Google’s plan to speed up mobile webpages is just getting started

The acronym “AMP” may not be familiar to you, but chances are you’ve encountered it more than once. It stands for “accelerated mobile pages,” and it’s a Google-led initiative to speed up mobile webpages. The search giant claims that AMP-enabled pages load in less than a second so you can get reading faster.

But there’s a little more to it than that.

Humble beginnings

Google launched AMP in 2015 with a select group of publishers, and the first few — among them The Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Tribune Media Group — came principally from a news and publishing background. That’s a decision Google made consciously, AMP Product Manager Rudy Galifi told Digital Trends. “AMP grew out of a very specific use case: news publishing,” he said. “It helped us to define the spec.”

“Studies show that purchases are tied to page load time.”

Since then, AMP has grown into something more. Baidu, China’s largest search engine, and Sogou, another Chinese search engine, announced support for AMP at Google’s 2017 AMP Conference in New York City last week. In Japan, Yahoo Japan, one of the country’s most visited websites, pledged to show AMP pages. Yahoo-owned social network Tumblr will begin rolling out AMP in the coming months.

The new partners join recent adopters like Squarespace, Reddit, Flipkart, TripAdvisor, Disney, Drugs.com, the NFL, the New York Times, BuzzFeed, Food Network, Parse, Vox Media, Conde Nast, CBS Interactive, Tumblr, Bing, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and hundreds of others. Google said that as of August 2016, AMP-enabled sites have created more than 150 million AMP documents across 232 locales and 104 languages.

The scope has broadened far beyond news and publishing, a progression that Galifi said was a natural one. “AMP was an opportunity to collaborate with other companies, platforms, and publishers, and to help tackle some of their biggest pain points, [but we] thought there was something interesting we could do with it.”

It’s all about making the mobile web faster

To that end, Google Vice President of Engineering David Besbris demonstrated an AMP-enabled messaging application at the conference. In a follow-up demonstration, eBay Principle Web Engineer Senthil Padmanabhan highlighted the ways AMP has helped improve the buying and selling experience for eBay users.

“We want to give people coming from Google a good transition,” Padmanabhan told Digital Trends in a sit-down interview after the presentation, “with all the benefits they get within eBay.”

eBay, an early partner, adopted the AMP standard in 2015 to help “improve the experience for users coming from [a] Google [search.]” Now, most of the digital bazaar’s product pages are AMP-enabled, Padmanabhan said — a switch that’s resulted in measurable performance improvements. “All of the pages are getting faster,” he said.

Speed remains the most important — and most appealing — of AMP’s benefits.

The AMP Cache, one of the half-dozen utilities in the AMP library, stores slimmed-down webpages on Google servers. Meanwhile, AMP Lite, an optimized version of AMP, kicks in over slower internet connections and on low-end smartphones.

Furthermore, AMP intelligently compresses images when it detects that network conditions are poor. It optimizes external fonts, for example, so that they can be displayed immediately regardless of whether they were previously cached. It also compresses images dynamically, as needed.

In tandem, those techniques make a difference. Google said that AMP Lite alone, which began rolling out to Vietnam, Malaysia, and other “bandwidth-constrained” countries late last year, results in a 40 percent reduction in data transfer. The search giant said that on average, AMP-enabled pages use 10 times less data than non-AMP pages.

That’s especially relevant to e-commerce sites like eBay, where speed often correlates with conversion rates and sales. “Speed is a really great brand message,” Galifi said. “When you’re dealing with e-commerce specifically — conversions and purchases — studies show that purchases are tied to page load time.”

But speed isn’t everything

Speed can only get you so far, of course, and to that end, Google’s introducing new AMP toolsets that make it easier for publishers to customize the look and feel of pages. One, called AMP Bind, will allow internet retailers like Gap.com to build product pages with interactive elements like color and size selectors.

In addition, Google’s working to improve the advertising experience on AMP-enabled pages. Now, advertisements will load faster, and advertisers will have more formats and options to choose from when they’re purchasing campaigns on AMP-enabled pages. In addition, Google’s introducing AMP analytics that’ll help publishers track users across pages.

The code’s available on Github, and Google doesn’t impose restrictions on publishers that adopt it.

“We’ve made no secret that we’re [introducing] these features,” Galifi said. “But users should be oblivious to the technical implementation. With cases like eBay, we’ve gotten really tremendous feedback.”

That’s not to suggest AMP’s rollout is all sunshine and rainbows. Google’s been accused of coercing publishers into a walled garden. In February 2016, the Mountain View company began prioritizing pages built with AMP in Google News, the Google Search subsection that aggregates trending topics. It serves up only AMP-enabled pages (those with a lighting bolt-shaped icon), and excludes non-AMP pages from the carousel of stories at the top of News results.

Galifi insisted that the issue was technical rather than editorial. He explained that the carousel’s zoom-in feature, which expands articles to a full-screen view, requires AMP in order to animate properly. “We’re taking advantage of AMP to upgrade experiences,” Galifi said. “It’s a cumulative block.” And he stressed that AMP doesn’t affect search rankings. “The ranking underpinning is consistent — we’re just looking to serve the user as best we can.” Many publishers disagree.

Galifi contrasted AMP’s approach with that of Facebook and Apple News, both of which provide speedy caches to content creators at the cost of publisher control and revenue. Instant Articles and Apple News leverage a 30-percent fee on publishers that opt not to sell ads within them.

AMP, by comparison, is open source. The code’s available on Github, and Google doesn’t impose restrictions on publishers and websites that decide to adopt it. “We’re very transparent, and we’re continuously collaborating with AMP partners,” Galifi said. “The community is going to weigh in.”

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