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Refreshing The Verge: Facebook video, Google AMP, and the (non)future of the web

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I’m only crying because I’m happy about new opportunities, I swear

The Verge turns five on November 1st, and we’re in the process of refreshing our entire brand for the next five years. In Refreshing The Verge, we’ll be looking at how that refresh process works, and what it’s like to adapt a brand like The Verge to a world where media platforms have become dominant.

One of the best things about The Verge is that our audience actually knows and loves so many of the people that work here — our staffers have big voices and strong opinions, and they’re out in front talking directly to readers and viewers all the time.

But one of the most important people at The Verge operates in the background: our engagement editor, Helen Havlak.

Helen is on our leadership team, and she’s broadly in charge of what you might call distribution — what platforms we publish on, how what we make is tailored to those platforms, and how we allocate resources among the various projects designed to grow audience on each of those platforms. When we hired Helen in 2014, I told her that her biggest challenge would be inventing a job that had never really existed before. Two years later, that job is an absolutely vital part of what we do every day.

"My job is... complicated," says Helen. "I make sure Verge content reaches as many people as possible, wherever they want to access it. That means optimizing our site for clickthrough and recirculation and SEO and sharing, and working with our amazing social media managers Kaitlyn and Dami to share our stories to Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Tumblr. I also have a constant IV into all of our analytics, plan distribution for big features and event coverage, and help build strategy for our biggest current growth area, Facebook video. Oh, and I play with experimental platforms like our Facebook Messenger bot. Probably some other things I forgot, too."

Helen — and other engagement and programming editors around Vox Media like Vox.com’s Allison Rockey and Curbed’s Mercedes Kraus — are at the center of a huge shift in audience behavior, and I’d bet that job description grows and changes even more in the next few years.

Right now, the web — what you see when you load up theverge.com — is our primary platform. But I asked Helen to pull a year-over-year traffic comparison for our editors recently, and it shows that we’re headed toward a pretty obvious shift:

"Of course, you can’t compare all of these things 1:1," Helen reminds me. "It might take three Flipboard Flips to get through an article, which is counted as a single page view elsewhere. Only about 33 percent of Facebook video views make it to 30 seconds. But the overall trends are pretty clear."

And here’s the trend: almost all of our growth is in video, particularly Facebook video. In particular, look at those Circuit Breaker numbers — most of the content posted to the Circuit Breaker Facebook page never makes it to The Verge’s website, but it’s still way out ahead of YouTube and our custom player, all of which get boosted when we embed them on article pages on the web.

The other thing to notice is that our raw article page views are basically flat, but that Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP pages have slowly started to become a bigger piece of the page view mix. AMP, in particular, is growing fast — last month AMP represented 14 percent of our traffic.

What does this all mean?

First, it means that Dieter and I drink a lot of bourbon and talk about the sad, slow death of the open web a lot. (It was a good run, open web! So sorry that Apple killed you by turning Safari into the new IE and forbidding alternative browsers to innovate on iOS.)

Second, it means that mobile web article pages are quickly becoming the least important thing we make, even though they’re currently a huge part of what most people think of as The Verge. Let’s plot it out:

  • There are three main paths most readers use to get to a Verge story: the homepage, search, and social, and all of those are increasingly mobile.
  • Our search traffic largely comes from Google, which already serves our AMP pages in Google News. Google is also switching mobile search results to AMP links, and that means almost all of our search visitors will see AMP pages instead of the mobile web.
  • Our social traffic mix is dominated by Facebook, where we already serve every article in Facebook Instant Articles — and features and reviews are coming soon. That means a huge percentage of our social traffic is already seeing Instant Articles instead of the mobile web, and that number will just go up as we deliver more story types in IA.
  • Twitter is basically the rest of the social mix, and Twitter is signed up to use... AMP. Twitter already loads AMP pages in Moments, and it’s only a matter of time before clicking a link from the main timeline loads an AMP page by default. (In fact, I don’t know why Twitter doesn’t already do this. Get on it, Jack.)
  • Other social platforms like Pinterest are also signed up to use AMP, because Facebook isn’t sharing Instant Articles, and none of them can force publishers to dance the way Facebook and Google can.
  • We still have a very popular homepage that sends people to standard mobile article pages, as do emailed links and so on, but our homepage traffic is obviously tiny compared to search and social.
  • You could, at this time, make a solid argument that AMP is the future of the web.
  • You could also make a fine wine out of the tears I weep each night as the open web dies anew, but that’s neither here nor there.

So if we aren't going to deliver The Verge on the mobile web, what do we have to figure out in order to deliver our brand to the digital audiences of the future?

"AMP is coming to eat our mobile page views," says Helen, "But AMP loads super, super quickly and is simply a better experience right now. So can we add enough design to make an AMP page feel like The Verge? And can we get a reader who comes in through AMP to read other Verge stories and accept proper love for The Verge into their hearts? Those will be our next big questions."

So any updates we make to The Verge’s brand necessarily have to be bigger than just updating our website — yes, we are very invested in our site, especially our beautiful desktop site, but The Verge’s brand has to be big and bold enough to come through and connect with audiences that are just watching Facebook videos, that are seeing AMP and Instant Article pages, and that may never actually see The Verge on the open web at all.

That’s a big challenge, but everything about the data from the past year suggests that it’s the only challenge worth taking on.