Publishers assess AMP benefits as Google drops 'Top Stories' requirement

Why publishers are starting to ditch Google Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)

Google AMP

Online publishers are weighing up whether to ditch Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) technology which last year became unnecessary for ranking in the most-competitive spots on Google search results.

Press Gazette understands the format now has most value for free-to-read publishers like The Sun and Mail Online, which still benefit from AMP’s high-performing ad revenue and fast page speeds making for a good user experience.

Subscription-focused publishers on the other hand may prefer to ditch AMP as it offers a worse experience for paying readers who can find themselves being asked repeatedly to log in and missing out on personalisation. Questions also remain as to whether performance in AMP is recorded before or after a publisher’s subscription interface.

As of last summer, publishers are no longer required to use the AMP format for their stories in order to appear in the much-coveted Top Stories carousel that appears at the top of Google results pages for news-related searches. Any pages are now eligible as long as they meet Google News’s content policies.

Around a third of URLs seen in Top Stories in UK and US search pages are now estimated to be non-AMP.

In addition, although it has a much smaller influence on the news publishing industry than the dominant search giant, Twitter discontinued support for AMP at the end of last year.

Publishers are now split between those in a “wait and see” mindset yet to decide if ditching AMP could be worthwhile – still the majority – and those who have already made up their minds to move on without it.

AMP had been necessary to rank in Top Stories on mobile for five years and publishers poured time and money into making sure they appeared there. Those top slots account for the “vast majority” of publishers’ organic search traffic outside of Google News, according to Luke Budka, director of digital PR at Definition.

Budka said of the reaction to Google’s announcement: “I imagine publishers’ jaws collectively dropped… all that time and money publishers invested into AMP version[s] of every news page has now effectively gone to waste.”

The major advantage of AMP is that it is “lightweight and fast”. “Google likes returning these types of pages to users because it encourages them to keep coming back to the search engine,” Budka said.

Instead, whether they are moving away from AMP or not, publishers are pouring money into what Google calls Core Web Vitals (CWVs), which look at the user experience of a webpage using metrics such as how fast it loads and becomes usable.

To many publishers AMP was not a waste of time and money because it set them up well for this page experience update and has meant a good starting point from which their own developers could start.

A Google spokesperson said: “When people come to Google, we want it to be easy to find relevant, high-quality information and websites that have a good user experience. Page experience is one of many ranking factors in search, and for many site owners, AMP continues to be an efficient and effective way to achieve a great page experience.”

Budka said: “To be fair, this time around, Google has repeatedly pointed out that even if your CWVs are poor, you’ll still rank well if you produce great content (suspect this is a shout to publishers).”

Association of Online Publishers managing director Richard Reeves said: “The implementation of CWVs in 2021 naturally raised questions from publishers around the long-term need for AMP. At the time, most publishers decided to address the criteria for CWVs, but also continue with AMP.

“Now, we are starting to see some publishers running tests to gain more insight into the value that AMP provides alongside CWVs, so they can make an informed decision moving forwards. But whether they still need AMP will depend on several factors. For instance, a news outlet may see more value from AMP for breaking news stories, versus a lifestyle-focused publication.”

Reeves said the issue remained “front and centre” in AOP’s audience development steering group meetings “especially as there are still areas of confusion around the roll out of CWVs”.

“For example, as more publishers look to subscription models, is performance recorded prior to or after the subscription interface? Google remains engaged with publishers around these sorts of queries and questions – the type of teething issues you would expect to occur with any new system.”

The Sun: AMP helped ‘raise the standards’

At The Sun, AMP has helped “raise the standards of where we know we need our pages to be if we want to continue to win visibility and drive traffic through Top Stories,” according to head of SEO Carly Steven.

Steven told Press Gazette: “We’ve had really positive experiences with AMP, it’s obviously a great user experience and from our point of view of course, like all publishers, anything that is good for our readers and makes the process of reading our content easier for them is a win for us.”

It had previously been like being in an “elite club” of publishers who could appear in Top Stories, which was the “big opportunity” for search traffic, she added.

The publisher is now considering whether it will turn AMP off “one day” and doing a lot of work on its CWVs to make its pages “as fast and as user friendly with the best possible experience that we can”, Steven said. The only real downside of AMP she mentioned was that it means extra work for developers.

[Read more: Publishers agree best practice on linking to original sources as fair citation ‘vital to survival’]

Steven said the jump to a third of Top Stories articles being non-AMP was big” but that “at the moment most content… is still AMP so I think like everybody we’re maybe sitting on the fence a little bit until a few more people make that leap – but I think the ones that have have seen really positive results, so that’s really encouraging”.

