In the world of science fiction, some genius inventor type comes up with a device that immediately disables all guns, missiles, torpedoes, everything. At the flick of a switch, the rate of violent death and injury plummets to a fraction of its former level, and the world rejoices.
Of course, science fiction being science fiction, the genius inventor type invariably turns out to be a supervillain of some description, or else a good guy whose power goes to his head and who turns bad at some point in the second act.
Oh, did I mention? Google (the parent company of the search engine) just changed its name to Alphabet, and in doing so dropped “don’t be evil” from its code of conduct.
Which means the question facing every publisher in the world these days could hardly be bigger, or more consequential: Is Google a force for good…or is it turning into the opposite?
The question is particularly germane right now because Google has just unveiled AMP, which stands for Accelerated Mobile Pages—an attempt to bring the cleanliness and speed of mobile apps to the mobile web. AMP is a bit like that gun-jamming technology: it immediately puts an end to the ad-tech arms race which has turned the mobile web into an utter misery for hundreds of millions of consumers who deserve much better.
In the tradition of Android, Google is investing a significant sum into AMP without making it proprietary: it’s an open-source standard which anybody can sign up to. But just as Android was a necessary competitive response to the iPhone, so is AMP a necessary competitive response to recent attempts by Apple and Facebook to suck all mobile content into their own apps – areas where Google has no sway. Google’s natural domain is the open web; any threat to the open web is a threat to Google; and therefore Google is going to do everything in its power to keep content out in the open, where it has lived for many years, rather than being walled off inside third-party apps.
Google’s attempt to compete with Facebook’s Instant Articles, and Apple’s News articles, is by necessity drastic. It strips the web back to something very basic: text loads first, then images, and there’s very little freedom for publishers to do anything particularly clever or interactive. But the fact is, that’s what readers want. Years of attempts to create immersive interactive web-based experiences on a four-inch screen have all yielded the same result: while people are happy to lose themselves in apps, they simply don’t behave the same way with web pages. When you navigate to a website, what you want is to be able to see what’s on that website quickly and cleanly, without interruption. And that’s exactly what AMP is promising.
AMP, then, is pretty unambiguously good for all of us who daily navigate the web on our phones—but is it good for publishers? The answer to that won’t be known for a while yet, and of course it’s entirely possible that the entire project will turn out to a be a damp squib with highly limited uptake, which changes essentially nothing. But assuming that AMP achieves a certain level of traction, I, for one, am happy to welcome it as a Good Thing—even as I am well aware of the risk that I’ll end up like the hippies in Mars Attacks who believe the message of “We Come In Peace.”
Ultimately it all comes down to power dynamics. Advertisers and media buyers have more power than any individual publisher: they can demand more intrusive ads, more trackers, more scripts, and the publishers will simply comply, lest they lose precious revenue. We’re all living the painful results of that dynamic. But there’s one entity even more powerful than the advertising industry, and that’s Google. If Google tells everybody to turn those off those scripts, then those scripts will be turned off—and advertisers will be forced to compete on the basis of creative output, rather than technological firepower.
Better yet, if simple, low-bandwidth ads load last on any page and don’t intrude too much on the content you’re trying to read, then you’re going to be much less likely to install one of those feared ad-blocking apps. People are lazy: they don’t take drastic measures like installing ad blockers unless they’re on their last nerve. And by de-escalating the ad-tech arms race, Google is going to allow all of us to relax a little, when we browse the mobile web.
I, then, am willing to cede a lot of power and agency to the seemingly benign overlords at Google. What could possibly go wrong.