In a blog post today, Google announces that it is formally embarking on a project to convince the group in charge of web standards to adopt the technology inspired by its Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) framework. In theory, it would mean that virtually any web page could obtain the same benefits as AMP: almost instantaneous loading, distribution on multiple platforms and (critically) a more prominent location on Google properties.
This sounds impenetrably thick and boring, but please, do not click yet! This is important, a bit difficult to understand and fundamental for the interaction between the web and Google in the future. In many ways, Google's success or failure in this endeavor will play an important role in shaping how the web works on your phone.
If you're not familiar, AMP is Google's attempt to make web pages as fast and portable as other "instant articles" (like what you could read on Facebook or Apple News). The idea is that when you click on a link in those other platforms, you do not have to wait for the article to load because it is already preloaded in an application. The goal of AMP is to provide the same performance to the web itself.
Google walked directly to the center of a thicket
When creating AMP, Google walked happily to the center of a thicket formed by developers concerned about the future of the web. Publishers are worried about giving too much control of their distribution to giant technology companies, and all of the above is concerned that Google is not so much an administrator of the web but rather its nefarious puppeteer.
All that anguish has metastasized in recent months, with an open letter widely circulated to Google asking it to fix AMP, more medium blog posts that can be read in a week, Twitter rules and arguments in the comments of the GitHub code itself of AMP. repository. And that only comes from web developers. (I keep a bookmark folder I call "AMPhole" to try to keep up, and that hole goes deeper almost every day).
The whole situation is slightly frustrating for David Besbris, vice president of search engineering at Google. Earlier this week, I went to Mountain View to talk to Besbris and Malte Ubl, AMP's chief engineer. "Honestly, this is a very altruistic project from our perspective," says Besbris.
"It was not like we invented AMP because we wanted to control everything, as people believe," he says. Instead, he argues, step back and notice how serious the state of the mobile web was a few years ago, before the start of AMP. It stunk, in fact, Nilay Patel published a story on this same website entitled "The mobile web stinks" in 2015. She was right. Apple and Facebook addressed this problem by creating proprietary formats and then convinced the publishers to distribute their news in those formats on their platforms. As Nilay wrote:
Taken together, Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles are the saddest refutation of the open web revolution possible: they are incompatible proprietary publication systems completely under the control of large corporations, none of which particularly comprises publications or media.
Besbris saw things in the same way: "The trend in the industry at that time was the simple way to solve these problems, where it guaranteed that I could control the experience … but that cost the web." So Google's solution was AMP, a framework that was designed to make the web as good as those platforms so that the web really had a chance to compete with Apple and Facebook.
For all your failures, AMP is a very smart piece of engineering
Making web pages instant and portable required a very smart (and very complicated) trick.
The trick involved a combination of existing web technologies (such as iFrames), strict standards on web pages (to ensure fast loading), and – critically – a different type of infrastructure for how web pages are transferred from a server. editor to your website. phone. These kludges are often the things that people see when they complain about AMP. iFrames has a strange scrolling behavior, URLs do not match and AMP results often seem anemic compared to full web pages. (Corrections for all those problems exist or have been proposed).
Despite all these problems, this is what impresses AMP: when you publish a web page, it can be served from any caching server. But that's not what really makes it fast; what really makes the difference is that it can be loaded almost instantly because it has already been preloaded in the background. And yet, despite that preload, it does not count as a visitor and the publisher can not set cookies or follow up until you click. And you can trust that the cached and instantly loaded page that is within the Google or Twitter search is true to your canonical source, even if that source was updated after it was first published.
"We need a vehicle to really solve it."
"At first, it was assumed that the web could not do any of this," says Besbris. Ubl and his team devised that combination of technologies that made it possible, but required a technology that is not actually incorporated into the web at this time. Then Google faced a choice: take the time to try to convince the web standards body to adopt it and the browser manufacturers to back it up or simply publish it in the world as a project mainly supported by Google in the products themselves from Google, mainly search.
"We need a vehicle to really solve it, you can not just know without trying things," says Besbris. Google had to prove that the web could be as good as Instant Articles. More importantly, it had to be just as fast, before people abandoned it for a million custom applications and different article formats. Besbris says that Google could not wait for the committees that help create web standards to achieve it. "If you start trying everything through the standards process, we would still be talking about that," he argues.
Whether AMP counts as "the web" is actually one of the points of contention, although, as expected, Besbris and Ubl firmly believe that it is, and they justify it convincingly. Accelerated mobile pages, they say, do not need to use Google servers or publish Google ads; They can be published and distributed completely independently of Google.
Regardless of what Google engineers think, outside of Mountain View, AMP is much more associated with Google than with the web, although it has been adopted by Bing, Twitter, Baidu and others. Part of the problem is that AMP was Google's reaction to Facebook and Apple, so it fell into the easy-to-think cube of "patented article formats." But most of it is that Google is huge and has pushed AMP in a big way with its biggest Product Search. Publishers that support AMP appear on the carousel of the main Google stories, which means a lot of traffic. It is a great incentive to support AMP.
