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Should content marketers optimise for AMP?

Accelerated Mobile Pages have a loading time that’s 33 times faster than average.

On average, the daily user will spend 145 minutes on their smartphones, making these devices are the leading gateway to the internet. Google responded to the shift, launching Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) – which stripps data-heavy content down into lightweight, text-driven formats.

It’s a genuine mindbender, when you think about how much of what we know and learn is being conducted through that little glass and polycarbonate slab we fit in our pocket. We jab at it, on average, 2617 times a day. It’s no longer a tool for ordering pizzas or calling our mums – it’s how we consume news, manage finances, find love and make our way from point A to point B.

On it, there are billions of things competing for our attention. In this crowded space, marketers everywhere are jostling to get their content noticed. And, preferably, clicked on. And read. And returned to. And: repeat.

If you’re a publisher, optimising your pages for AMP can give you a better chance of this happening. This is because – assuming you’ve created beautiful, valuable, useful content at the destination – AMP makes the journey there faster. How much faster? Heaps. AMP Project Product Manager Rudy Gadfi clocks it at 0.7 seconds. With the load time for other pages around 22 seconds, you’ve just got your web traveler to your page more than 31 times speedier.

When you pair this with the fact that 20% of smartphone users will immediately switch to another site or app if load times lag, the AMP case sounds pretty compelling. But though there are now 2 billion AMP pages now implemented across 900 domains, there’s still hesitation by some companies to follow suit. Perceived risks are not to be scoffed at – and content marketers should carefully weigh up either side of the argument before they decide to AMP their story pages up.

Understanding Accelerated Mobile Pages

AMP is an open source project designed to create a better user experience (UX) by fast rendering. It’s just one initiative of Google’s own business doctrine: “speed thrills, friction kills”. In effect, it is a version of HTML moving away from heavy-set Javascript and giving priority to text and basic images. On a page built with AMP HTML coding, text will load first, and everything else comes after. Both web pages and articles can be built specifically with AMP coding.

Now, Google isn’t a leader here – others got there first. Think Facebook’s Instant Articles or Apple News. Nonetheless, the search engine supergiant has a fair-sized squad of publishers and platforms on-side to start integrating the formatting, from Twitter to Vox to the Guardian to the Washington Post. Search ‘Game of Thrones’ and you’ll see what we mean:

accelerated mobile pages - trump

If you do choose to go with AMP, there is some work to do. New versions of your web pages will need to be written using AMP HTML. And we say ‘versions’ as a deliberate plural – with two sets needed for both desktop and mobile.

For marketing teams lacking in coding wizards but loaded with marketing automation platforms, some of the latter offer optimisation as a ‘checkbox tick’ service to their customers, with the option to format both retroactively and for future posts. For everyone else, Google’s AMP Project site has all the resources and tutorials coders need to get started.

AMP Top Stories boost

There is a major incentive to optimising for AMP – Google gives it a bump in the search engine results. If you’ve checked off everything else on the Google playbook, then your content may feature in the Google apps rotating carousel of ‘Top Stories’, which users recognise as ‘HTML Usain Bolts’ by a small lightning bolt icon at the base. Top Stories, mind you, aren’t limited to trending topics or breaking news, though recent stories tend to be privileged. They can be searches based on topics like cats, pizza or content marketing. Here’s what a Top Stories carousel looks like in the search for ‘Game of Thrones’:

accelerated mobile pages - got

AMP gives two-fold added visibility. Firstly, a chance of riding the carousel at the top of the search page – the SEO-trained marketer’s headiest dream. And secondly, the lightning icon becomes recognised by web users as a little guarantor of quality – a pre-click promise that wherever the hyperlink sends you, you’ll get there quick.

How many Top Stories will appear? It depends. Sometimes there’ll be just one AMP article – sometimes there’ll be a bundle of them. It comes down to how many publishers have optimised their website or that particular web page article relating to the search.

The AMP and SEO relationship

Now, we’re not saying that adopting AMP will guarantee businesses coveted ‘top of page’ status. Only shady SEO hacks ever promise that. As with all other optimisation strategies, it’s just one tool that might give you an edge – one signal that works in concert with everything else that may earn you the Google overlord’s grace.

Google Senior Director of News and Social Products Richard Gingras explains: “If we had two articles that from a signalling perspective scored the same in all other characteristics but for speed, then yes we will give an emphasis to the one with speed because that is what users find compelling.<

Top Stories will only really be considered if they’re stories though – news articles or blog posts. So if you’re thinking about building AMP for a brand or e-commerce page, we would definitely recommend against it if your aim is to hit that ‘Top Stories’ section. Stick with standard HTML and invest instead in other ways to optimise.

The downside of AMP

The story isn’t all rosy even for publishers however – which might be why some businesses are hanging back. You could argue that Google’s AMP UX goes too far.

See, the way they’ve built the Top Stories carousel does make it easy for users to jump on board your particular content horse. Sure. But they can just as easily jump over to another (through a casual screen swipe) or get off entirely (by clicking the arrow back to the search results page).

As the recent SMX Advanced conference brought home, this can actually do damage to business objectives. Unless the AMP page has amazing attention-holding hooks, or deftly sends the user through to their standalone website using inbound links, then users’ time on page may only be fleeting. For instance, despite an increase in traffic, time on site and page ranking, Motor Trends encountered lower click-throughs, higher bounce rates (sometimes double that of typical) and a more shallow page depth after AMP optimisation.

And as the Content Marketing Institute has pointed out, the limitations on AMP design may mean content marketers are shooting themselves in the foot. Certain kinds of content just won’t qualify for AMP HTML – including videos, forms, pop-ups and large images. AMP pages, in other words, might not be great if your page experience is multimedia-driven, depends upon dynamic features, or is using interruptive features to capture leads. We at Mahlab wouldn’t consider it ourselves currently, since (as you may have noticed) we’re using a pop-up subscription feature encouraging our readers to sign up to our (really awfully very fantastic and jam-packed with useful stuff like this) newsletter.

What’s more – although you can add Google Analytics as an extended component to capture data – there are risks associated with correct data capture too. As reported in March this year by Christian Oliveira, a technical SEO consultant, there were a few bugs crawling around AMP, fudging with metrics around unique visitors, bounce rates, pageviews and new visitors. This meant that publishers who had implemented it were most likely basing their efforts on incorrect data. Malte Ubi, Google’s technical lead for the AMP project, acknowledged the issue in a response tweet. Though the company has since rolled out enhancements to unify AMP and non-AMP pages in an attempt to resolve the issue, it is unlikely they have vanquished lingering concerns.

For some content creators, AMP delivers a boon. For others, it could run counter to their content goals. Consider it, content marketers – but consider it deeply before your jump on the AMP carousel.

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