Saturday 24 March 2018

Can publishers survive the need for speed?

Last week Google launched Accelerated Mobile Pages, an initiative to improve the way readers get news on the mobile web
Last week Google launched Accelerated Mobile Pages, an initiative to improve the way readers get news on the mobile web
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

When it comes to online journalism, it's not size that matters, it's speed. At least that's what Google thinks. Last week the search giant launched Accelerated Mobile Pages (or AMP if you prefer your three-letter acronyms) an initiative to improve the way readers get news on the mobile web.

Google recently revealed that it gets over 100 billion searches per month. And over half of these searches now come from mobile devices - which doesn't include devices like tablets with screens of six inches or more.

But as mobile devices have grown increasingly common, user patience for long load times has shortened.

So Google wants to help publishers create webpages packed with video and animations that load instantaneously, regardless of the device or the operating system.

That's the rationale for AMP. It's a standard that strips out extraneous code, keeping only the HTML that is directly involved in showing content to a reader. CSS is strictly limited and iFrames are out. Almost all of the third-party scripts that clog up web pages and slow load times have been given the heave-ho.

What do these scripts do? Oh not much, just analytics and advertising. But AMP does permit ads, it just loads them separately, once the editorial content has been downloaded.

AMP comes with an optional extra; publishers can outsource the difficult job of cacheing mobile pages and serving them to readers. Google has kindly offered to do this heavy lifting for them. Those of a suspicious mind-set may accuse Google of trying to own every aspect of the distribution channel. But the cacheing option is just that, an option. And it's free.

AMP certainly seems to do what it says on the tin. According to some reports, page-load time is reduced by 80pc to 90pc, depending on network conditions and the processing speed of the smartphone in question.

Also, by reformatting ads as static elements that don't hamper navigation or load time, the hope is that AMP

may also dampens the growth of ad blockers - or the ad-blockalypse, as I like to call it.

So it's no wonder that publishers like Guardian Media, Hearst, Vox Media, the New York Times and others are onboard, as are technology partners like Twitter, Pinterest, WordPress, Adobe and LinkedIn.

Notice anyone missing? Yep, no room for Facebook. Why could that be?

It's because Facebook is trying to speed up the mobile web all on its own, with its Instant Articles that were unveiled earlier this year. Like Google, it is betting that speed is a crucial factor in controlling the distribution of content on the mobile web. Instant Articles are preloaded before users reach them in their news feed, so they're ready to roll as soon as users encounter and click on them.

The social network is even allowing publishers to run their own ads on Instant Articles and keep 100pc of the revenue. If publishers don't fill their own ad spots, Facebook will do it for them - and will only take a 30pc cut.

So it's no surprise that Google has hit back with AMP. But AMP and Instant Articles are very different beasts. Google has created an open project - all the code and specs are freely available to anyone who wants to develop a fast, mobile site. And as it's not trying to operate inside a walled garden, there is no question of any sort of revenue share related to advertising.

But Google's project does raise questions of favouritism. Google has reassured all concerned that it won't give AMP pages preferential treatment over non-AMP pages in mobile searches. But page speed is already a factor in Google search; the faster the page, the higher the ranking.

AMP features pre-approved extensions for technology partners, like Twitter and YouTube. And initially, only five ad networks are supported, four of which are owned by Google, Amazon and AOL.

So will AMP become the standard in mobile web? Well, there's clearly a need to improve user experience on smartphones and other mobile devices, but it is unclear whether publishers, especially smaller publishers, have the resources to build two versions of every page - one for mobile using amp.html and one for desktop using straight-up html.

This doubling-up of the workload certainly seems to fly in the face of AMP's stated aim to help publishers put all their resources into editorial output. It is also unclear whether publishers can get by without all the ad tech code that slows their pages, but which has added to their web pages the ability to turn a buck.

One thing is certain, though. Speed has now become a stick with which tech companies can beat publishers.

Having claimed the distribution model for news as their own, the likes of Google and Facebook are now chipping away at ad tech or proposing revenue shares that decrease publishers' autonomy. They're certainly right that legacy outlets need help to improve the experience of their products on the mobile web; the question is now whether publishers can survive much more of their help?

Sunday Indo Business

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