Google AMP Pages Controversy
From the user’s point of view, anything that makes navigating the internet a faster and more seamless experience is a win. Such is the rational basis for AMP pages—or the accelerated mobile pages – offered in Google search results, which are commonly used to display news articles from other publishers.
However, what’s good for the reader is not always good for the publisher. As publishers struggle for traffic more than ever, thanks to the proliferation of social media, Google AMP pages are becoming a major bone of contention, with small publishers and large ones alike looking to disable these pages. We’ve seen a similar phenomenon with Facebook instant articles and Apple News, as many publishers including The New York Times and The Guardian stopped participating in the feature because it didn’t serve their long-term economic interests.
About the decision several months ago, The Guardian told DigiDay: “We have run extensive trials on Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News to assess how they fit with our editorial and commercial objectives. Having evaluated these trials, we have decided to stop publishing in those formats on both platforms. Our primary objective is to bring audiences to the trusted environment of the Guardian to support building deeper relationships with our readers, and growing membership and contributions to fund our world-class journalism.”
Now we see publishers criticizing the world’s largest search engine and asking others to follow suit in disabling AMP articles on their site. The hope is that, with enough defections, Google will recognize publishers’ distaste for the feature and change the way it’s done.
In a blog post written by engineer Alex Kras and featured in the prominent HackerNews newsletter, the author started his argument by saying that he wasn’t always sour towards AMP: “When AMP first came out, I was optimistic. AMP’s aim is to make the web faster and I have a lot of respect for that. What I didn’t like as a publisher, A LOT, was the fact that Google was caching AMP content, and serving it from their own cache and under it’s own domain name. Resulting in links that look as: www.google.com/www.bbc.co.uk/news instead of serving the content from BBC.co.uk, it is being served from Google.com.”
At the root of this critique is the same rationale that led many publishers to flee Facebook Instant articles: why work hard on creating original content that readers want if you’re not going to get the precious traffic for said content? And indeed, Kras doubled down on that critique, noting that a redirect on a link such as the one above would not lead the reader back to the BBC website, but to Google. This means that BBC sunk resources into an article that didn’t even increase their chances of the user visiting their website to access more content. However, the author went even further, pointing out an ethical problem with AMP articles which goes beyond mere traffic: “It opens up the system to abuse. For example “fake news” served via AMP could appear credible to an unsuspecting reader, since they are being served from Google.com – a very reputable domain name.”
At least in the short term, little is going to change the fact that Google is the most powerful search engine in the world and gets to set the terms for much of what publishers must adhere to online. And for the most part, users don’t even know they are reading AMP articles when they click on them; they simply experience a publication’s interface without looking at the domain name. However, if the backlash spreads to other major publishers as it did with Facebook Instant and Apple News—and if the issues around fake news described by Kras get more attention—we could see a situation where Google has to change course.