Why Google AMP may not be all it appears
According to legal documents recently made public, websites that incorporated AMP to improve mobile performance brought in 40% less revenue compared with non-AMP sites.
A U.S. federal judge recently unredacted internal Google documents related to an ongoing antitrust lawsuit. The lawsuit is related to AMP, an open-source coding project created by Google to purportedly help site pages load faster on mobile devices.
What the release exposed is a revenue differential that may have given Google an unfair advantage in advertising revenue while not delivering on speed boosts. As a result, online publishers are voicing increased concern about Google’s competitive practices and are calling for more scrutiny for Google-initiated projects.
What is the AMP project?
AMP, short for “Accelerated Mobile Pages,” is a pre-publishing website standard developed by Google to provide mobile users with faster and more mobile-friendly websites. Over 900,000 domains, including some big-name brands and web portals, use Google AMP, and big players such as Microsoft and Twitter have adopted AMP standards within their own platforms. The WordPress community rallied around the initiative, with developers introducing several popular AMP-centric plugins.
With the support of AMP and related efforts, users can now view mobile search results and reliably find mobile-friendly pages.
However, the project also has many detractors.
In late 2020, an antitrust lawsuit against Google that claimed AMP was actually created for the purpose of pushing publishers away from “header bidding.” On Google’s search engine, header bidding occurs when multiple advertisers participate simultaneously in the Google Ads auction to win ad space at the top of the page. Header bidding occurs on every single Google search, in other words, about 5.6 billion times per day.
The complaint documents, filed in a lawsuit between publishers and Google, reveal a significant concern for publishers regarding Google AMP and AMP pages.
The unredacted documents
Initially, the filed complaint papers were heavily redacted. The now unredacted files reveal new concerns and further evidence that Google’s intentions were anything but honest. The complaint alleges that Google throttled non-AMP ads to give AMP a “nice comparative boost.”
As recently excerpted by WPTavern:
After crippling AMP’s compatibility with header bidding, Google went to market falsely telling publishers that adopting AMP would enhance page load times. But Google employees knew that AMP only improves the “median of performance” and AMP pages can actually load slower than other publisher speed optimization techniques.
This fact isn’t surprising. Google often barks about the need for faster web pages, while offering KPIs, such as Google Tag Manager, and YouTube embed codes, that in reality, slow down site pages.
The speed benefits Google marketed were also at least partly a result of Google’s throttling. Google throttles the load time of non-AMP ads by giving them artificial one-second delays in order to give Google AMP a “nice comparative boost.“ Throttling non-AMP ads slows down header bidding, which Google then uses to denigrate header bidding for being too slow.
Why Google really created AMP
Google has engaged in open-source coding projects for many years. All Google projects have a public code base, open APIs, and an associated community. Even so, AMP is arguably Google’s biggest public-facing web project in recent years. However, in Google’s case, the project has been criticized for a variety of reasons, including being motivated by monetary rewards behind the scenes.
The unredacted complaint clearly shows why many publishers felt pressure to develop AMP resources on their sites and why Google got away with it, despite a great deal of criticism about the project. It also becomes clear why small websites are often at the most significant disadvantage when it comes to Google’s ever-changing labyrinth of requirements for site masters.
Although much attention has focused on AMP and its subsequent controversies, the situation might not be as black and white as it seems.
While these documents and accusations are serious, Google AMP appears to be something many publishers can live with. Many people are likely more concerned that Google’s search algorithm might favor a competitor’s site over their own and are willing to do whatever Google says to try and gain an advantage.
Most likely, the legal proceedings will reveal AMP doesn’t drive as much traffic to publishers as people might imagine, but all the facts may not come out for months or even years. That said, the situation calls for continued scrutiny from site owners, while playing by Google’s rules to maintain important organic growth.