facebook Instant Articles, which was launched two years ago this month, has recently endured a succession of setbacks. The New York Times, one of the first publishers to trial the closed format, has stopped using it because of disappointing financial returns. Hearst publishing and Forbes magazine have also walked away.

Six weeks ago, the Guardian abandoned trials of both Instant Articles and Apple News, Apple’s closed format for its iOS platform. In March, Guardian Media Group chief executive David Pemsel told Australian media site Mumbrella that although Instant Articles offered exceptional global audience reach, “the economics financially for us were woeful”.

Facebook’s decision this month to make Instant Articles compatible with AMP and Apple News format was interpreted by tech website the Verge as a defensive play by Facebook “to salvage” its own format by trying to ensure that “everyone publishes equally to all platforms”.

Google stands to benefit greatly from AMP’s success, even if it is an open format.

Firstly because Google and Facebook are widely characterised by the global news industry as undermining the financial model for funding professional journalism by taking the online advertising revenue it generates. If Google can position itself as the more benign of the Silicon Valley giants, it’s less likely to get such a bad press.

Much more significantly, if AMP wins out, Google’s search engine strengthens its role as prime gateway to the internet, rather surrendering that position to Facebook’s app. AMP improves the search experience and brings Google more web advertising, its key source of income.

Many publishers are reporting positive experiences of AMP. Wired magazine, which has AMP-enabled 100,000 articles from its archive, reports a 25% increase in click through rates (CTR) in search, and a 63% rise in CTR for ads in AMP-enabled stories. The Washington Post reports an 88% improvement in page load times using AMP. Nuzzel, the newsletter platform, says it adopted AMP after internal tests showed that an AMP-enabled New York Times page loaded in 500 milliseconds in the Nuzzel app, compared to the previous wait of three seconds. Overall, 85% of AMP publishers are experiencing higher CTR and 80% say they have improved ad viewability.

AMP, unlike Instant Articles, is designed to integrate publisher sites that operate paywalls.

Much of the current focus of AMP is on advertising, ensuring that commercial messages load as quickly as AMP-enabled articles. Google announced on 23 May a new push to bring AMP technology to advertising on its Google Display Network, warning that “53% of all visits are abandoned if a mobile page takes longer than 3 seconds to load.”

Senior Google executives have argued that ads load up to five seconds quicker with AMP, using the same creative content. Triplelift, one of 100 ad tech companies now working with the format, has said it boosted publisher Time Inc’s ad revenues and viewability rates by producing AMP-supported ads that loaded six times faster than traditional native ads.

“The starting point for AMP was to make sure that you had a great user experience based around the (publisher) content that you wanted. You take those same principles to the ad environment,” says Chinnappa.

Johnson & Johnson reports that, since using AMP for its ads, page speeds have improved by 10 times and engagement rates have improved by 20%.

AMP's admirers and sceptics

Although AMP was conceived as a way to help publishers, the format’s potential has been recognised by business sectors whose interest had not been anticipated, says Chinnappa. “The people who embraced AMP immediately without anybody talking to them was the e-commerce community. This shows the power of open source, that people see it from different angles that you may not have seen if you were top down.”

The example he cites is eBay, which “AMP-ed up” its pages for faster loading “because they realised that speed matters from a conversion perspective”. Publishers, he says, can learn from the use of the format by e-commerce companies which are “laser-focused on the user experience”.

This all helps the Google search experience.

Publishers are working with the Silicon Valley giants because of the reach they offer but most want to bring audiences back to their owned and operated platforms. Some regard projects like AMP with a large degree of scepticism and believe the money invested by Google and Facebook in improving the news ecology is minimal and little more than tokenism.

A militant piece recently published by tech outlet the Register claimed AMP was nothing less than a cunning Google ploy to “obfuscate your website [and] usurp your content”. It was headlined: “Kill Google AMP before it KILLS the web”. Google thought the piece was so unfounded that it was unworthy of a response.

While rumours persist that AMP is central to Google’s controlling masterplan, Chinnappa simply notes the involvement in the project of Google’s old adversary Microsoft. “When people have that incorrect assumption that it’s a Google project, I go ‘here’s my proof it’s not: Bing is using AMP’.” As AMP goes forward, its biggest challenge, he says, is turning the improved user experience into improved revenues for contributing publishers. “You just can’t do enough on monetisation. That is a central focus and a big push.”

If it’s not about simply growing the Google treasure chest, then why? “Everything we are trying to do is about the health of the ecosystem,” he says, insisting that AMP has a higher purpose. “The monetisation element is incredibly important for that. We are very cognisant of all the challenges that publishers are having and that is their big focus.”

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