Google’s latest carrot to webmasters isn’t an algorithm update; it’s a small step aimed at bringing the mobile web on par with native apps and keeping Google relevant in the increasingly mobile-centric world we’re living in. AMP, they call it.

So what is it and what does it mean for SEO?

AMP stands for “Accelerated Mobile Pages.” It’s Google’s attempt to patch the mobile web, which suffers from a serious speed and UX deficit, owing to the fact that it’s always been a “second screen” from a design viewpoint, even after it became first screen for most users. The mobile web is too slow for users’ expectations and it can’t compete with native apps in immediate UX terms. AMP attempts to fix that by accelerating load speed for pages, making them as much as “4 times faster while using 8 times less data,” according to data from Pinterest.

Pinterest Without AMPPinterest Amplified

Source

Others found that AMP pages scored 25 points more than their AMP-less versions on Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool and loaded 72% (nearly 4 times) faster for repeat views.

AMP is often compared to Facebook’s Instant Articles or Apple News, but there are crucial differences that come down to the division in the two companies’ interests. Rather than go the Facebook or Apple route and create just a fancy proprietary newsfeed, Google made AMP an open source content creation and distribution format that anyone can quickly get on. This might have influenced Facebook’s decision to open up its Instant Articles standard to all publishers.

How Does AMP Work?

AMP works by two methods. One, it slashes the amount of code there is to load in the first place. Two, it loads from Google’s own servers.

Google’s specifications are tight. No third-party JavaScript, few cookies or website tracking, and pared-to-the-bone HTML mean there’s dramatically less website stuff to load.

As a result, an AMP website looks noticeably different: not necessarily worse, but cleaner and sparser.

AMP pages load in a specific order designed to accelerate the viewer’s experience of the page. That means they load above the fold content first, show images only when they’re visible to the user, and use image size tags to level out the layout without having to load images.

In terms of code, AMP differs from the standard mobile web in the number of things it won’t let you do. Use AMP and you won’t be able to:

  • Use developer-written or third party JavaScript
  • Use input elements, even input and textarea
  • Use external style sheets, or more than one style tag in the document head
  • Use inline styles
  • Use style rules larger than 50kb

That’s pretty restrictive, but it makes for a far faster loading time, and load time is the gatekeeper metric of the internet: it doesn’t matter how many cool things your page can do or how great it looks if no-one ever sees it.

And if your page loads too slow, mark my words they won’t.

AMP uses specific versions of the key elements of a web page:

  • AMP HTML uses specific AMP commands and a restricted HTML vocabulary mainly limited to text formatting and image embedding tags like amp-ad, amp-embed, amp-img, amp-pixel, and amp-video, along with some extended and experimental components.
  • AMP JS makes JavaScript (what little AMP allows) work faster and cleaner, allowing asynchronous (background) loading of all media. That takes care of one of the biggest speed killers on the mobile web – render blocking – wherein the whole page has to load before you can see anything. Everything that isn’t words and images, like the limited tracking code permitted by APM, loads last. More importantly AMP JS pre-renders the page content by predicting which DNS resources and connections will be required, and by downloading and pre-sizing images. All this cuts down the device workload and economizes data use.

Check out these links to Ghostery to see a comparison showing just how shaved down AMP sites are compared to their mobile and desktop equivalents.

Desktop

desktop

Mobile

mobile

AMP

amp

Coming to the second point, AMP loads directly from Google’s servers. AMP pages launch from gstatic URLs that look like:

https://amp.gstatic.com/v/mobile.nytimes.com/2015/10/07/us/politics/hillary-clintons-proposed-changes-to-health-law-zero-in-on-affordability.amp.html?amp_js_v=0

The AMP Cache is Google hosting that ensures a requested page is serviced from a server close to you. If you ask for a page from the New York Times and you’re in India, the standard mobile web fetches the data for the page from servers on the other side of the world. AMP will host the lightweight code required to render AMP pages in distributed locations across the world.

