Why *Not* Google AMP?

Is Google’s AMP platform an attempt to use their dominance to consolidate control of the market? It sure looks like it.

Google AMP is a product which end users did not ask for and which we don’t need.

On the face of things, AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) is a platform meant to optimize mobile page views. Upon closer inspection however, it looks like it could be an attempt to force content producers to join Google’s exclusive program or be left behind. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

Table of Contents

Analytics
Getting Around Ad Blockers
The AMP Advantage… or Not
Optimized Pages
Caching Content
Not Exclusive
Pre-Loading
Instant Page Load Times

Question Google
What’s Next

Analytics

Google wants content channels to go through them. In order for their advertising machine to work best, they want to capture as much analytics about users as possible. They want to know more about how people use the internet than anyone else does. That is knowledge they don’t intend to share either, because that knowledge gives them a market edge. The only problem with that is that we never opted in. We never said yes to have all our clicks monitored and analyzed by a for-profit corporation. Google has decided how far our implicit agreement of being subject to analytics can go. They’ve decided it can farther than I think most people would want.

86.5% of Alphabet’s revenue comes from Google’s advertising network.

Like Equifax, Google has been collecting our personal data and profiting off it for years, without ever gaining our consent. Equifax is worse because you never sign up for anything, they just track you by default. However what Google does here is not far off from that.

When people use their phones to browse and they don’t use mobile Chrome, or when they use a mobile ad-blocker, Google loses access to their behavioral data. The AMP platform would further eliminate situations where the information wouldn’t get back to Google. They would get it all.

Getting Around Ad Blockers

By driving adopting of AMP, Google is seeking a way to circumvent the choice of millions of people (~16% of Americans) to block advertisements. As the single biggest online advertising market, Google is hurt more than anyone by ad-blockers. 86.5% of Alphabet’s revenue (Alphabet is Google’s parent company) comes from Google’s advertising network. Because Google’s wealth comes from its ads, and because the success of its ads are driven by its huge data sets on its users, Google is driven to drive people to its platform and keep them there, without ad-blockers.

The AMP Advantage… or Not

AMP’s stated raison-d’etre, like it’s primary competitor Facebook Instant Articles, is optimizing web pages for delivery on mobile devices. The only thing is, and this is something they seem desperately to not want you to know, is that none of the reasons AMP is faster and more optimized for mobile are exclusive to the platform.

Using AMP provides two main advantages when it comes to serving up mobile web pages near-instantly.

  1. Leveraging caching
  2. Pre-loading pages

In addition to these, people who participate must strictly optimize their webpages using Google AMP-specific attributes in order to participate.

Optimized Pages

Google requires content producers to optimize their pages. They have a similar regimen with the ads that are allowed in their program. I became AdWords certification in 2016. Google requires all ads on their platform to conform to a variety of rules, including strict size limitations. This is good— it’s actually very appropriate.

What they’re doing with mobile web content is similar, but different in an important way. It’s different because the mobile web page content, which AMP developers must optimize to participate, is the primary reason for someone visiting a page. Ads, on the other hand, are specifically an intrusion upon the primary goal of the person visiting a website. Ads should be highly optimized and controlled because they weren’t be sought out, but were instead imposed. Content doesn’t need to be as highly optimized because content provides value. Content is value, whereas ads skim value off the top of web browsing.

Treating content as if it needs to be very highly optimized only serves to make Google AMP pages faster than other regimes. This requirement is intended to contribute to Google AMP’s success as a program, not to materially improve the experience of browsing the web on one’s phone.

None of the reasons AMP is faster and more optimized for mobile are exclusive to the platform.

Having their platform provide the fastest page load times (though apparently Facebook Instant Articles actually have even faster load times), will raise user expectations for fast page load times. Having the fastest page load times becomes another reason to invest in the platform, which further drives market consolidation.

Google’s goal with AMP is to make mobile web browsing faster. However, the question then becomes, who does that speed most serve? We should be optimizing websites and making them small so people in places where data is more expensive can use them. However if a consequence of that is that a huge portion of those web pages are passed through Google’s information-collecting sieves, the greater benefit goes to Google. That’s a serious problem if you believe companies should not use their dominant market position to further consolidate markets into being under their control.

