How Google tried to fix the web — by taking it over


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Mar 16, 2019

Speed Trap​

Google promised to create a better, faster web for media companies with a new standard called AMP. In the end, it ruined the trust publishers had in the internet giant.​

In 2015, Google hatched a plan to save the mobile web by effectively taking it over. And for a while, the media industry had practically no choice but to play along.
It began on a cheery October morning in New York City; the company had gathered the press together at a buzzy breakfast spot named Sadelle’s in SoHo. As the assembled reporters ate their bagels and lox, Google’s vice president of news, Richard Gingras, explained that the open web was in crisis. Sites were too slow, too hard to use, too filled with ads. As a result, he warned, people were flocking to the better experiences offered by social platforms and app stores. If this trend continued, it would be the end of the web as we know it.
But Google had a plan to fight back: Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP, a new format for designing mobile-first webpages. AMP would ensure that the mobile web could be as fast, as usable, instantly loading, and every bit as popular as mobile apps. “We are here to make sure that the web evolves, and our entire focus is on that effort,” Gingras said. “We are here to make the web great again.”
“Make the web great again” was a popular phrase across Google at the time, echoing the burgeoning presidential campaign of an upstart Republican named Donald Trump. There was a lot of technical work behind the slogan: Google was building its own Chrome browser into a viable web-first operating system for laptops; trying to replace native apps with Progressive Web Apps; pushing to make the more secure HTTPS standard across the web; and promoting new top-level domains that would aim to make .blog and .pizza as important as .com. Much of this was boring or went over the heads of media execs. The point was that Google was promising to wrest distribution power away from Apple and Facebook and back into the hands of publishers.

After a decade of newspapers disappearing, magazine circulations shrinking, and websites’ business dwindling, the media industry had become resigned to its own powerlessness. Even the most cynical publishers had grown used to playing whatever games platforms like Google and Facebook demanded in a quest for traffic. And as Facebook chaotically pivoted to video, that left Google as the overwhelming driver of traffic to websites all over the web. What choice did anyone have?
“If Google said, ‘you must have your homepage colored bright pink on Tuesdays to be the result in Google,’ everybody would do it, because that’s what they need to do to survive,” says Terence Eden, a web standards expert and a former member of the Google AMP Advisory Committee. One media executive who worked on AMP projects but who, like other sources in this story, requested anonymity to speak about Google, framed the tradeoff even more simply: “you want access to this audience, you need to play by these rules.”
Adopting Google’s strange new version of the web resulted in an irresistible flood of traffic for publishers at first: using AMP increased search traffic to one major national magazine’s site by 20 percent, according to the executive who oversaw the implementation.
But AMP came with huge tradeoffs, most notably around how all those webpages were monetized. AMP made it harder to use ad tech that didn’t come from Google, fraying the relationship between Google and the media so badly that AMP became a key component in an antitrust lawsuit filed just five years after its launch in 2020 by 17 state attorneys general, accusing Google of maintaining an illegal monopoly on the advertising industry. The states argue that Google designed AMP in part to thwart publishers from using alternative ad tools — tools that would have generated more money for publishers and less for Google. Another lawsuit, filed in January 2023 by the US Justice Department, went even further, alleging that Google envisioned AMP as “an effort to push parts of the open web into a Google-controlled walled garden, one where Google could dictate more directly how digital advertising space could be sold.”
Here in 2023, AMP seems to have faded away. Most publishers have started dropping support, and even Google doesn’t seem to care much anymore. The rise of
ChatGPT and other AI services pose a much more direct threat to its search business than Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News ever did. But the media industry is still dependent on Google’s fire hose of traffic, and as the company searches for its next move, the story of how it ruthlessly used AMP in an attempt to control the very structure and business of the web makes clear exactly how far it will go to preserve its business — and how powerless the web may be to stop it.
AMP succeeded spectacularly. Then it failed. And to anyone looking for a reason not to trust the biggest company on the internet, AMP’s story contains all the evidence you’ll ever need.
Earlier in 2015, months before AMP launched, one of Google’s key metrics was on the verge of a dramatic flip: the volume of searches coming from mobile phones was just about to outnumber the ones coming from desktop and laptop computers. This shift had been a long time coming, and Google saw it as an existential threat. The company had become a nearly $75 billion annual business almost entirely on ads — which made up about 90 percent of its revenue — and the most important ones by far were the ones atop search results in desktop browsers. By some internal measures, a typical mobile search at the time brought in about one-sixth as much ad revenue as on desktop. The increasingly mobile-focused future could mean a disastrous revenue drop for Google.
In public, Google framed AMP as something like.............................

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