On the surface, it’s a win-win:

  • Google gets to have a finger in even more of the internet while websites get a caching service for free.
  • There are already third parties which can host caches; Google may expand the list. This means AMP articles will be accessible from Google search, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, or potentially, anywhere online.
  • AMP supports paywalls, ad networks and third party analytics. Google has major publishers like WSJ, FT, BuzzFeed, BBC, Time, The Guardian, Mashable, The Verge, Vox, The Daily Mail and The Atlantic, 20+ ad tech vendors including Outbrain, Taboola, Amazon A9, AOL AdTech, Yieldmo and DoubleClick (duh), as well as analytics providers like Chartbeat, comScore, Adobe and Parse.ly on board.

What Does All This Mean for SEO?

So what does AMP mean for SEO and how should we respond?

AMP will help you rank, sort of…

AMP is not a signal that affects rankings directly as the people in this Google Webmaster hangout can tell you:

But it does affect load speed and how mobile friendly the site is; both of those are high-quality ranking factors. And although Google is still figuring out how to display AMP results, currently they’re showing a carousel of AMP results at the top of SERPs – above organic results – with each listing flagged by a thunderbolt icon.

ranking

That carousel is the first thing mobile readers see, and so, it makes all other organic ranking signals irrelevant. One can safely say that AMP will help you rank. And its importance is only going to grow.

“AMP is a requirement,” says David Besbris, Google’s vice president of engineering for search. The carousel won’t be around forever but whatever replaces it is probably going to be even more tightly tied into AMP. Google might also find a way to monetize these results with paid impressions/clicks…

…but you won’t get no links!

AMP comes with a catch: there’s no way to get your AMP content to appear in the prioritized search listings without having it hosted on the Google AMP Cache. Consequently, if a user clicks through to your content from the SERPs, likes it and decides to link to it, that link will point to something like google.com/amp/yoursite.com/yourpage/amp instead of the actual link.

Less links mean less visitors to your site, less page/domain authority, less PageRank – oops, I said that word!

AMP and technical SEO pitfalls

When you have an AMP and non-AMP version of the same post or page, you need to tell Google that both versions exist and which version it should display.

At the same time, you need to add rel=canonical tags to make sure you don’t lose out on traffic or get whomped for duplicate content.

canonical

Source: Whiteboard Friday by Distilled

Google advises that if there’s only one page, the AMP one, it should still get the canonical tag pointing to itself.

code

More pageviews and ad views, less bounce

Slow rendering leaks users. 40% of users will just ditch a page that takes more than 3 seconds to load, so AMP will result in more pageviews and time on page as users are served fast. Ad views will rise too, partly because more people will see the page in the first place and partly because faster loading means ads no longer make the mobile internet user-unfriendly, resulting in less usage of ad blockers. (Okay, I was just painting an extra-rosy picture.)

If you’re not a major blog-form content producer, AMP’s not for you.

AMP is seriously restrictive. That’s fine if you’re loading a breaking news story, but if you’re a complex website using multiple web elements and content formats, AMP won’t help you the way it currently stands. AMP’s JavaScript restrictions are too tight to allow even standard lead-gen tools like forms, on-page comments or reviews, let alone complicated or interactive elements. AMP might change that to accommodate full-service websites in the future, but for now, it’s clearly aimed at those that publish a lot of text-heavy content and seek views, as opposed to purchases or signups.

AMP will foreground UX.

AMP is the latest in a long line of Google updates that increase the company’s influence over what gets found online and makes UX and content more important. Currently, AMP is largely focused on news articles, where its spare appearance isn’t a deficit. But as it expands, it will make UX more important. The implications for your SEO strategy are clear: you’ll need to focus far more on content and design quality, because AMP will level the playing field for load speed as well as make it harder to use links and keywords to drive traffic to your pages (which, again, will be hosted on Google).

Coda

AMP requires adaptation of your existing SEO and content marketing tactics rather than a whole new approach. How much it affects you depends on the amount of content you publish and the platforms on which you publish and distribute it. If your content marketing is ROI-focused, AMP presents you with a dilemma: should you focus on a stream of AMP-supported posts or engagement/conversion-focused landing pages?

Aside from this, AMP is going to become more important for everyone who publishes content as speed and mobile friendliness become increasingly vital factors for doing well in the SERPs. AMP lets you stay on top of these trends, while offering an out-of-the-box, mobile-optimized content framework.