Publishers scramble to prepare for Google's fast mobile pages initiative

Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) initiative is premised on publisher control — Google executives have used the word “control” repeatedly in talking about to differentiate from Facebook and Apple initiatives — but with its launch just weeks away, publishers are wondering just how much control they’ll have over making money.

The biggest unknown with AMP is it can’t accommodate all ad formats, limiting their ability to monetize it. AMP, which is led by Google but includes Twitter and Pinterest, brought on a variety of ad tech partners in order to give publishers not only the chance to have user-friendly mobile pages but also control over their monetization. Still, several publishers are in doubt they’ll have as much control, at least at launch, as they do on their sites — if more than with Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News.

Grant Whitmore, evp of digital at the New York Daily News, said the paper is still excited about being part of the AMP rollout. But the Daily News won’t be able to use Outbrain on its AMP pages, or header bidding when it rolls out its AMP pages. (Outbrain is deploying with a handful of AMP partners to start with before going wide with all of its publishers.) The Daily News has decided to hold off on direct-selling ads on AMP pages, even though that’s more lucrative, because it’s not yet clear if advertiser demand will be worth the extra work required on the publisher’s end.

“There’s still some open questions that aren’t addressed in the roadmap about the level of control of the revenue mechanisms which was initially the promise of AMP,” Whitmore said. “It’s not a big deal for us at launch, but if we’re at the midway point of the year and this is still open, then I will have more concern.”

Others have expressed worries about the ability to monetize AMP pages when, traditionally, more expensive ads are also less AMP-friendly because they take longer to load. “I’ve heard publishers say, ‘We get it, we need to have a great experience,’ but there are concerns about monetization,” said one ad tech company source that supports AMP. What might be a “disruptive” ad to user-experience experts could also be an “impactful” ad to a brand — and lucrative to a publisher.

Depending on how big a role AMP pages play in how readers access publishers, restrictions on ads could be a big deal down the road. According to Kunal Gupta, CEO of native ad platform Polar, some publishers expect that 50 percent of their mobile traffic could be to AMP versions of their pages by the end of the year.

The AMP page lists 38 publishers as being on board, including The New York Times, BuzzFeed and Vox Media. As an open-source initiative, any publisher can participate, so far more undoubtedly have made preparations. Many publishers have their own efforts underway to cut their digital page load time, but Google said it’s been able to cut load times by 85 percent, which is probably beyond what many of them can do on their own. The commonly held belief is that since Google’s algorithm favors speed, publishers that aren’t AMP-optimized will suffer in its search results.

Google has made no secret of the fact that it saw AMP as a way to discourage ad formats that slow down page load time. At the same time, the search giant said publishers would still be able to sell ads on their AMP pages the way they used to, whether using Google’s or third-party ad tools.

A spokesperson told Digiday that publishers, ad tech companies, advertisers and buyers are working on improving mobile ads. “This group has only scratched the surface but we’re excited to see where this will go,” the rep said. “We think there are huge opportunities to create strong revenue streams for publishers while delivering a great mobile experience for users.”

Adam Singolda, founder and CEO of content recommendation widget Taboola, said Taboola’s widget is AMP-ready but that publishers will need to deploy AMP-specific code for it as they will have to do for other modules, which should be easy for them to do.

Rival Outbrain will extend its tech to the rest of its customers by the end of the first quarter.

“Google’s done a great job pushing this, so we’re hearing from publishers, they’re anxious to turn this on,” said Dennis Yuscavitch, director of product marketing at Outbrain.