Technology

Why Google Wants You to AMP up Your Site

By / Mar 1, 2016 (Handout photo)

Google’s new Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP, could give publishers a way to offer snappy, speedy websites on mobile platforms. But it’s worth emphasizing that it comes with a lot of not-insignificant concerns in exchange for the SEO boost it promises.

It’s official: Responsive design is old hat. You’re expected to have it, and you’re behind the times if you don’t.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, and your site works on mobile, there’s nothing else to worry about, right? Right?

Sorry to say this, but in the world of web design, there’s always something new out there that’s going to add a couple of wrinkles of pain to your life. The new thing in this case? Well, it’s something you can thank Google for. The company is about to start showing favoritism to websites that support its Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) technology.

AMP? What the heck is that? Well, it’s a Google-supported framework for fast-loading mobile websites. Basically, the company is pushing for a very specific set of best practices in your HTML and Javascript—practices that define the way your pages are designed, coded, organized, and optimized.

The result is a stick with a couple of really appealing carrots: First, if you follow Google’s approach, you’ll get incredibly snappy pages that the company will host on its own servers. And more appealingly, if you play by Google’s rules with AMP, you might get featured at the very top of the company’s mobile search results. That’s where a lot of people want to be, and Google knows it.

“AMP is great for browsing the web on mobile devices, because webpages built with AMP load an average of four times faster and use 10 times less data than equivalent non-AMP pages. In many cases, they’ll load instantly,” the company wrote in a blog post announcing the feature’s launch in Google searches. “It’s how reading on the mobile web should be—fast, responsive and fun.”

Google’s strategy with AMP is very similar in conceit to Facebook’s Instant Article setup, which you’ll also have to start worrying about soon, but is likely to have a wider reach because it will be accessible on the open web and will directly be favored by the largest search engine. And the possibility of other providers jumping on board (Twitter and Pinterest have been among those rumored to be giving AMP a spin, according to Wired) suggests that it might be something that defines the future of the web on mobile.

But Before You Get Too Excited …

The resulting furor in the world of search engine optimization (SEO) over Google AMP, perhaps the biggest story in the space since that time Google ruined Demand Media’s business model, is certainly understandable.

However, there’s definitely a bit of a hype bubble here, and that hype bubble threatens to bury an honest discussion of the benefits and downsides of the AMP approach. Among the benefits:

An answer to ad blockers: The reason ad blockers have become such a key element online has been the fact that websites load way too slowly nowadays. By ceding more control to Google, publishers get a little extra speed—which might help dissuade users from enabling ad blockers on their mobile devices.

An alternative to apps? By creating AMP, Google gets around one of the biggest problems currently facing the open web, the fact that apps have become the preferred way of using our devices, mainly because of the fact that it’s way faster to use a native app than a mobile website. AMP is an effort by Google, a company that has interests in both websites and apps, to close the gap between the two. And that could make web-surfing a less frustrating experience.

Among the more questionable downsides:

Backend work needed: Perhaps the biggest problem with AMP is the fact that you have to essentially build a separate version of your website with AMP support, something that will require some backend work to support. There will be some planning needed, but on the plus side, platforms like WordPress have already been host to an array of solutions. Last week, the startup PageFrog offered perhaps the most robust of these solutions, one that also includes Facebook Instant Pages support. But to emphasize, supporting AMP won’t be as easy as flipping a switch.

Design capabilities more limited: You can certainly design nice websites with AMP (The Guardian and BuzzFeed look pretty familiar in their AMP versions, for example) but there are certain things you can’t do on AMP pages. For one thing, nearly all Javascript is disabled; for another, a number of common cascading style sheets (CSS) tricks are off-limits. As a result, it could cramp your developers’ style.

AMP URLs aren’t the same: Oddly, one of the biggest concerns with AMP might be SEO-related. See, Google displays AMP pages with a different URL than you might normally find on the web, generally a Google URL with yourname.com buried in the mix somewhere farther down the URL. And that means for any given article, you may have multiple URLs floating around at any given time, displaying the same content. This will require some planning on your end to limit the issue. The popular WordPress plugin maker Yoast, fortunately, has been working on this problem.

Does Google get too much control? This is perhaps the biggest question lingering over the AMP situation—why should Google get to decide how we build our websites? And why are we so willing to let Google basically run our websites? This is a question pondered most loudly by Wired‘s Klint Finley. “Historically, Google has acted as an index that points people away from Google to other websites,” Finley writes. “With its AMP search results, Google is amassing content on its own servers and keeping readers on Google.” Like Facebook’s Instant Articles strategy, Google is building a walled garden—but, strangely, it doesn’t look like one.

All these concerns turn AMP into something slightly less than a slam dunk, but it remains something worth considering if SEO is a front-of-mind concern for your association. But if you aren’t yet convinced, you may be OK waiting a couple of months to see if it takes off.

Nothing wrong with waiting, even when your search ranking is apparently on the line.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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