Publishers warily embrace Google's new fast article format

Publishers have been trying to cut the time it takes their sites to load, but as their embrace of a Google plan to speed up the Web shows, they recognize they can’t do it alone.

Google held a press event this morning where it announced a new project, Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP, that it’s working on with Twitter and a wide array of publishers from The New York Times to BuzzFeed to the BBC to speed up page-load time. The format comes as people are doing more of their reading on mobile phones, and a slow-loading site can cost publishers (and Google) in readers and ad dollars. Google said that in experiments, it’s cut load time by 85 percent. “Anything less than instant represents a decline in engagement,” said Richard Gingras, head of news at Google.

For publishers, such a message resonates. “We cut our desktop load times 80 percent last year, but over half of people are coming to us via the mobile Web,” said Cory Haik, executive director of emerging news products at The Washington Post, which is one of Google’s launch partners. At the same time, the Post has emphasized new article formats and high-res images to make its reading experience more appealing, features that she said are “incongruous with speed on the Web.”

The Atlantic also has made speed a focus, getting its site to load 50 percent faster when it relaunched it in April. But load time is a “constantly moving benchmark,” said Kimberly Lau, vp and general manager of The Atlantic Digital. “Any latency if you’re a consumer on a mobile Web page is problematic.”

AMP, which can be seen in a preview version here, is also seen as an attempt by Google to defend itself against the closed nature of apps like Facebook, Apple and Snapchat, which have been making moves to get people to spend more time in their own ecosystems by corralling publishers’ content into them.

Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News and Snapchat have been encouraging media outlets to publish directly to those platforms in exchange for the ability to sell ads around the content. These propositions are controversial because publishers have to cede control of their audience, data, revenue and brand experience to the platforms. The appeal of Google AMP is that it comes with no such sticky business terms; it’s an open-source code that publishers can use to mark up their content, wherever it appears.

Still, there are questions for publishers who plan to use it. Just as Google earlier this year said it would favor mobile-optimized sites in its search rankings, it is expected to give an advantage to those that load faster by adopting its code. And while Facebook may have surpassed Google as the top referral source for publishers, according to Web analytics firm, Google is still massive, supplying fully 35 percent of their traffic.

Publishers have just begun getting a look at Google’s plan and don’t expect to be able to implement it until early next year. So publishers wonder whether the plan will cut load time enough to be worth the effort. A preview of AMP showed top-ranked articles in a carousel-style format, which had publishers asking what criteria articles would have to meet to win that favored placement. (Google insisted it wouldn’t favor publishers that use AMP, while making it clear that performance matters.) Some also questioned to what extent the code will help load time of elements outside articles, such as Outbrain and Taboola widgets that are widely used to generate revenue and recirculate traffic on publisher sites.

There’s also uncertainty over whether the code will affect tag-heavy digital ads, which are partly to blame for sites being sluggish; Google does see AMP as a way to help improve the user experience by discouraging ad formats that slow down page load time.

Time Inc. is obviously interested in reducing load time on its sites, and the Google process seems to be collaborative, said Scott Havens, a senior vp of digital at Time Inc., which is exploring Google AMP on its titles, which include Time, People and Sports Illustrated. But there are some big questions that are still outstanding, such as how ads will be delivered, he said. “The big unknowns are, exactly how we’re going to deal with programmatic and third-party ad revenue,” he said.

Moreover, the Google plan reinforces the vulnerability of being a publisher today, where their content is increasingly distributed through other platforms.

“So much our our ecosystem is Google today, whether it’s ad serving or search,” Lau said. “The thing I worry about less is the dependence on them — it’s already a reality. The thing that’s harder for publishers to handle is the proliferation of all these distribution points. Every time we add another format, it creates more code that needs to be maintained, which requires increasing technical sophistication.”

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