Good news: Google no longer requires publishers to use the AMP format. Bad news: What replaces it might be worse

Introducing 'Core Web Vitals'


Feature Google stopped prioritising Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) format in its Top News carousel last month. This means website owners no longer need to publish an extra set of pages written in the AMP format. Instead sites need to meet what Google calls "Core Web Vitals."

This sounds like great news. As a long-time critic of Google AMP, I wish I could say that Google AMP is over and done with, but I'm not convinced.

As I wrote years ago when it launched, Google's AMP is bad – bad in a potentially web-destroying way. It's bad for how the web is built, it's bad for publishers of credible online content, and it's bad for consumers of that content. Google AMP is only good for one party: Google.

is Google or AMP "evil"? I don't know. It doesn't matter. The people behind AMP might have had good intentions, they might not have. Google does not have to be "evil" for it to do things that harm the open web...

Unfortunately, the same can be said of Core Web Vitals.

And make no mistake, AMP format pages did not just disappear from the web. It's great that AMP is no longer required to get in Google's coveted Top News carousel, but that doesn't mean AMP is gone.

Requiring publishers to use the AMP format for news is a moot point. All of the major purveyors of news already use AMP. Google doesn't need to require AMP because there's no one left to force into using it. Rolling back the AMP requirement isn't a sign of victory for the open web, it's a sign of defeat.

The other problem is that if you were a publisher interested in dropping support for AMP, Google News isn't the only game to consider.

AMP links are widely used throughout other Google services, including Gmail, Google Images, and Google Search. Even though it's no longer required for Google News, around a month after Google's ranking changes took effect, almost every story currently in the Google News carousel is still using AMP.

All of which is to say that Google AMP was forced on publishers and, given no choice, publishers embraced it – so don't expect it to go away now just because it's no longer required. Big media publishers are slow to adopt and even slower to abandon.

Unfortunately, I don't expect AMP links to disappear any time soon. You can always do the web a favour by installing a browser plugin to toss out the AMP URL and give you the link to the actual URL (I like this one). It's a pain, but if we want to keep the web as AMP-free as possible, we're all going to have to do a little work.

What's all the fuss?

Before I get into why AMP's replacement might be worse, it would help to back up and define what AMP is, because things have changed since it launched. AMP is now an open-source web component framework developed by the AMP Open Source Project. See Google anywhere in that sentence? No, no you don't. Google has distanced itself from AMP considerably over the years, but it hasn't given up control.

Google AMP began with the stated goal of speeding up the web. The logic behind AMP goes like this: web developers suck at making fast websites, let's strip out all the stuff people don't need and cache it on our super-fast servers. That sounds good. It's not hard to see how well-meaning people would get behind that idea. The problem is that being fast isn't what makes the web great. It's part of it, but it's not the most important part.

Another common defence of AMP you'll hear is that it's open source. This is true, but also a non sequitur. There is nothing inherently good about something being open source. As web developer Ferdy Christant put it back in 2018, the open source defence "isn't just a weak defense, it's no defense at all. I can open-source a plan for genocide. The term 'open source' is meaningless if the thing that is open source is harmful." Quite.

Since we've now invoked something akin to Godwin's Law, let's pause for a moment to address the question, is Google or AMP "evil"? I don't know. It doesn't matter. The people behind AMP might have had good intentions, they might not have. Google does not have to be "evil" for it to do things that harm the open web.

Regardless of motivation, the fact remains that the AMP developers produced something that is bad for the open web ecosystem because it destroys three sacrosanct elements of the web: the URL, the open web standard of HTML, and the decentralisation of the web.

The URL is destroyed because when you visit an AMP page you visit a cached URL. Share that URL and the people who visit it will also visit the Google cache, not the publisher's URL. There is no web when that happens. There is just traffic coming to Google, which is good for... Google. To my mind this the biggest problem with AMP. The URL is the web. Literally. Without the URL you have nothing.

AMP doesn't stop there; it also strips out all kinds of perfect valid, approved-by-standards-bodies HTML. Programmers hate HTML. It's messy, vague, imprecise, and user agents must deal with that, which is a huge pain for programmers. It's a valid criticism in many ways, but it also misses the fact that these are exactly the qualities that have enabled millions of people to use HTML. It's messy, vague, imprecise, and perfect for creating the web. What's more, it is developed very slowly, by many people, representing many points of view, many needs. AMP is a set of programming guidelines shoved down your throat by Google.

The third problem with AMP is that it disrupts the web's decentralised design. This is really an outgrowth of the two things, but important in its own right when we start considering Google AMP's ostensible replacement, "Core Web Vitals."

Decentralisation means that no one entity controls web content. With AMP, Google gets total control of the content. Google hosts it, and Google alone knows who visits it.

The final point is either ironic or, if you lean towards conspiracy, proof that Google knows exactly what it's doing here – namely, locking up content where Google can control it and mine users for data. Are you ready for it? Google AMP pages aren't any faster than regular HTML pages. Worse, they're often slower. Nope, not kidding. When AMP pages are faster, it's because Google is pre-loading them, which Google could do for any page on the web.

Still, getting a spot in the Top News carousel of Google News is a powerful carrot, and it worked. Nearly every major publisher on the web (including this one) publishes AMP versions of their pages.

Now AMP is no longer required of publishers, those of us shouting about how this is bad can just shut up now, right?

Unfortunately, there are problems with AMP's replacement as well. And those problems go right back to what was wrong with AMP in the first place: Google is in charge of it.

As web developer Ethan Marcotte points out: "While the shift to Core Web Vitals is a step in the right direction, it also means that Google alone determines what a 'great page experience' means."

Currently it means your page should mostly load in 2.5 seconds. That's not a very high bar to be honest, but it is still a bar and the web does not do bars. Worse, that requirement might change tomorrow. Marcotte makes it clear that he thinks deprioritising AMP in favour of Core Web Vitals is a very good thing, but I'm not so sure that's true. Neither, it seems, is Marcotte, who goes on to note that Google has "taken its proprietary document format, and swapped it out for a proprietary set of performance statistics that has even less external oversight."

It's all about control

In the end AMP and Core Web Vitals boil down to a very simple reality: Google is again using its dominance in the search business to force everyone to play on its terms. Whether that's a proprietary markup language or some arbitrary set of performance standards, the end result is the same. Google is a monopoly and it is using its monopoly position to force the rest of the web into doing what it wants.

Google AMP and its successor are classic examples that could have been pulled from another monopoly's playbook: embrace, extend, and extinguish. The difference is that Google is being much more clever about how it extinguishes things than Microsoft ever was. Google embraced HTML, then extended it with AMP and now, in claiming to have extinguished AMP, it gets the control it wants without the bad press. The slight twist in the extinguish move is a nice touch, Google. Well played.

I've said it before, I'll say it again. The power of the web lies in its decentralisation, it lies with its messiness, it lies with its edge nodes – that is, with you and me. We rejected AMP, it may be fading, but we need to keep rejecting. If we reject Core Web Vitals, it too will die. ®

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