Rehabilitating Google AMP: My failed attempt

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Rehabilitating Google AMP: My failed attempt

Wed, 10/17/2018 - 06:27
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This article is a follow-up to my article “Why Google AMP is a threat to the Open Web”. In the comments of that article I promised I’d soon provide a follow-up, and for reasons I’ll get into, that has not been possible until now – but now I’m finally providing it.

Back in February I wrote an article saying how I believed Google AMP has been imposed on the web by Google as a ‘standard’ for developing fast webpages, and my dismay about that. Google apparently developed this as an internal project without any open collaboration, and avoiding the W3C standardization processes. Google made implementation of Google AMP a requirement to show at the top of the search results for common news searches.

To many of us open web folk, Google’s AMP violated the widely held principle of search engines not putting bias into search results, and/or the principle of web standards (take your pick – it would not be bias if it was a standardized approach that the wider web community had agreed upon).

Talking with Google

Since the article, I had the chance to discuss this with a senior Google employee directly over webcam for over an hour. It was important to me that we in the web standards world don’t just throw proverbial grenades at Google, that we actually try to have a real dialog.

I don’t want to make this personal so I won’t be mentioning any name(s). I also will be vague about some specifics, as I don’t want to violate privacy or anyone’s confidence.

The employee did clarify some things I had not understood. They explained how the AMP move was necessary because:

  • Developers had continued to make slow webpages, regardless of previous Google attempts to spread advice and provide tooling.
  • Competition from mobile apps was a serious competitive threat to the Google search engine. If websites remained slow, people would stop using websites.
  • The technology relied on pre-loading webpages that came up in a Google search. This meant that webpages had to be fed through Google because Google couldn’t accept random servers pushing web content through without explicit user consent. All content would need to pass through Google, with Google implementing whatever filtering necessary to make a secure solution.

Additionally I learned to understand:

  • That the scope is (at least for now) restricted to news.

From my conversation I could see that Google clearly was not budging with their AMP approach. They didn’t want to make page-load speed just another ranking factor alongside all the others, as many of the critics think it should be. To them (as I interpret it):

  1. They felt it was necessary and appropriate to provide the ‘carrot’ of a high search position for those implementing AMP. Otherwise publishers, especially news publishers, would not reform themselves.
  2. They wanted to provide a consistent experience (within the news carousel) around one specific technology.
  3. The fact that the news carousel is not the same as the other search results, and the AMP implementation is technically software rather than a standard, means no principles are being violated.
    (To me this is a pointless semantic argument)

What happened next…

Initially I thought the conversation was just leading to nowhere; it was simply a fundamental disagreement. Google would continue what Google would do regardless of criticism, changing the rules to stay in the game. I felt it was a fundamental violation of principles, seeing it in line with monopoly tactics that resemble what we used to see from Microsoft.

After further consideration I changed my mind, deciding there was some possible scope for:

  1. Reaching a short term compromise. A painful one that I felt was still violating the principles I care about, but one that would at least partly redress the situation for the developers suffering in it.
  2. A long term solution to fix things down the line.

I basically proposed that:

  1. Google fund any Open Source CMS that already had already made efforts to be mobile-friendly and wanted to develop AMP.
    (I considered this a kind of compensation for developers who had already done the right thing, but now would be forced to implement AMP; it made me feel a bit corrupt suggesting it, but it felt it would at least help people.)
  2. Google provide toolkit support for other developers to be able to implement AMP more easily.
    (So those people who aren’t working in CMSs would have something available for them to get a leg-up; I didn’t just want to propose something to help only the group of people I was in.)
  3. Google acknowledge the criticism, and the people giving the criticism, and explained why they had to go down this road.
    (Sometimes just an acknowledgment goes a long way; it avoids normalizing behaviors we don’t want to see, and brings things back into the open.)
  4. The Google AMP project’s governance should be overhauled, with a clear separation between the Google Search team and AMP’s governance.
  5. Long term, Google take the key parts of the AMP ‘standard’ to the W3C for standardization. Anything that implemented these W3C standards would be treated equally to AMP.
    (So that long term we are not all being forced to play in Google’s sandbox.)

My suggestions were well received, and I was told I’d hear back on them.

And then…

Basically, nothing. Radio silence.

Here is a timeline (as I’m not publishing actual conversations I’ve simplified it down):

  1. I’d hear back again by March 13th.
  2. A week after this date, hearing nothing, I was told I’d hear back again by March 30th.
  3. After this flew by, I was then told Q3 (i.e. by September 30th). This has now passed also.

In-between these dates, apart from the occasional perfunctory response to my detailed messages, I heard nothing back. It was incredibly frustrating to be told increasingly long waiting times, to wait for them patiently, and just have them blow by with no word, little to no engagement, and no apology. This especially because:

  1. To me and many others this is a serious and urgent pressing situation.
  2. Google was clearly very capable of pushing AMP ahead in other areas, running regular road-shows and releasing new features.
  3. I had made continued offers to collaborate on ideas or to even directly help get the ball rolling, if Google couldn’t supply human resources directly.

To me this is all just another example of a company operating a closed process, not willing to collaborate openly as peers. The Ivory Tower development methodology. This is at the core of what I’m fighting against.

Of course I’m not arrogant enough to think Google has to collaborate with me specifically – but here I was left hanging, and Google have not been collaborating with anyone to solve the core issues in any reasonable time frame.

There has still been some progress outside of my conversation with Google, thankfully:

  • Google don’t seem to have acknowledged the validity of the criticism, but they have indirectly responded to some of it and put some people who have signed the AMP letter onto their AMP governance. I have seen occasional oblique references to things like “some people not liking AMP”.
  • Some early stage progress has been made on standardization.

So, I’m not all complaints. These moves, however, will likely not have any major impact for many years, and we’ve already been locked in to Google’s plans without recourse.

A final update

Upon checking in for one final time, Google has now told me there may be some move on my suggestions in 2019.

Because I publicly said months ago how I’d explain what was going on, I can’t just leave things hanging in the air for months more in the vague hope that things proceed. I’ve already violated enough of my principles trying to reach a compromise with Google in private (who am I to be doing this for everyone anyway?), and suggesting painful compromises.

Besides, if Google has already kept me on hold for over 10 months, after an exceptional level of criticism (my original article had 642 upvotes on reddit and 130 comments, and it was just one of many similar articles people wrote) – then I don’t see how it can be considered with the same level of urgency that I and at least 100s of others consider it to have. Corporate bureaucracy is no excuse to me – I think executives could always get involved and push things through if they truly felt it vital.

Likely at this point I’m the last person Google wants to collaborate with on anything. I feel I’ve probably now burned my bridges. I can just hope that Google proceeds and that someone else from the Open Source CMS community can push this, or something else, along (and I don’t just mean someone from a CMS corporation that is funded by VC investors – I mean true grass roots). If Google really does want to still talk with me in a truly open and responsive way, I remain open for it, but I don’t see it happening anymore unfortunately.

Author Bio: I am the lead developer for Composr CMS. Composr is a feature-rich website engine, optimized for ambitious folks who fall somewhere between newbie and coder.