How Google's trying to make the mobile web look less ugly

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.—The company responsible for a large fraction of the hours we while away on the web isn’t happy with how inefficiently we spend that time on our phones.

At its I/O conference here, Google (GOOG, GOOGL) touted the progress of Accelerated Mobile Pages, an ambitious initiative to remake the mobile web into a faster, lighter and less irritating medium—yes, even the ads that help pay for it. That is a laudable effort, and the web giant has a good story to tell so far. But it also needs to address lingering concerns about its intentions.

Amped up about AMP

The basic idea is to take the HTML code behind every web page and strip out the cruft: over-sized images, scripts that run redundantly in the background, and other junk that contributes nothing to the reading experience.

The results can be impressive—see how fast this post can pop onto your phone in AMP form?

At last year’s I/O, Google news head Richard Gingras said AMP pages load four times faster and use a tenth of the data of a non-AMP page. At a Wednesday evening presentation here, AMP lead Malte Ubl said better compression techniques allow images on AMP pages to need half as much data as a year ago.

The AMP project only debuted in October of 2015, but now Google says more than 900,000 domains serve up over 2 billion AMP pages. At a “State of the Mobile Union” keynote Wednesday afternoon, Google product-management vice president Rahul Roy-Chowdhury noted recent support for the format by Twitter (TWTR) and China’s social-media platforms Weibo and Tencent. Tumblr, owned by this site’s parent firm Yahoo (YHOO), is joining them.

There are sound reasons for this. While AMP wouldn’t exist without Google’s backing, it’s an open-source project that anybody else can use and revise—unlike proprietary fast-mobile-web efforts at Facebook (FB) and Apple (AAPL), Instant Articles and Apple News, that allow less flexibility. The British newspaper the Guardian recently dropped both Instant Articles and Apple News because they didn’t help it convince readers to sign up for paid memberships.

“We’re bullish,” e-mailed Jason Kint, CEO of online-publishing trade group Digital Content Next. “Google AMP is a very promising as a strategy to protect the open web from the suffocation of Facebook’s closed platform business model.”  

Address angst

Kint, however, voiced wariness about how Google can push AMP pages before others, even if they may be svelte in their own right. Its mobile news search displays AMP pages first in a carousel of thumbnail previews you can easily flip through.

“Google Search on mobile nearly requires participation in AMP if you want to be discovered,” he noted.

An optional AMP feature yields another complication: a Google caching service that delivers pages even faster leaves them appearing at a google.com or ampproject.org address that can confuse users. For instance, my post about the upcoming Android O release appears not at the usual finance.yahoo.com domain name but at a much longer address that starts with “www.google.com/amp/s/www.yahoo.com.”

At a Wednesday evening presentation, Google representatives acknowledged this frustration and said AMP pages served from the company’s cache now include a banner with the correct address, which you can tap and hold to copy for sharing elsewhere.

Google is also moving to revise that cached address so it starts with the domain name of the original site—yahoo.ampproject.org, for instance. And publishers may have other options: In January, the web-hosting company CloudFlare announced its own AMP caching service and said it’s working on ways to keep pages at the right address.

Mobile ads you may not hate

A presentation Thursday morning covered another aspect of AMP you may not want to admit to appreciating: less annoying ads.

Google software engineer Michael Kleber explained how AMP ads can’t move around on a page or block its content, can’t hold up the rest of the page from loading, and can’t play video automatically. They also must run in a “sandbox” that quarantines any hostile code and can be closed by the page if it bogs down everything.

This doesn’t limit AMP ads to being simple banners. A demo showed how this stripped-down code can allow for an ad in which the content changes as you scroll down the page, highlighting various parts of a car.

Kleber also cited studies showing that AMP ads get seen and clicked through more. He cited a series of ads from the firm TripleLift on Time, Inc. (TIME) sites that were three times lighter and six times faster to load than non-AMP versions, and which generated 13% more revenue.

As somebody who writes for a variety of ad-supported sites, that sounds pretty good.

But remember that the AMP spec doesn’t ban ads that are light, efficient and repellent. You can use this format to crank out sleazy “around the web” clickbait ads (if you want to make your eyes bleed, read Amanda Hess’s New York Times recap of clicking through dozens of them) and spam people with creepy “retargeting” ads trying to get them to complete purchases contemplated on other sites.

AMP also can’t force desktop sites to shape up their act, even if well-done AMP sites start to make them look like hot garbage in comparison. Memo to web designers and publishers: Mobile users aren’t the only people online who don’t want their time or bandwidth wasted.

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  Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro .

 

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