Publishers are pleasantly surprised by Google AMP traffic

If some publishers are cooling on Facebook Instant Articles, they’re becoming hot and heavy with Google AMP, the search engine’s answer to Instant Articles.

In February, Google rolled out AMP, which stands for Accelerated Mobile Pages, on mobile search results in Google News. Publishers scrambled to adopt Google’s open-source code on their pages because search still drives close to 40 percent of referral traffic overall, and they know that as their audiences shift to mobile, having fast mobile pages can only help them get surfaced by Google’s algorithm.

“We love it,” said Ben Robinson, Thrillist’s editorial director. Thrillist is getting 15 percent of its search traffic from AMP, boosting its search traffic by more than a third, which he called “exciting,” given the company is more lifestyle than news. At news-heavy USA Today Network, AMP is generating 12 percent of all mobile page views, said Michael Kuntz, svp of digital there.

AMP has become a bigger part of the mix at The Verge, representing 14 percent of its traffic in September, according to its editor, Nilay Patel. One multi-title publisher, which didn’t want to share its results publicly, said its AMP pages are loading 95 percent faster and bounce rate is more than 50 percent lower than regular mobile search pages, “which is insane,” a top exec there said.

AMP now represents 10 to 15 percent of publisher search traffic, a figure that is poised to grow as Google expands AMP to all its search results, potentially leading publishers to rely less on volatile social traffic, said Shahzad Abbas, vp of digital media at SEO consulting company Define Media. (Figures are based on data from its 100-plus publisher clients.)

“For AMP to almost immediately climb to this 10 to 15 percent number as a contributor to the overall search pie, as a product goes, it’s almost unprecedented,” Abbas said. “And social is declining, which means search is going to lift naturally anyway.”

So although Instant Articles is a new channel, AMP is fast becoming the de facto mobile web, so publishers have little choice but to get on board. “You really need access to that audience,” said John Potter, CTO of Purch.

When it comes to selling ads, publishers have the same mixed feelings on AMP they have with Instant Articles. With AMP, as with Instant, the articles are read in the platform’s ecosystem, and publishers are limited in the types of ads they can run and their ability to make money on those pages. Now that Facebook is adding more ad formats for publishers to use, though, that could change.

At the New York Daily News, AMP pages were initially monetizing at half the rate of a regular mobile page, although it’s improved as Google has allowed ads to be placed higher on the page and integrated more ad tech vendors, said Grant Whitmore, evp of digital there. Purch said its AMP pages bring in 75 percent of the revenue it makes on regular mobile pages when selling programmatically.

Potter said he’s OK with that for now, considering Purch is putting little effort into it and AMP, which is only 4 percent of its traffic. But looking ahead, he thinks getting higher direct ad rates will be harder because it depends on agencies sending ads in the right format. “I’d like to see them offer more advertising options,” Potter said. “But the whole premise is speed.”

USA Today Network is just scratching the surface in monetizing its AMP pages, Kuntz said. “Over long haul, we need to be able to monetize for AMP as for any other platform. It’s more of a programmatic opportunity right now. But we want it to be more about video, branded content, richer opportunities.”

Publishers say AMP also limits their ability to promote other products and get data back on reader behavior, information they need to improve their editorial product. If search traffic is up, publishers’ pages per visit are down — one theory is because AMP pages encourage people to scroll right to the next AMP article.

A Google rep noted that AMP has been accommodating more ad formats and is “working on more features” related to subscriptions, but didn’t have any specifics. “All of us involved with AMP, whether at Google or beyond, are dedicated to making the web fast and making it effective at monetizing and sustaining quality content, whether with advertising or subscriptions,” said Richard Gingras, vp of news for Google. “That’s been the focus from the start and we are rapidly building on that with more and more capabilities.”

Publishers also are concerned about a loss of brand recognition on stripped-down AMP pages. That’s why Thrillist is making a big push to make its AMP pages look like its mobile web pages. “We want to do things to make people feel like they’re reading a Thrillist story,” Robinson said.

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