Google’s Mission to Speed Up Mobile: is AMP the Future of Web Design?

Responsive design is nothing new, with smartphones and tablets having long transformed how users engage with the internet. More than just a design trend, mobile optimization is crucial to running a user-friendly website that keeps visitors onside no matter what device they are using. Despite this long-established truth, optimization is often considered advisable rather than imperative, with poor mobile load time continuing to stand between many brands and their customers.

According to Google, this is one area in which the mobile web is underperforming, but with users willing to wait an average of just three seconds before abandoning a site, speed is undoubtedly a factor that cannot be ignored. Having given preference to mobile-friendly sites since April last year, Google is now turning to AMP technology which, whilst accelerating the online experience for mobile surfers, may also have a significant impact on the world of web design.

Launched by Google in October last year, the Accelerated Mobile Pages Project is an open source initiative which, in collaboration with publishers and technology companies, aims to speed up the mobile web. The project promotes modern, fast-loading content using AMP HTML, which has been built entirely on existing web technologies rather than a template-based system, thus enabling publishers to continue to host their own content. Effective ads with speedy load-times are equally important to the project, as they protect the revenue stream needed in order to preserve the open web publishing model.

A few months on from the project launch, Google is more determined than ever to satisfy the need for speed; a recent blog post announced that, as of now, the search engine will give preference to mobile friendly sites that support its AMP technology. Having started out as a somewhat “take-it-or-leave-it” opportunity for web publishers to explore at their leisure, this new emphasis on SEO will no doubt make AMP – and mobile optimization in general – much harder to ignore.

The official Google blog post from 24th February describes the full capacity of AMP to enhance user experience, with webpages built using AMP loading an average of four times faster whilst using ten times less data than equivalent non-AMP pages. Aside from the obvious consumer benefits, this also opens up plenty of opportunity for publishers. As well as eliminating the flight risk of impatient browsers, it also attempts to close the gap between mobile apps and standard websites; with apps largely outperforming websites in terms of speed and responsive design, AMP technology potentially puts classic webpages back in the running.

Still Some Creases To Iron Out

An altogether faster mobile web is undoubtedly something we can all benefit from, but AMP does not come without its drawbacks. In terms of design, it sets very specific HTML and Javascript requirements; nearly all Javascript is disabled, whilst certain CSS techniques are disallowed, posing some limitations to creativity. Moreover, despite offering a SEO boost in Google’s mobile search results, one of AMP’s most notable flaws is indeed SEO-related. Google displays AMP pages with a different URL to that of the standard page, meaning that one page or piece of content may be linked to several URLs – a somewhat confusing system that may also prove detrimental to branding.

Another major concern is the control this bestows upon the already mighty power that is Google. Any AMP-optimized content accessed through a Google search and subsequently shared by readers does not point to the publisher’s site in the URL; rather, it points to Google. According to the search engine, there is no way to benefit from the boost in search result ranking without having the content hosted on Google’s AMP Cache servers. This represents a significant turning point for the way in which Google operates, effectively keeping readers on Google – a stark contrast to its traditional role of directing readers away from the search engine and onto other sites.

An inconvenience that has been flagged up is the process by which AMP is integrated, requiring the creation of a separate version of your site that fulfils the design standards set out by AMP. However, the project is still relatively young, and with numerous influential companies already on board, benefiting from AMP may not be as laborious as it seems. Alongside Twitter, Pinterest and Adobe Analytics, one of the most prominent names collaborating on the Accelerated Mobile Pages Project is WordPress. Having followed the project since its conception, the popular blogging tool has made it especially easy for publishers to implement AMP; any website hosted on WordPress.com now automatically supports AMP, requiring no additional input from the user. Equally, online publishers using WordPress themes via a separate hosting company – such as 1&1 – can also enable AMP simply by installing a purpose-built plug-in.

Whether or not AMP is the future of mobile-optimized web design, it does once again emphasize how expectations regarding the web have shifted. Websites that are unable to perform equally well across multiple devices and provide a smooth mobile experience will instantly lose out to apps or other websites. As Google points out, optimization is the key to a faster mobile web, and sites which fail to acknowledge this will ultimately get left behind.

Despite concerns about how AMP – and optimization in general – may restrict a site’s design elements, the internet is full of exceptional websites which, as well as being fully optimized for mobile, stand out for their creativity above all else. A recent collection of some of the most high-impact, responsive sites featured on Awwwards.com is testament to this, showcasing how designers can both optimize and innovate by getting creative with fluid grids and CSS queries. It remains to be seen how Google’s AMP technology will fare, but the fact remains that optimization for mobile is increasingly considered the norm when it comes to competitive web design.

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