Google Joins Race to Speed Up Mobile Delivery of News Articles

SAN FRANCISCO — When you conduct a Google search on your smartphone for a newsy topic — say, “Donald Trump” — the results starting on Wednesday will include a horizontal carousel of news articles, each with a little lightning bolt icon and the letters AMP at the bottom. Click on any one of the articles, and it will come up immediately, with no wait.

The fast-loading format, developed by Google with input from a wide range of publishers, is the latest effort by online publications to solve a problem that is the bane of smartphone users everywhere: Most mobile web pages take too long to load.

The sluggishness is due in part to how websites tend to be built — old and new technologies are often mixed together on a page.

But it is also because publishers have filled their pages with more and more widgets that deliver advertising and collect data on their users as media companies try to find ways to make money in a world where ad revenue is quickly shrinking.

Google’s approach, called AMP, or Accelerated Mobile Pages, strips out much of that invisible bloat while preserving the look of the web page and most of the ads.

The company’s push to make AMP a new mobile standard comes as Facebook is expanding a competing program, called Instant Articles, to speed the display of news articles and videos on its social network. Starting in April, Facebook’s new format can be used by anyone with a web page.

Both Internet companies see fast-loading, high-quality content as important to keeping people searching the web and scrolling through their social news feeds.

“We have said for a long time, speed matters,” said Richard Gingras, who heads news products at Google. “There is very powerful common cause between Google and publishers. It’s crucial to have a healthy, open web.”

For publishers, which are dependent on Google and Facebook for much of their traffic, working with the companies could hold the key to their future customers. Major media companies, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Vox Media, BuzzFeed, The Guardian and The New York Times, are participating in both projects as they try to figure out how best to increase traffic and find new loyal readers, while also bringing in revenue from the new formats.

“We want to be where our readers are,” said Kimberly Lau, vice president and general manager of The Atlantic’s digital properties.

The Atlantic was one of the first partners in the Instant Articles project with Facebook, which began public testing in May. Ms. Lau said that about 10 percent of the magazine’s overall web traffic was now coming from Instant Articles and 25 percent from other Facebook referrals.

But Facebook has not shared enough information about the Instant Articles viewership for her to have determined if it was worth giving up the extra ads that are forbidden with Instant Articles.

“The assumption is that the better user experience will deliver more for us. But the jury is still out,” she said.

Ms. Lau and other publishing executives have high hopes for Google’s approach, which is more open than Facebook’s and allows for more types of ads and more data collection about users.

Google worked for months with content publishers, advertising companies and other partners to develop a new open standard for creating mobile web pages that use as little as one-tenth the data of traditional pages and load up to four times faster.

From the start, preserving the ads while speeding them up was a priority. That meant bringing in advertising technology companies and pushing them to improve their load times.

Outbrain, which offers an ad product used by many news sites that refers readers to articles by other publications, was blocked by Instant Articles, but the company jumped at the chance to retool its technology so it would work with AMP.

“Google has definitely done a good job of skinnying up the page,” said Matt Crenshaw, Outbrain’s vice president for product marketing.

Publishers have generally praised Google’s open approach, and many said the company was responsive to their particular concerns.

The Times, for example, relies heavily on digital subscriptions, with close to 1.1 million digital-only subscribers, and has a corporate goal of doubling its digital revenue by 2020. Google worked closely with The Times to track how many articles visitors were viewing and to prompt them to subscribe when they hit their monthly limit of free articles.

“The way that the meter works is really similar to our current mobile experience,” said Kate Harris, The Times’s director of product who oversees mobile platforms and heads the AMP project. “It’s truly been a company-to-company collaboration. They flew in a bunch of engineers last week, and we were in a room for many hours,” working on final details.

Facebook has been working on a subscription option for months, but still has not offered a solution to publishers that rely on that model.

Will Cathcart, the Facebook vice president for product management who oversees Instant Articles, said that hundreds of publishers were participating in the project.

“We’ve been really pleased with how it’s going,” he said. “We’ve been seeing consumers read more, and they are more likely to share articles they read with their friends.”

He said Facebook was working with publishers to solve specific problems like subscriptions and to share more data while also protecting the privacy of its users.

Melissa Bell, vice president of growth and analytics at Vox Media, which is using Instant Articles and AMP, said Vox is overhauling the mobile performance of all its sites, which include, SB Nation and Curbed.

Interactive graphics, for example, can weigh down a page. “Would it be better to have three graphics that are side by side?” Ms. Bell said. “You have to think about this with every story you create.”

Julia Beizer, director of product at The Washington Post, said that her publication was an eager participant in all of the experiments, including the nascent News app from Apple, which highlights articles from various publishers on the company’s iPhones and iPads.

She said Apple News had sent The Post an unexpected surge of new readers to its science, health and food articles. She credits Instant Articles with sending The Post more repeat visitors. And AMP has cut the time it takes to load a Post mobile web page from three seconds or four seconds to just over half a second.

Not all of The Post’s ads transfer properly to the other platforms, she said, and each project takes up valuable time and resources. But right now, publishers need to try it all.

“Our interest in going so aggressively at these platforms is learning as much as we can,” Ms. Beizer said. “And we have something to offer those companies as well.”


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