The Rundown: Google AMP has short-term appeal but potential long-term costs

Publishers, still smarting from blows inflicted by Facebook and its ever-changing news feed, have found some comfort in the warm embrace of Google. Recently, Google surpassed Facebook as a traffic referral source for the first time in a year, according to Parsely.

Google has for years positioned itself as a friend to publishers. Google — like publishers — is dependent on an open web. But Facebook isn’t. Google — like publishers — is in the ad business. But Apple isn’t. Google’s fast-loading article format, Accelerated Mobile Pages, is a strong example of this, delighting many publishers with traffic and monetization.

The charm offensive was on full display at a recent Google press extravaganza to announce tools for news publishers. “We are all-in. We can’t do it without you,” said Philipp Schindler, svp and chief business officer at Google, on the stage.

But as with any distributed platform, audience gains for publishers, while encouraging in the short term, could have longer-term costs. Google’s AMP carousel in search results lets users quickly and easily swipe between pieces of content related to the same topic, but created by various publishers. Some publishers argue this functionality commoditizes their content and limits their ability to build their brands with readers.

AMP’s uniformity should matter to publishers as they strive to differentiate their content, regardless of where people find it. A logo atop a generic page isn’t a great opportunity to do that, some publishers argue. And in the case of subscription publishers, the stakes are particularly high, as they increasingly rely on brand loyalty to turn casual readers into paying customers.

AMP may be open-source, but at the end of the day, it answers to Google. That means Google, to some extent, defines the types of content and editorial formats that publishers can use.

“Do a search on your mobile phone, and you’ll see almost entirely AMP stories,” said a publishing exec who couldn’t speak publicly against Google because the exec’s employer works closely with the tech giant. “Google, without any oversight or community input, is setting the de facto standard for the format of the internet.”

Over time, publishers’ are concerned that the prevalence and heft of Google could stifle innovation outside of Google and leave them hanging. Google could decide to stop supporting AMP, for example. It has acted against publishers’ interests in the past, changing the rules for search and including more information snippets in search results, which has left less room for publisher content.

For now, the traffic and support incentives that Google is throwing behind AMP make it hard for publishers to pass up. So perhaps the best they can do is ensure they wring the most value they can from AMP, while remaining cognizant the party could end at a moment’s notice — just as it did with Facebook.

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