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Home » Get amped up for this piece on the twisted journey of Google’s AMP, its ersatz savior of news on phones

Get amped up for this piece on the twisted journey of Google’s AMP, its ersatz savior of news on phones

If you’ve got the attention span for 6,340 words about an outré web component framework — and don’t lie, you do — I suggest you check out this piece by David Pierce just out at The Verge.

Okay, let me sell that a little better: If you want to understand the relationships between tech companies and news publishers over the past decade — how they have sprouted and shrunk, been tainted and curdled — read this piece on the birth, life, and death of Google AMP. AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) isn’t dead, technically, since it can always be forked into eternal life. But for web publishers, it’s dropped off their developers’ to-do lists.

The story of AMP involves a tech giant worried about being outflanked by its tech giant peers and a news industry anxious for any Silicon Valley sunshine it could get. Google said publishers should start making their web pages in a new way that would make them load more quickly on phones — while centralizing Google’s control of the web. It was part carrot (C’mon, your mobile site sucks, we’ll make it better!) and part stick (It would be a real shame if something terrible happened to your search traffic, wouldn’t it?). The tradeoffs were baked in from the start, and as I wrote at the time, it was “another stop on the path to powerlessness for publishers — another case of tech companies setting the rules.”

In telling the AMP story, Pierce lays out all the forces at play and why many of us were nervous about creating what amounted to a web-within-a-web, where the fundamental architecture of a website is determined by Google. (Not to mention the obvious problem with abusing its market power in search to force those changes on publishers.) You should read the whole thing, but here are a few tasty bits to whet your appetite.

“If Google said, ‘you must have your homepage colored bright pink on Tuesdays to be the result in Google,’ everybody would do it, because that’s what they need to do to survive,” says Terence Eden, a web standards expert and a former member of the Google AMP Advisory Committee.

This “we care about publishers!” dance is a staple of Silicon Valley. Apple briefly promised to save the news business with the iPad, convincing publishers around the world to build bespoke tablet magazines before mostly abandoning that project. Facebook remains in a perpetually whipsawing relationship with the media, too: it will promote stories in the News Feed only to later demote them in favor of “Meaningful Social Interactions,” then promise publishers endless video eyeballs before mostly giving up on Facebook Watch.

The platforms need content to keep users entertained and engaged; publishers need distribution for their content to be seen. At best, it’s a perfectly symbiotic relationship. At worst, and all too often, the platforms simply cajole publishers into doing whatever the platforms need to increase engagement that quarter.

But while publishers had long been wary of the tendency of Big Tech companies to suck up ad dollars and user data, they had seen Google as something closer to a partner. “You meet with a Facebook person and you see in their eyes they’re psychotic,” says one media executive who’s dealt with all the major platforms. “The Apple person kind of listens but then does what it wants to do. The Google person honestly thinks what they’re doing is the best thing.”

“[Google] came to us and said, the internet is broken, ads aren’t loading, blah blah, blah. We want to provide a better user experience to users by coming up with this clean standard,” says one magazine product executive. “My reaction was that the main problem is ads, so why don’t you fix the ads? They said they can’t fix the ads. It’s too hard.”

“The audience people hated it because it was against audience strategy,” says one former media executive who worked with AMP. “The data people hated it because it was against advertising and privacy strategy. The engineers hated it because it’s a horrendous format to work with… The analysts hated it because we got really bad behavioral data out of it. Everyone’s like, ‘Okay, so there’s no upside to this — apart from the traffic.’”

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