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Google AMP Is Less About Beating Facebook at News, More About Gobbling Up the Mobile Web

Why Google's new mobile is all about protecting the search fortress.

David Ramos / Getty Images

When Google looks at the mobile Web, it sees so many things it does not like.

Websites aren’t built for mobile. Too much code hobbles pages. And everything, oh man, everything is too slow. Then there’s what Googlers whisper, but won’t say publicly: Bad Web experiences send visitors away from the Web, and away from Google search.

Google’s clarion response to all these wrongs is Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP — a tiny bit of code that renders news articles wickedly fast inside Google search on mobile phones, placing them at the top of results. It officially launches today with over a hundred publishing and “dozens” of technical partners, according to Richard Gingras, Google’s senior director of news and the project’s chief evangelist.

“An AMP page is four times faster and 10 times less data. It’s instantaneous. It’s there right away. And that’s really powerful,” he told Re/code. “This is, by far, the most active open source project we’ve ever been involved in.”

We first reported on the existence of AMP in September as Google prepared its rejoinder to mobile publishing products like Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple News. Unlike those, Google’s is open to other platforms; Twitter and LinkedIn have signed on, among others. Google doesn’t host the content directly, as Facebook and Apple do.

But for Facebook (and certainly for Apple), mobile publishing is tangential to the core business. For Google, it’s critical. AMP is a central part of Google’s maniacal mission to clean up the mobile Web and boost search revenue on mobile.

One intent of AMP is to combat the rise of mobile ad-blocking, a very small but worrisome threat for Google and a huge one for online publishers. By tightening the guidelines for content on AMP pages, Google is eroding the crappy ads that turn off users — so goes its logic. The company is working closely with its partners to address the issue, said Jason Fairchild, CRO of OpenX, an AMP ad-tech partner.

Unlike Facebook, Google doesn’t take a cut from publishers running on its platform. Directly, that is. Publishers can run ads within AMP as they normally do, but with only a select few ad-buying tools, including Google’s massive ones. There are restrictions — notably on an automated ad-buying practice called “header bidding” that lets publishers buy across several ad sources. Several ad industry sources said this restriction will likely push more publishers to turn to Google to run ads inside AMP.

Gingras said the ad specifics were still being worked out, but that he expects publishers to eventually net more from AMP than they do now from mobile ads.

Ambition for his project does not end with media, however. Just look at the name — it’s “mobile pages,” not just “articles” or “news.” Several people in the industry have speculated that Google would begin inviting e-commerce sites to deploy the AMP code. I asked Gingras if this were possible.

“Oh, absolutely,” he replied. “There’s nothing about the AMP format that doesn’t enable its use for all kinds of things. You could build an entire website out of it.”

Getting e-commerce companies on board, however, may be hard. Many publishers get most of their ad revenue and a steady stream of traffic from Google, making them a natural sell.

“If you’re a publisher and you’re not thinking AMP, you’re not thinking about your search business,” said Cory Haik, the (new) chief strategy officer for online publication Mic, which put out its own open source module for publishers using AMP. “From a publisher perspective, that’s where our audience is. But it’s so slow.”

Speed is a longtime obsession for Google. How fast a Website loads is a major flavor in the powerful secret sauce of its search algorithm. Sites with AMP tags will now surface at the “Top Stories” section inside search. Many outside Google believe that having AMP tags will also impact how well mobile sites rank in other results, too.

“Speed matters,” said Gingras, although he would not say if AMP tags triggered better search result placement.

“Clearly AMP is an effective means at getting a very good speed result,” he said. “You can win the race with a high performing car. I’m not saying you have to use a Porsche.”

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