What happened when we disabled Google AMP at Tribune Publishing? Shockingly little. So you should try it, too

Ahead of its June 2021 algorithm update, Google made a significant announcement as part of its shift to emphasize overall page experience in determining its search ranking — it was lifting its thumb off the scales in favor of Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP).

AMP is a Google-created open source HTML framework featuring lean pages optimized to be more performant on mobile devices. While encouraging good behavior, it also limited design and homogenized the content-level page experience. First appearing in 2016, AMP pages were quickly rolled out by most U.S. news publishers, incentivized by not just snappy load times, but by Google locking non-AMP pages out of key mobile search positions, like the “Top Stories” carousel.

Even Twitter in 2017 linked to AMP pages from iOS and Android apps. AMP, like Facebook Instant Articles, was everywhere, becoming an offer many publishers couldn’t refuse.

But in late May 2021, amid continued complaints of loss of control over user experience and subscription integration nightmares, Google said they were ending that AMP mandate in its June 2021 Core Algorithm Update:

“As part of this update, we’ll also incorporate the page experience metrics into our ranking criteria for the Top Stories feature in Search on mobile, and remove the AMP requirement from Top Stories eligibility.”

Instead, Google would rely on its now ubiquitous Core Web Vitals metrics and related signals. Five months later, Twitter phased out support of AMP. Around this time, we at Tribune Publishing made the decision to phase out AMP as we rolled out a redesign of our content-level pages in spring of 2022.

As search was by far our largest referral source to all our sites, including the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and New York Daily News — traffic that was a reliable source of subscriptions — this move was not without risk. Plus, in coordinating this with a redesign and codebase change — a situation which often has a detrimental impact on search—we could take a bad search situation and make it far, far worse. Also in the background, exacerbating our fears, was a significant erosion in search traffic off of record COVID highs. The needle was already pointed down.

But if it were a success, we’d not only fully control the on-page experience, but we wouldn’t be saddled with the tech debt of maintaining and updating AMP, an extremely attractive proposition, as Barry Schwartz noted in Search Engine Land. And most importantly, we know our mobile web pages are better than AMP at converting visitors into subscribers.

The first site to make the leap was the Baltimore Sun. We turned off AMP and cut over pages to the redesign by sections over four weeks starting in early March. Prior to the cutover, about 68% of daily mobile search users coming to the Sun were hitting AMP — a fairly large percentage.

For our data, we’ll use Google Analytics referral source and page type reports, filtered by device as needed. To clarify a question raised by Damon Kiesow shortly after publication, each line is inclusive. Red is total Google search users, of which mobile search users (yellow) is a subset, of which AMP users (blue) are a subset of that.

As the chart shows, despite some general overall attrition in search, users hitting AMP gracefully transitioned to mobile web search pages. Overall, from Jan. 1 to July 31, median daily search users fell only 12.41% post AMP, with most of those losses attributed to yearly highs in January.

We disabled AMP and cut over to the redesign on the South Florida Sun Sentinel April 11. Unlike Baltimore, turning off AMP here and for future sites was a one-day event. South Florida was less reliant on AMP, with only 39.8% of its mobile search users hitting the framework.

Much like Baltimore, when AMP stopped, mobile web search picked up the slack. Median daily mobile search users fell only 16.23% post AMP, although we saw high levels of volatility throughout.

AMP was disabled on the Chicago Tribune days later on April 15. The Trib had the AMP lowest usage, with only 37.5% of its mobile search users being served AMP pages. But it also had the highest levels of overall search referrals.

Chicago also proved extremely resilient, seeing an 18.15% decline in median daily mobile search users post AMP, mostly due to the general search decline.

Lastly, one week later on April 22, we disabled AMP on the New York Daily News. This was the riskiest proposition in that 73.4% of mobile search users were being served an AMP page. A greater percentage of the Daily News’ overall search traffic also is mobile vs. desktop.

Looking at the trend, you can see how aligned mobile search users and AMP users were. Despite walking lockstep, the Daily News transitioned off of AMP well, declining 26.94% in median daily mobile search users. And like Baltimore and Chicago, most of this change is centered at the beginning of the year. You’d see an almost horizontal trend line from March to July.

Given all the factors, it’s impossible to make a truly clean search impact analysis. In addition to retiring AMP, we had a redesign and a codebase change. We’re at the tail end of a long organic search decline from the pandemic. How much of a factor was news fatigue on news-centric sites? And while mostly stable, there were fewer articles being published each month in 2022 post AMP on some of our sites—a factor which could meaningfully impact overall search referrals.

Despite all these variances, all of them working against search success, Tribune Publishing generally saw very manageable declines in mobile search referrals post AMP. The search drop generally fell within the accepted near-term range of a standard redesign, and on the macro level, year-long drops mostly aligned to broader search trends.

Given the higher page RPMs and subscriber conversion rates of a non-AMP page, pulling the plug on AMP looks like an easy win for both programmatic and consumer revenue. And most importantly, we regain full control of the user experience. And that’s perhaps the biggest upside.

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Kurt Gessler

Kurt Gessler

1.3K Followers

Director of Editorial Ops at @ChicagoTribune et al. I also teach stuff at @UNLincoln @Unl_CoJMC. Practicing journalism et sic per gradus ad ima tenditur