There are lots of things to dislike about the mobile web. Mobile browsers are slow and prone to crashing, plagued by bugs that leave them vulnerable to crippling by ads. They’re bypassed by apps and sidestepped by companies like Apple and Facebook, which build small versions of the web with proprietary publishing tools inside their own platforms. The lack of innovation has held back the development of modern mobile browsers, and both poor web development and advertising overload further exacerbate the poor user experience offered by the mobile web.
But it’s not just users who are dissatisfied with the state of the mobile web. Google is pretty unhappy with the state of affairs, and has just launched Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), an open-source project aimed at speeding up the mobile web. It accomplishes that by changing the way that web pages are built and displayed, since participating publishers to use a specific set of technologies to create faster-loading pages. Google shared on its blog that after a four-month technical preview that involved hundreds of publishers, tech companies, and ad-tech businesses, it’s now enabling users to find AMP webpages in mobile search results.
Google explains that when you search for a story or a topic on Google from a mobile device, relevant pages created with AMP will appear in the “Top Stories” section on the search results page. Those stories “will load blazingly fast,” and will enable you to scroll through an article much more quickly and reliably than you can with the web pages you’re used to reading on your phone. Pages built with AMP will load an average of four times faster and use 10 times less data than equivalent non-AMP pages. Google claims that in many cases, these pages will “load instantly,” to make reading on the mobile web “fast, responsive, and fun.”
As Casey Newton reports for The Verge, AMP results are designated with a green lightning bolt icon and appear in a carousel. You can tap a story to load it, and to see related stories from other AMP publishers, you can swipe from right to left to load another article. The feature is currently only available if you visit google.com in a mobile browser, but AMP results will soon begin appearing in search results on Google’s Android and iOS apps. Newton notes that AMP is an effort to keep the web open, growing, and profitable, since Google earns most of its profits from web advertising, and is increasingly threatened by the migration of content to platforms like Facebook and Apple News.
Another challenge for Google is the decline of the mobile web as a destination for news searches. Newton notes that, particularly in the United States, users are more likely to find a news story by scrolling through their Facebook Newsfeed than by opening a mobile browser and search for a keyword. In Newton’s assessment, that helps to explain why Google has so aggressively gone after publishers. Google lets them host their own content, unlike Facebook’s Instant Articles, and gives them control over the design of their pages.
Dan Gillmor reports for Backchannel that what Google and its partners are building with AMP amounts to “an alternative mobile web built on top of, or adjacent to, the traditional one.” The project is collaborative and the code is open source, but participating requires publishers to rework their pages, and Gillmor thinks that Google is “playing an outsized role” in an effort to fix the mobile web — a mobile web that wouldn’t need fixing “if the news industry hadn’t so thoroughly poisoned its own nest.”
Media companies’ pages are loaded with code from advertising and surveillance companies, resulting in slow sites that require users to download “megabytes of crapware” just to read an article, data for which wireless carriers charge sizable sums. Gillmor explains that “that’s one reason why we use ad blockers,” another being that we hate being spied on. “The news business could have solved this problem without racing into the arms of giant, centralized tech companies,” Gillmor writes. “But it didn’t, and here we are.” That makes the tech companies behind the web’s biggest platforms the “new editors” of the Internet, a situation that seems at odds with the principles of the open Internet as they sweep the web’s content into proprietary platforms.
But unlike publishing products like Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple News, Google’s AMP is open to other platforms. Twitter and LinkedIn, for instance, are participating. As Mark Bergen reports for Re/Code, speed is a longtime obsession for Google, and how fast a website loads has long been considered by the company’s search algorithm. But for Facebook and Apple, mobile publishing are only tangential to their core businesses. For Google, mobile publishing is critical. Bergen characterizes AMP as “a central part of Google’s maniacal mission to clean up the mobile web and boost search revenue on mobile,” slowly eroding the effects of invasive ads and slow-responding sites.