Full disclosure: this blog post was not written with just the best prose and policy prescriptions in mind. There was something else I considered, something shared by everyone from the smallest of bloggers to the New York Times: how to optimize ranking in Google’s search algorithm. As Google is the dominant search engine that people use to navigate their web journeys, search result rankings can have profound consequences. Even the smallest tweaks to this secret sauce algorithm can determine whether this post will be seen by an audience beyond my coworkers, family, and friends—or (perhaps more importantly) if your local newspaper gets the ad revenue needed to stay afloat. Google’s latest tweak, one to its AMP framework, is a step in the right competitive direction, and perhaps a sign that the heightened antitrust scrutiny against the company is already having an effect.
In case you’re not a voracious reader of the Google Webmaster Central Blog, you might be wondering what AMP is. AMP, or “accelerated mobile pages,” is basically an HTML framework that allows web pages to load faster. Originally developed and still functionally controlled by Google, web publishers can build in AMP code to their web pages. Then Google stores a cached version of the page on its servers and pre-downloads it to your device for faster display after an end user—that’s you!—first clicks on a link.
However, the faster loading times come at a cost, as outlined by the News Media Alliance in a recent white paper. AMP pages keep users on Google’s web ecosystem, allowing Google to continue extracting data from users who otherwise would have moved on to a full third-party site, “further reinforcing Google’s dominance of the Web.” Publishers also cede control to Google of some aspects of their page layout, as well as the number and type of ads they can show. There’s also technical duplication in making AMP versions of all of the web pages in one’s domain, a burden that falls especially heavily on small, local newspapers—whose newsrooms are already hemorrhaging reporters—without a web engineer on staff. Online advertising is increasingly their only financial lifeline, and AMP routes more of that process through Google.
These trade-offs become almost moot, however, given Google’s apparent use of its monopoly power in search to encourage AMP adoption. Google prioritized AMP pages in its own services, such as “Top Stories” and Google News. Placements in these “carousels” are pivotal for news publishers, as they prominently appear at the very top of the search results page, resulting in the highest clickthrough. Google claims that its search rankings outside of Google services are based on page loading times, not use of AMP, yet publishers had seen “page loading times” as little but a facially neutral stand-in for AMP usage.
Google’s Big Change
This was all true until earlier this month when Google announced major changes to its AMP program. Next spring, “non-AMP content [will] become eligible to appear in the mobile Top Stories feature in Search.” And the page ranking algorithm for search results will prioritize pages with a “great page experience” over whether the page happens to use AMP.
First, it’s important to note that this change seems much more fair for web publishers. Instead of choosing AMP simply because one will be relegated to the basement of Google Search without it, publishers can instead make independent choices on how to structure their own websites. Public Knowledge has been critical of Google for a variety of conduct, but the company should be applauded for making this decision.
An excellent writeup in The Markup connects this to the growing cacophony of antitrust criticism of Google. Antitrust enforcers had zeroed in on AMP as one of several areas of focus in their investigations. AMP was a focus of a subpoena sent to Google from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and could feature in a forthcoming complaint from state attorneys general focusing on Google in the adtech market. Senator Richard Blumenthal grilled a high-ranking Google official over AMP prioritization in a hearing in September (see below). It’s also discussed in the magisterial House Judiciary Antitrust report.
Most notably, the Department of Justice recently filed a complaint focusing on ways in which Google has anticompetitively maintained its dominant role in search. The AMP story can be seen as a result of Google’s alleged conduct in the complaint, in that Google’s creation of a “must-have” search engine with no true alternatives bestows power to cajole publishers to do what Google wants.
Many commentators were quick to point out the striking similarities between the Google case and the landmark Microsoft case. AMP represents another possible point of similarity. While antitrust remedies are important, the mere fact that a case was brought can be powerful in and of itself. The Microsoft case was credited with trimming Microsoft’s anticompetitive sails, forcing the company to retreat from its monopolistic tendencies and designs for domination of the flourishing internet. Microsoft’s change in conduct can be attributed to a worry about the specter of further government enforcement. One can paint a similar picture with Google and AMP. Google’s antitrust worries result in a preemptive move to curb some of its anticompetitive practices.
What We Hope To See
While these AMP changes are a step in the right competitive direction, there’s a lot more Google should do to promote competition regarding AMP, and Congress still needs to address some serious concerns. AMP will still be preferenced in some Google Search functionality, so its adoption by publishers is still not entirely on the merits. Public Knowledge supports a strong nondiscrimination rule where user utility is prioritized over platform profitability, in everything from Google Search results to Amazon product listings. Small firms forced to rely on the platforms today should be given the opportunity to thrive, perhaps one day growing into firms to challenge the dominant incumbents. If the ever-expanding and difficult-to-avoid tech platforms want to play multiple competition-conflicting roles in a market, then at the very least they should be explicitly banned from self-preferencing.
While certainly a boon for news publishers, the future of news—especially the struggling but important local variety—remains bleak without further reforms. Instead of content standards like AMP or Facebook’s Instant Articles being thrust upon publishers, we could move to a universal and open content standard for publishers akin to that being currently developed by the New York Times. The metrics for search prioritization would then hopefully change from use of affiliated, fast-loading services like AMP to journalistic quality and accuracy.
A nondiscrimination regime would have enormous benefits for competition. Well-researched journalism would be given a fighting chance against clickbait headlines. When you Google something, particularly a news story, we should want the highest quality result first, not the result that is most closely affiliated with or most profitable for Google. Of course, I hope this blog post still made its way to the top of your list.