Google Rolls Out Its Version of Facebook's Instant Articles

If you’ve been searching on Google’s mobile site, you may have started seeing a selection of news articles from various publishers at the top of the search results, in a carousel that allows you to swipe from one to the other. And in the corner of the “card” for each article you might have noticed a tiny lightning bolt. Welcome to Google’s AMP project.

AMP has been in the works for almost a year, and has been in beta mode for a number of months with publishers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and Vox Media. Now Google is rolling out AMP-modified pages in its search results, and since speed of loading is one of the search giant’s ranking criteria, they’ll be showing up more often.

AMP, which stands for Accelerated Mobile Pages, offers publishers of all kinds the ability to implement a new HTML standard that was developed by Google as a way of speeding up the loading of mobile web pages. It has since been turned into an open-source project, which means that anyone can implement it and also contribute to further developing it.

“According to our tests, the average AMP page loads 4x faster and is 10x smaller, so it will be almost instantaneous,” Google’s head of news, Richard Gingras, said in an interview with Fortune prior to the search roll-out. Gingras said thousands of different domains and hundreds of publishers are already using the AMP standard.

The AMP project is Google’s response to Facebook’s Instant Articles, a new mobile-publishing feature that the social network started experimenting with in 2014. Much like AMP, Facebook’s offering is a way of speeding up web pages so that they load faster on mobile. Both platforms even make use of a similar lightning-bolt symbol.

The main difference between the two is that AMP is an open-source project, whereas Instant Articles -- which recently opened up to anyone, including individuals -- is very much controlled by Facebook.

“To the extent that they [Facebook] open further, that’s a good thing,” said Gingras. “But I will note there’s a very big difference between having a proprietary platform that says it’s open and having an open-source platform that is open to anyone to modify and adapt. It’s the difference between saying come into my walled garden vs. not having a walled garden.”

Facebook controls what publishers can display on their pages, but AMP pages are the publisher’s page to do with whatever they wish, Gingras says -- including adding related links and other things that could potentially increase engagement with users. Facebook’s pages, on the other hand, are primarily designed to keep users on Facebook.

Google’s standard also includes support for a host of different advertising and analytical services, the company points out, as well as support for paywalls. Facebook’s Instant Articles allows publishers to either sell their own advertising (which has been the source of some tension) or get 70 percent of what Facebook sells.

While Google’s AMP is open source, the search company came up with the original standard, and it is also the biggest contributor to the project. Some critics have argued that while it is being pitched as the open alternative to Facebook, publishers will effectively be forced to adopt it, because AMP pages will rank higher in Google’s search results.

“I don’t agree with that in the least,” said Gingras. “From the beginning, the whole approach has been open source. It’s not about addressing it on a single site or even a social network. It’s about how can we solve these problems but also respect the nature of the open web.”

Since speed of loading is just one of more than 200 ranking principles that the search company uses to sort its results, it’s not the only factor in determining what shows up at the top of a search page, Gingras said. If there are high-quality results that don’t happen to be AMP-enabled, they could also show up in the carousel.

Julia Beizer, the director of product at the Washington Post, said that adopting AMP was part of the newspaper’s attempt to experiment with as many different platforms as possible. The Post is also publishing 100 percent of its news output through Instant Articles (Time Inc., the parent company of Fortune, is also a partner in Instant Articles).

Although the fact that AMP articles might show up higher in Google’s search is a nice bonus, Beizer said that wasn’t the main motivating factor behind the Post getting involved. “It’s more opportunity than pressure,” she said. “We certainly don’t want to be left out in the cold with things like a change in search, but we were already working on reducing load times, so if we can do that and it helps in search then great.”

Melissa Bell, head of growth at Vox Media, said AMP fit in with Vox’s goals as well, since it had been trying for some time to reduce its mobile load times.

“We’ve spent years thinking about this kind of thing,” Bell said, “but there are still a lot of issues out there, and the best way to solve them is with industry-wide efforts, and rethinking how we set up the infrastructure of the web. It’s not really just about getting ranked higher in search, it’s about creating better experiences for users who come across Vox content anywhere they are.”

Not everyone is as convinced of the need to implement AMP as Bell or Beizer, however. One independent publisher who didn’t want his name used said that it would be a mistake to assume that all publishers are racing to embrace Google’s standard, which does require a significant amount of programming work to implement.

“For us, and for most smaller publications, it makes more sense to wait and see how it goes,” this publisher said. “If it does become a standard, and Google does start to really promote AMP pages more highly in search results, then it will make more sense to revisit our position. We’re going to wait and see how it goes before potentially wasting a lot of time on another standard that may or may not pan out.”

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