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Google’s Instant Articles competitor is about to take over mobile search

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The web is fragmenting again

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Google's "Accelerated Mobile Pages," more commonly known as AMP, are meant to be a reboot of the mobile web. Designed to fix mobile webpages that suck because they're too slow, they have been available in a specialized carousel at the top of search results since February. When you click on an AMP link, you get a stripped-down, faster version of the article you wanted — often delivered directly from Google's own caching servers.

Now, Google has announced that it plans to expand the delivery of AMP links beyond that carousel to all mobile search results. So when you search for a story and an article from an AMP publisher shows up in search results, clicking on that blue link will take you to the AMP version of the story instead of the traditional website. When a webpage has an AMP version available, it will be represented by a small lightning bolt next to the search result. (For now, Google is offering a "developer preview" of AMP pages within search results to collect feedback before it rolls out to all users later this year.)

If this sounds familiar, it’s because Facebook just did the same thing with its own mobile-focused Instant Articles format — instead of loading a webpage when you click a link, the Facebook app loads a proprietary Instant Article from participating publishers, complete with lightning bolt icon.

Google pushing AMP by default while Facebook pushes Instant Articles is going to change the experience of the web for a huge number of people, and will make creating webpages more complicated for publishers, who now have to support the web, AMP, and Facebook Instant Articles.

"We're really thrilled with the speedy user experience," says Dave Besbris, the vice president of engineering who oversees AMP at Google. He says AMP articles load in less than one second and that publishers are seeing better ad viewability and higher click-through rates on AMP pages.

Despite the speed benefits publishers can get from AMP, replacing search links to traditional HTML webpages with AMP versions will be seen as a controversial move — because it is. Although AMP pages are built on top of HTML components and therefore technically part of the web, it's a different sort of webpage than you might be used to.

AMP has a smaller feature set than HTML (it's one of the reasons that it's faster than most traditional mobile websites), so in several ways it's more limited than what you can get from a regular HTML site. Here's an example of a Verge story in the AMP format, and here's the full HTML version.

Besbris counters that the AMP standard has made significant progress since it first became available, pointing to an active open-source GitHub community, with participation and contribution from many companies and individuals. "The AMP format has come an awfully long way since February," he says. Google notes the GitHub repository for AMP has had “over 2500 code submissions” and that the company has “pushed out 110 releases carrying new features and bug fixes.” eBay, for example, has contributed to the project and is publishing AMP pages, and there’s a detailed roadmap for what’s coming next, feature-wise. As TechCrunch notes, Google is also emphasizing that AMP can work for more than just news sites, and you can test out AMP pages at this demo site.

The staged rollout in search — developers first, all users later — is designed to gather feedback on the standard. The rollout into traditional search results will create more pressure on website developers to create AMP pages, just as Facebook's Instant Article format has done in the social realm. Google and Facebook are both using their most powerful platforms — search and the News Feed, respectively — to push their competing visions of how we will read news on the internet.

Besbris is quick to say that Google isn't planning to give preferential treatment to AMP pages in Google's search results. If a publisher decides not to bother with creating an AMP page, it shouldn’t hurt their traffic. Google, however, has said that it does rank pages that load quickly higher in its search results — and AMP loads lighting fast, so the implication is extremely clear.

Making an AMP version of a webpage is extra work — sometimes significant extra work, depending on a website's backend. Website developers now may need to create several versions of a webpage to accommodate the different ways that people visit it: a responsive HTML page for mobile and desktop, a second version for Facebook's Instant Articles, and a third version for Google AMP. (To say nothing of publishers who also feel the need to create apps for the Apple or Google App Stores.)

That's a lot to do, and it's contrary to one of the original promises of the web: create one page that's viewable by anybody, no matter what device they're using or how they get there. Now that AMP will eventually be the default for mobile search (still a significant source of traffic for many sites, The Verge included), opting out of AMP is increasingly going to be a bad look for publishers. And since AMP still can't do as much as a full HTML website, it's going to mean trading away both features and control in exchange for a faster experience.

Although Besbris argues that AMP pages perform better when it comes to click-through rates and viewability, there's also the possibility that AMP pages or Instant Articles may not create as much advertising revenue for publishers, nor offer as much flexibility in terms of different ad formats. For many, that's a feature — it's harder to implement pernicious tracking code or pop-up ads in those formats. But for publishers, committing such a large portion of their readership to Google's and Facebook's standards could mean giving up some control over how their articles look and how they make money off of them.

Beyond that, the web has benefits that go beyond its technical capabilities. It’s open and accessible. HTML as a standard is maintained by a consortium of companies and academics, so it's theoretically agnostic to the competing interests of the internet's major players. AMP, though open source and receiving input from multiple companies, is very clearly a Google-centric initiative.

Look at it like this: mobile search represents a big portion of the traffic on many sites — and it’s likely to grow. The speed and coming ubiquity of AMP pages will mean that more publishers will feel pressure to do the extra work to create them — even though they may not be as feature-rich as regular webpages. Put those things together and you begin to see that the web is getting split into different kinds of webs: one regular one, another AMP one, and yet a third from Facebook. Instead of fixing the mobile web, we’re fragmenting it.

That’s not an assessment that Besbris and the proponents of AMP will agree with. Besbris says that AMP is part of the web: "AMP is published like web pages, because AMP is web pages.” He adds that “AMP is an implementation of HTML, based on the web components portion of the HTML standard” and that it’s “a very transparent, open source project.” It's true that its pages are built using the same tools, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything you think of as “the web” also applies to AMP.

Years ago, many sites had different versions of their websites for phones — often at a different subdomain like mobile.theverge.com. But that was a mistake the industry corrected with the advent of responsive web design — we decided that making a separate version of a thing just for a smaller screen was a bad idea, especially as mobile devices became more powerful. But with AMP and Instant Articles, history seems to be repeating itself — only this time, it’s happening with big companies like Google and Facebook deciding how these new mobile versions will work and whether they’ll be as open as the thing they’re increasingly replacing.