Four weeks ago Future plc Inc turned off most of its sites that were on Accelerated Mobile Pages. It knew the move had risks: namely, losing a lot of traffic given AMP is basically open-source code that strips down web pages so they load faster on mobile devices.
But Future also knew the move could have a ton of upside: chiefly, more alternative mobile pages to AMP it could sell ads on. So far, the gambit has paid off.
“I estimate that between 80% to 90% of our volume is no longer using the AMP framework now that we’ve successfully migrated to our mobile sites,” said Stuart Forrest, Future’s director of audience operations.
Tests began last September when Future shut down AMP versions of several sites including Guitar Player, Live Science and Digital Camera World — titles that gave the publisher a broad representation of its actual readership. In January, it repeated the process but for larger titles like Cinema Blend, which are reliant on mobile traffic.
At each step of the way, Future’s audience operations team would wait to see whether switching off AMP had an adverse impact on traffic and subsequently the money made from it. It never did, he added. In fact, Cinema Blend’s traffic in January was up 30% year over year.
“There’s been no impact on volume, and all the impact on revenue that we had hoped for,” said Forrest.
Which is to say ditching AMP didn’t cost the publisher traffic from mobile devices. It actually made more money as a result of the move.
“AMP was for all intents and purposes a short cut to a better web experience for readers, but the cost to us as publishers was less than good monetization for a variety of reasons,” said Forrest. “Now, the like for like monetization is much better.”
Not that any of this is necessarily a surprise to execs at Future.
Like many publishers they’d been aware of AMP’s shortcomings almost as soon as it arrived in 2016: mainly, making money from those articles. To speed up the web, Google had to strip down pages, which in turn throttled the kinds of ad units publishers could run. It left publishers with limited media on AMP pages they could sell to advertisers.
To say publishers have found the situation frustrating would be an understatement. And yet they ultimately accepted it. Without AMP articles, publishers would struggle to have content shown in Google’s mobile Top Stories carousel, which accounted for the vast majority of organic search traffic for publishers. Few publishers could willingly wave bye bye to that amount of reach, especially those that can’t always bank on topical news to drive interest.
“The upside of AMP was that was needed to get into the Top Stories box, which was important for our brands because while our consumer electronics coverage might cover the launch of a new iphone, which is a big news event in this area, but it’s not a story on whether Russia is going to invade Ukraine,” said Forrest.
Simply put, AMP was an offer Future couldn’t refuse — at least until last autumn when Google decided AMP was no longer a prerequisite for visibility in its Top Stories carousel. From then on more non-AMP stories started to rank. Execs at Future took notice.
“It means publishers can have a presence in that carousel if their mobile site was as performant as AMP,” said Forrest.
That’s a big if. There’s a level of technical proficiency needed to get web pages loading as fast as or faster than AMP that has stumped many publishers. No wonder there are many publishers that want to leave AMP but don’t feel they can — at least not in Europe.
“Lots of publishers are looking at this [move], but very few are taking the brave step,” said Forrest, who chairs the organizing committee at trade body the Association of Online Publishers in the U.K. and also launched its audience development working group. “If you look at some of the public domain tools for assessing the speed of sites then you’ll see that some of our peers are nowhere near fast enough to be able to switch off AMP. So even if they wanted to, they’ve got a lot of work to do before they can.”
For Future, this happened almost by accident thanks to another project: to focus on core web vitals — specific factors that Google considers important in a webpage’s overall user experience and ultimately search ranking — for its web pages, which included the mobile versions of them.
“It was the investment in core web vitals that enabled us to move away from AMP,” said Forrest. “First and foremost, we were focused on listening to Google’s advice to publishers to focus on creating a better experience for readers using core web vitals, with ranking being the reward for those that made the necessary investments.”
Future isn’t an outlier here. As hard as it is to replace AMP, more publishers are finding ways to do so. Matt Prohaska, CEO of Prohaska Consulting, expanded on the point: “Most of our publisher clients have made this move over the last three to six months. They felt the juice just wasn’t worth the squeeze anymore due to the changes Google has made to how it ranks non-AMP stories.”
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