In addition AMP still monetises well for advertising-reliant publishers. Steven said the pages remained “high performing” for revenue.

“We’re not in a rush to go we don’t need to be on this anymore, let’s jump off,” she said. “We obviously want to make sure that before we come anywhere near that decision that obviously technically our pages are performing better than our AMP pages and that it makes sense from a revenue perspective as well.”

Steven said The Sun is at a “wait and see” stage to watch how others do without AMP before making its own decision, but that as far as she knows none of the publishers The Sun considers its main competitors have ditched the format yet. “It still feels like very, very early days,” she said.

Irish Independent’s AMP experiment

At the Irish Independent and its sister titles the Belfast Telegraph and Sunday World, however, AMP was turned off last year – even before the CWVs changes came into effect.

The newspaper’s owner Independent News and Media was bought by Belgian-based media group Mediahuis in 2019 – and none of the existing titles in the group used AMP. Google’s products are not the same in every country and titles like De Standaard were able to perform well on Google News in Belgium without AMP so the company, which wanted to run one technology stack across all its titles, asked the Independent to experiment to see how ditching it would impact traffic.

“We tested that because we would rely on Google for 50% of our users and we weren’t going to just switch it off just because our Belgian motherlord didn’t really have AMP in their country,” head of SEO Dan Smullen told Press Gazette.

These conversations were going on for about a year to 18 months before Google said AMP was no longer a Top Stories requirement, the announcement of which Smullen said gave him “a lot more confidence” about doing the test.

It is hard to do A/B tests on news sites because traffic can be so spiky depending on the news agenda, so the style and life sections were tested because of their relatively consistent and evergreen output.

The results, according to Smullen, found “absolutely no impact in terms of traffic” – although he noted that the test could not be perfect without testing news as it is news that generally appears in the Top Stories carousel.

When the Independent turned AMP off, although it saw no major impact on traffic its new users saw a “significant drop” of around 40% to 50%. This almost led to a decision to bring back AMP because of concerns from the editorial team, Smullen said.

“So we were going to have those conversations where we were going to bring back AMP and then right around that mark, Google then came out with an announcement that it would be starting to fully roll out the page experience update… I’m not joking, on 4 June the minute that they said in that announcement it was going to happen our traffic literally just came back.”

After that point, traffic was higher than it was before AMP.

Smullen acknowledged: “If you have AMP right now, unless there’s a business decision why you don’t need AMP as a publisher, there’s no real major requirement to get rid of it because it still works, and it still will work.”

He added that for many publishers, especially smaller local titles, “adopting AMP almost overnight sped up their website and gave them a faster user experience. So to get rid of AMP and to actually put the investment into speeding up your website would actually cost more money in terms of development resources”.

However a key business reason to ditch it was the Independent’s continued move towards a subscription-based online model as the AMP cache continually logged people out of their subscription accounts because of the way it is hosted on Google servers.

As a result, the Irish Independent was losing subscribers who were frustrated by the user experience, Smullen said. In addition, with AMP it would be unable to personalise its subscribers’ homepage experiences.

He added that the Independent’s developers were “delighted” to get rid of AMP because of its limitations on what you can build with HTML and Javascript. Ad teams were also happy because they can now have different ad formats and sell different packages for mobile.

Although digital ad revenue is less important to the Independent than subscriber revenue, Smullen said the outlet was also seeing a higher yield on advertising because away from AMP it does not have to meet Google’s criteria but can use its own network providers.

The Belfast Telegraph in particular saw ad revenue “tank” when it first launched AMP because some of its ad network providers were not compatible. Now, yields have greatly improved, Smullen said.

“It’s kind of been win-win all round from online advertising to subscribers and then there’s been no impact on traffic. So yeah, it’s been a real positive experience all round,” Smullen said.

He added: “I could probably predict that most publishers that do have subscription models will probably move away from AMP, but those who don’t have a subscriber model and rely on online advertising, I think they’ll stick with AMP.”

SEO expert Budka speculated following a “quick inspection” that The Telegraph, which is concentrating on a “subscriber-first” strategy, may be the only major UK news outlet that has so far stopped bothering with AMP.

“They must have assessed traffic following the page experience update and decided it doesn’t make a difference,” Budka said. “You’d imagine the others will follow suit at some point rather than maintain a defunct format.”

A Telegraph spokesperson declined to comment. Digital subscriber behemoths New York Times and the Washington Post, both of which Press Gazette understands may be considering a move away from AMP, also did not comment.

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