Caching Content

Google AMP has provides no substantial improvements over caching content using other caching methods. One extremely successful caching regime is the practice of leveraging CDNs (Content Delivery Networks) for delivering resources such as images. Another is dynamic content caching from servers such as NGINX dynamic content caching. I’ve written about how to use Amazon’s Cloudfront CDN to serve up resources over a CDN here.

Not Exclusive

There are a lot of strategies for delivery caching of content, just as there are lots of strategies for optimizing the content being delivered. There are many ways to be compliant and to provide web browsers content in appropriate respectful ways. Many people out there do not do this. Google is forcing all of their participants to be compliant and optimized, which makes for, yes, a very fast and low-data intensive web browsing experience.

However this regime is in no way exclusive to the platform or justifies moving to this platform to the exclusion of using typical, open web browsers.

This is monopoly-like behavior, and we need to present a united voice of opposition to it.

Pre-Loading

The practice of pre-loading before a person goes to actually click on it is something that has been backed up by years of user experience research. It is a complex model to design, or at least is more complex than the majority of web development that happens. It usually occurs at companies who have enough resources that they are optimizing existing products instead of letting them be sort of “good enough.” I’m talking about companies with mature products with very large adoptions. Another scenario where developers will build in pre-loading of content is venture-capital funded start-ups who have money to throw at problems. Either way, it’s not generally considered essential, even when you want to create very fast browsing experiences. Typically caching alone can accomplish page loads so fast they’re hard to measure.

Pre-loading, combined with caching and optimization, is the magic source of these lightning fast page-load times.

Instant Page Load Times

Are page-load times so fast they are impossible to process the future of the web? Users don’t care. It’s the companies who care. Google has stopped thinking of web browsers as their users. Instead, they have shifted to serving businesses who buy advertising as their primary customers.

Still, even for these customers, instant page load times are hardly going to be a deciding factor on if they are successful or not. People aren’t looking for perfect delivery, they’re looking for authenticity. Think of all the poorly lit YouTube videos recorded with a cheap camera that have been wildly successful.

Typically, websites will lose some views by loading in three seconds instead of two. The amount of traffic lost between a two-second page load time and a one-second page load is much smaller. The amount of traffic lost between a one second and a 500 millisecond page load time is even smaller yet. As we approach near-instantaneous page-load times, the different in traffic lost becomes inconsequential.

We don’t need this, so why are they strong-arming everyone into it? Their sales spiel seems to be that unoptimized, non-compliant web pages are bad, and the web would be a better place without them. We know that won’t happen though. Instead, Google has made their own space, a sub-web, a sparking private garden where only the sanctified can stroll.

With AMP, Google seems to want to make an exclusive corner of the web on mobile devices where their profit machine is optimized. Frankly it’s a lousy idea, its marketing has been deceptive, and it perpetuates an unhealthy balance of power where Google holds all the cards. This is monopoly-like behavior and it needs to be called out as such.

Pre-loading, combined with caching and optimization, is the magic source of these lightning fast page-load times.

Question Google

I say all this to point out the obvious, we cannot trust Google to act outside of its own self interest. As an organization with massive dominances in multiple markets (notably search, email, and ads), it’s motivated to use its position to make conditions more favorable for itself. As we know from the recent decision to repeal net neutrality, we cannot trust the FCC to take the lead on consumer protection. We need to become educated and band together as web developers to present a united front when companies begin to act like monopolies. That’s what’s needed here.

What’s Next

Inspired by Ethan Marcotte’s excellent writings on this, as well as my own negative response to the AMP platform, I decided to join the Amp Letter effort. This is monopoly-like behavior, and we need to present a united voice of opposition to it. If you’re a web developer, don’t advocate for using this platform. Instead, advocate for common-sense, platform-agnostic strategies for optimizing delivery of mobile content. Everything available on the AMP platform is already possible without it, except Google’s unethical preferential treatment of participants.

The only real loss from not participating is that you lose the Google SEO ranking boost from being on the platform. For that reason alone, I expect most SEO optimizer-mindset types would reject this advice. That’s fine. The rest of us however are not mindlessly chasing percentage-point increases of views. Instead we aim to provide quality, thought-provoking content. As such, the ding to SEO placement is hardly consequential. Avoid the platform. Spend your time learning real web optimization strategies instead and help make the web faster — and freer.