Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) framework was designed to give site owners a way to quickly deliver their content to mobile users. The company incentivized AMP implementation by making it a requirement for publishers that want their articles featured in Google’s prominent Top Stories carousel.
With the recent announcement that Google plans to lift the AMP requirement beginning in 2021, publishers are reevaluating whether their resources are better spent optimizing their mobile experiences to be eligible to appear in the Top Stories section without AMP, or if it’s just easier to continue maintaining AMP versions of their pages.
What is AMP?
Originally created by Google, AMP is an open-source HTML framework that can be used to create fast-loading mobile web pages. It can also be used to serve ads and send dynamic emails.
Faster pages provide users with a better experience and, while AMP itself is not a Google ranking factor, page speed is. For publishers, one of the biggest incentives to maintain AMP pages is eligibility to appear in the mobile version of Google’s Top Stories carousel, which can provide articles with more visibility than a standard search result.
One of the tradeoffs, however, is that implementing AMP pages essentially means maintaining a second version of your site, which can be resource intensive. Last month, Google announced that AMP will no longer be a requirement to appear in the Top Stories section beginning sometime in 2021. When this change occurs, page experience will be one of the new factors that Google prioritizes for content it highlights within the Top Stories carousel. For publishers that continue using AMP, there will be no change and the AMP version of their content is the version that will be linked in the Top Stories section.
An uncertain future for AMP
With Google removing one of the biggest incentives for publishers to continue with AMP, SEOs are rethinking whether it’s worthwhile to maintain it or to double-down on optimizing their mobile experience.
AMP is still valuable for user experience. “For some news publishers, the Top Stories requirement on mobile was an important factor in the decision, while others wanted to move to AMP for the performance increase,” said Glenn Gabe, president of G-Squared Interactive, adding that the announcement will not affect what he recommends to clients. “The user experience is lightning fast for users (near-instant), so that was always a driving force for moving to AMP,” he said.
However, it’s not the only way to deliver fast pages. “For the publishers I’ve been working with, [there’s] not a lot of upside left,” Matthew Brown, managing director at MJBLabs and former director of search strategy for the New York Times, said, explaining that his clients are already invested in mobile performance and that AMP is just a means to remain competitive within the Top Stories section.
“A lot of the engineering and design teams I’ve worked with have been unhappy having to implement the AMP framework solely for the SEO benefit,” Brown continued, “Given the time and money involved when you’re simultaneously improving your mobile site, I understand the frustration.”
It may be wise to wait and test. “We’re planning to watch and see how the SERP [search engine results page] changes with the new competition and how competitors that don’t have AMP perform,” said Matt Dorville, SEO manager at BuzzFeed, which currently maintains AMP versions of its content.
With the AMP requirement lifted, content from more publishers will be eligible to appear in the Top Stories section. “It’ll be a lot of testing, seeing our competitors visibility and how fast their sites are and measuring the cost/benefit of maintaining what is essentially another website,” he added, noting that he’ll continue to advocate for keeping AMP but will also reevaluate the circumstances after Google flips the switch.
Page experience signals
After Google removes the AMP requirement, publishers can opt to prioritize page experience factors to get their content into the Top Stories section, instead of maintaining AMP versions of their pages.
Google’s new page experience algorithm is designed to evaluate web pages based on how human users experience them. It combines signals from the company’s Core Web Vitals with existing search signals, such as speed, mobile-friendliness, HTTPS, the presence of intrusive ads and whether content jumps around as the page loads.
“There are some algorithms that Google has rolled out that don’t have much impact,” said Gabe, who hopes that the page experience update will be a meaningful one because it rewards a positive user experience, adding that “if the new signal doesn’t have much power, then site owners won’t take it seriously.” For publishers currently using AMP, the degree to which they have to optimize their sites for page experience is likely to be a factor in whether they continue to use AMP or forge ahead without it.
“Each one of [Google’s page experience factors] is excellent from a user perspective but, at the same time, we have to weigh the pros and cons of having a website that relies on advertising for revenue which, at times, doesn’t give us the metrics we would like,” Dorville said, noting that BuzzFeed already prioritizes those factors as much as it possibly could given its financial priorities. “By eliminating AMP we could plausibly make more revenue [through advertising] but that would come at the expense of more load time as ad networks do increase your load time,” he said. Publishers facing similar tradeoffs may have to conduct tests to find the right compromise between user experience and generating ad revenue.
The decision point
“For publishers that are already up and running on AMP, I think the decision point will be when the site goes through any major overhaul, like a redesign or CMS change,” Brown said, “Then the costs of updating everything to AMP starts to look less favorable given it’s no longer a requirement for Top Stories on mobile.”
Before making plans to abandon AMP, Brown’s advice is that site owners should check to see whether the Top Stories results in their sector are dominated by AMP pages: “I’d need to see evidence that non-AMP sites are ranking right alongside them to feel good about switching off or ruling out AMP implementation entirely,” he said.
The majority of AMP pages already perform well in terms of page experience metrics, Rudy Galfi, product manager at Google, told Search Engine Land. However, some of the requirements for non-AMP pages to appear in the Top Stories section may turn out to be more stringent than maintaining AMP, Brown said. For sites that are unable to get their mobile performance to a point where it exceeds those requirements, maintaining AMP may be an easier path.