And so, finally, we are ready to talk about the publication of today's blog by Ubl. You need all that background story to understand the following, a seemingly simple sentence that explains what Google is doing:
Based on what we learned from AMP, we now feel ready to take the next step and work to support faster load content that is not based on AMP technology in Google Search areas designed for this type of carousel as Top Stories .
What Google is proposing is not to convert the whole web into AMP, but rather to take some of the ideas behind the ingenious attacks that made AMP work, clean them up and then turn them into a universal standard that has nothing to do with Google. In this way, almost any web page could be distributed as easily and loaded as fast as those compatible with AMP.
Google is not blind: it knows that other companies are not likely to develop and adopt AMP as a universal solution to fix the network. Although Ubl will be happy to know how many non-Googlers contribute to the AMP code, at the end of the day, he works at Google and is the BDFL (Benevolent Dictator for Life) in the AMP project. The new standards, many of which are already in development, seem to be really good for the web. But just as important, they are more likely to be adopted by competing companies if they consider new fundamental web technologies and not just a Google project.
Google believes that AMP can show the way to a faster and less annoying mobile web
"Our intention has always been to bring AMP, get the best and the lessons we have learned when creating MPA, on the standards track," says Besbris.
This new format does not yet have a name – Google is obviously reluctant to propose one – but whatever it is, it is likely to encompass a mix of proposed technologies. Ubl got into the weeds of some of these with me, but I'll spare you and instead I'll just point to the links in your blog post:
Google's goal is to extend support in features such as the Top Stories carousel to AMP-like content that (1) meets a set of performance criteria and user experience and (2) implements a set of new web standards. Some of the proposed standards in the critical path are the Function Policy, the Web Packaging, the iframe promotion, the Performance Timeline and the Paint Time.
The next steps probably involve a process that, at my most optimistic point, I suppose will take months, more likely to be years away. Several standards bodies have to develop proposals, test them and agree with them. And it is not just the body of W3C that standardizes the web. Web Packaging technology that allows web pages to work offline and redistribute may need a new body.
And after all that, the companies that create web browsers and applications need to implement everything. When I dared Ubl to guess what the timeline would be for all this, he described what he expected the process to look like for a good while before admitting, "in that sense, no, not on the timeline."
Meanwhile, Google will absolutely continue to develop AMP and promote its use. But to accelerate the standard process, it offers the same carrot that originally exceeded the growth of AMP: privileged location in the own properties of Google. Google promises that any web page that matches the performance of an AMP page will get exactly the same treatment in Google search.
Google can not provide a "pick list" of the features it will need before a page receives the same treatment as AMP, at least not yet. The AMP team took so long to realize that the technology that supported it could be universalized (or, if you prefer, deregulated), so it will work with the rest of the web community to do so before it is possible. Make firm decisions about what will receive special treatment in the search. Google has some ideas, including benchmarks for page performance and support for instant-load web packages, but will not yet commit to a strong list.
It will take some time before these new web standards are finalized
Once these standards are agreed and implemented, any page that fits them could appear on the Top Stories carousel, the Google news feed on Android, and even get the same little blue badge that appears next to compatible results. AMP in the search. However, these pages will not guarantee a better location in the search results, in the same way that AMP does not guarantee the search location today. "The things you must do to position yourself well in the search will continue there and we will continue without telling you what they are", jokes Besbris.
I do not think Ubl's publication today erases the bad feelings many have about AMP. There is simply too much involved in that. AMP has served as a recipient for concerns about Google's power on the web, the uncertain future of news publication, and any general angst we all feel about the sorry state of most mobile web pages. Most of these concerns have been fair, but there has not been enough momentum for a more open alternative. With this move, Google seems to be trying to create one.
This is how Besbris sums up today's news:
The intention here is to improve the communication of our intention. We always wanted [make the technology behind AMP a web standard] and we always said this, but not very clearly. … We want to communicate very clearly that AMP is nothing other than trying to improve the web. The lessons learned from AMP are being put into the standard bodies so that we can have other frameworks implementing the same things as well.
The discussion on MPA since its inception has been confusing and controversial. Usually, that's the way with web standards. But I think that what is at stake with AMP seems higher than the previous battles due to a growing understanding that we can no longer take for granted the existence of the open web. It could very well vanish. It has to be maintained and, more than that, improved.
That does not mean that everyone should trust Google completely to have the best interests of the open web at heart. The company certainly benefits more than its competitors from a strong and vibrant network, and is so influential on the web that it sometimes seems to dominate it. Google could be a little more aware of those realities when it talks about the web.
As we begin to close our discussion on AMP, Besbris repeats one of my questions: "Have we been idiots for communicating these things?"
"If he responds.