Google AMP beat Facebook Instant Articles, but publishers start to question AMP’s benefits

google amp

Google unveiled its open-source Accelerated Mobile Pages format in 2016 to improve the mobile web by making pages load faster (and match Facebook‘s own fast Instant Articles format). While Instant Articles has fallen out of use with publishers, AMP has contributed to Google overtaking Facebook as a traffic referral source. But despite AMP becoming a growing share of web traffic, some are calling its benefits into question.

A new study by Chartbeat published today shows that only a third of publishers actually see clear evidence of a traffic increase from AMP. The study looked at 159 publishers that adopted AMP in 2017. Most were U.S. publishers and represented a mix of national, local, news and lifestyle.

If AMP was delivering a lot more traffic, that could make up for the revenue shortfall publishers often complain about. Publishers have long griped that the ad revenue they make on AMP pages has been slow to build because AMP limits the types of ad formats that are supported. In fact, AMP represents just a sliver of the revenue publishers make from their distributed content, according to a report from Digital Content Next. Other complaints have been that AMP limits publishers’ ability to promote other products, use elaborate editorial formats and get data back on reader behavior.

“AMP had a lot of hype and promise,” said Chris Breaux, director of data science at Chartbeat. “It’s really good for users in providing a consistent experience in terms of page-load time. The real question is, do you see more traffic than you would have if you didn’t do the implementation? The answer for two-thirds of publishers is, no.”

Chartbeat did the study in part with The Daily Beast, which wanted to test AMP’s efficacy. Brad Doll, lead data scientist at the Beast, said his pages clearly monetized worse — but a 23 percent increase in traffic would make up for the shortfall in revenue per page on AMP pages versus regular mobile web pages. The traffic story was less clear.

“What we found to our surprise was there was no clear evidence that AMP was boosting traffic,” Doll said. “It was surprising early on. We heard the buzz that was going around that AMP would make your traffic go up. But in retrospect, the buzz is what’s surprising.”

The Beast is evaluating whether to keep supporting AMP, given AMP’s benefits for page speed, Beast chief product officer Lauren Bertolini said.

Other AMP users have been vocal about what they see as its shortcomings. Bustle execs recently tweeted that Bustle disabled AMP on all of its sites, saying the user experience and revenue are better than the AMP equivalent.

Nathan Kontny, CTO of development firm Rockstar Coders, said after he enabled AMP on the company’s site, conversions dropped 70 percent, leading him to disable it. “Conversions are the lifeblood of our business,” he said.

An earlier Chartbeat study this year found that AMP was delivering a traffic and engagement boost. The new study found that there was a 22 percent increase in Google mobile traffic on average across publishers but that individual publisher effects varied widely. One-third saw clear evidence of an incremental traffic increase from AMP. Some individual publishers saw increases ranging from a 151 percent increase to a 58 percent decrease. For the remaining two-thirds of publishers, it was unclear if AMP was driving traffic increases independent of factors like seasonality and changes in the news cycle.

Across the publishers having success with AMP, there was no theme in characteristics like the types of content they publish and how long they’ve implemented AMP, Chartbeat found. Big news publishers had the same results as small lifestyle publishers, even though big publishers are more likely to have lots of resources to implement AMP and news was an early beneficiary of the format.

In the end, the benefit seems to come down to how well the publisher implements AMP, Breaux said.

“The message for publishers is, it takes a fair amount of work to support a new platform,” Breaux said. “There are also challenges on the ad side.”

Rudy Galfi, an AMP project manager at Google, said the project has led to big improvements in page speed but that when it comes to traffic and revenue, there’s a lot of variation by publisher. The Chartbeat study points to the need for publishers to maximize the way they implement AMP to take advantage of all the improvements in monetization that have been added over the past three years. “There’s always new best practices to take account of.”

Most publishers that have adopted AMP still use it. Thirty-one percent of Chartbeat’s clients used AMP at the end of 2017, up from 27 percent at the beginning as 3 percent dropped it but another 7 percent added it. Many feel they have little choice. There’s a widespread belief among publishers that, Google’s assurances notwithstanding, Google gives preference to AMP articles in search results even the publisher can match AMP’s speed on their own. Google has also trained readers to spot the lightning-bolt icon that indicates AMP articles. AMP Stories format, Google’s Snapchat and Instagram knockoff, however, has been slow to take off.

”A lot of publishers are nervous that if they don’t adopt it, either through overt priority or consumer preferences, they’ll be harmed,” said Andrew Montalenti, CTO of Parsely.

The analytics company’s data show that AMP provides an incremental traffic boost to publishers, based on AMP traffic not just from Google search but other Google products. But he also said it’s hard to quantify AMP’s impact because there are so many reasons traffic ebbs and flows. It’s hard to a/b test because most sites go all-in on AMP, and site comparisons are limited because all sites are different. “It’s hard to just directly say it’s better.”

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