What the Accelerated Mobile Pages project tells us about the sorry state of web publishing
Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) is a new format for delivering web content to mobile devices. It is specifically designed to maximise performance and speed. Google is leading the charge, but AMP is being supported by a huge number of publishers and technology firms from the get-go.
It is a response to developments such as Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News. Those products seek to provide users with a better experience than the often slow and clunky webpages that are now provided by many news publishers.
Of course, it’s no coincidence that it also keeps users within Facebook’s and Apple’s own walled gardens, and away from the open web where users might (shock, horror) discover other places to go. Places that don’t involve Facebook and Apple making money.
Google have their own self interest, of course. They effectively own web advertising. It’s how they make their money. So they stand to lose a lot if people start turning away from the web.
This is just another battlefront in the current world wide web war. This war involves publishers, advertisers, adblocker developers, users and the big technology firms.
But how did we get here?
Crisis in web publishing
Publishers are still struggling to find a viable business model two decades after the digital revolution hit them.
A few smart cookies worked out that people are still willing to pay for quality content, particularly in a niche area. But many others were slow on the uptake — or simply unable to produce quality content.
In the past few years, these site owners have become increasingly desperate in their bid to remain viable. They have engaged in a frantic race to the bottom.
- Clickbait headlines that ultimately disappoint.
- Resource-hogging adverts that people hate.
- Increasingly desperate and invasive pop-ups.
- Countless trackers that take an age to load for no direct benefit to the user.
- Appalling links to “relevant content from the web” by the likes of Taboola, with headlines and thumbnails that offend basic common decency.
Unsurprisingly, users are rebelling. Adblocking has gone mainstream. The publishers only have themselves to blame.
Rule number one of web design: Always meet user needs — not just your own. Fail to do that, and users will go elsewhere.
By seeking short-term benefits, many media companies have unwittingly devalued their brands in the long term. It has taken them too long to realise, and now they don’t know how to dig themselves out of this hole.
Collective failure of web developers
The web is in a bad state of health right now. And it’s not just the big media companies to blame. The web development community as a whole could — and should — have stopped this situation getting out of hand.
Marketers ask their developers to stuff their websites full of gigantic images and unnecessary animations, under the mistaken impression that their job is to create some kind of 21st century TV ad. This sends page load times through the roof.
That all feels OK when you’re in your office, working on a massive Mac monitor and a blazing broadband connection. For a user on a mid-market mobile device and patchy signal, it becames a very negative experience.
It’s true that people like pictures. But they hate long load times even more. There is a balance to be struck, and as an industry we don’t always find that balance.
In fact, websites are now suffering from an obesity epidemic. Page weight has grown year on year unabated. This table shows how average page weight has increased year-on-year.
The situation has grown so bad that Google have basically had to reinvent HTML, only with stricter rules to enforce improved performance. We are now back in the position where maintaining multiple codebases is deemed the best way forward.
Shortcomings of responsive web design
After years of progress towards maintaining a single codebase for our websites, the dream has come to a shuddering halt.
Do you remember a few years ago when Jakob Nielsen said responsive web design creates a substandard user experience? Web developers were up in arms because he had dissed their trendy new toy!
I’m a huge fan of responsive web design. But the fact is that Jakob Nielsen has turned out to be right. Responsive design alone isn’t enough. Users are rejecting responsive webpages because they are simply slow to use.
Facebook and Apple have been able to exploit this malaise. They seek to undermine the open web and keep users within their own walled gardens.
The web must fight back
The history of the web has shown that it is resilient against such assaults. The browser wars — where different browsers displayed the same pages so differently as to make pages fundamentally incompatible — were untentable. Walled garden services like AOL have briefly flourished before eventually wilting as users discovered the benefits of the truly open web.
That is why I tend to back Google’s vision. They may have a self interest in the health of the web. But we all benefit from a strong, open web. Its openness it what makes it so powerful.
It is concerning that we now have to code our sites in at least two different ways (if we want to have non-AMP versions of our webpages). It is also a worry that the project is being controlled by a group of firms led by Google, rather than being a grassroots movement or an initiative from W3C.
But we can be thankful that someone is committing some real effort to ensuring that the web can succeed at being performant. That in itself demonstrates the power of the web. The fact that AMP itself is an open-source project underlines that.
For more information on AMP, and some different takes, check out these articles: