Google speeds up news article downloads on mobile devices

Websites Image copyright Google
Image caption Several big-name publishers are already planning to support the initiative

Dozens of leading news organisations, including the BBC, are taking part in a scheme that will allow their web-based articles to load more quickly on smartphones and tablets.

Leaders of the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) initiative promise that the stripped-back versions of the pages will be "lightning fast" to load.

The move has been led by Google, which is providing use of its servers.

Participants believe it may discourage the use of ad-blocking plug-ins.

AMP works by simplifying the technical underpinnings of the pages involved.

Much of the Javascript code used on normal webpages is absent, meaning articles should not only appear faster but use less battery power.

Publishers can continue to tap into the same ad networks as before, but they will not be able to display some types of adverts including pop-ups and "sticky" images that move as users scroll down a page.

Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Wordpress have said they also intend to make use of the technology.

Facebook is a notable exception. The social network recently launched an alternative programme called Instant Articles, which speeds up the delivery of third-party content by hosting it on its own platform.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Facebook launched its Instant Articles initiative earlier this year

Cache and serve

News sites will automatically create AMP versions of their stories at the same time as they publish and update the originals.

View an AMP edition of this article (does not work via the BBC app)

Google intends to scrape these from the web, store them on its cache servers and then serve them to users via its Search and News tools.

Likewise, the social networks involved are also expected to cache and direct users to the AMP articles rather than the originals if users click on relevant links in their apps.

"Today, roughly 40% of users abandon an article if it doesn't load after six seconds," Danny Bernstein, Google's director of product partnerships, told the BBC.

"To be able to pull down an article instantly from Twitter, from Pinterest is a remarkable thing.

"We'll support accelerated mobile pages in search in 2016, but the code is public, so publishers can launch them today, and we expect some smaller apps to be able to render AMP files immediately."

Image copyright Github
Image caption Publishers can download the relevant specifications from the Github code-sharing site

Faster downloads

Many of the biggest names in publishing are already involved.

Conde Nast, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Vox Media and the New York Times are among those taking part.

The BBC noted that at present some of its mobile pages could take 12 seconds or longer to download in Australia, and this helped address that problem.

"Pages on mobiles will load much quicker than before, particularly in markets with slow connectivity, due to a simplified approach to both coding and caching of pages," explained Robin Pembrooke, general manager of the BBC's News Product.

"With over 60% of traffic to BBC News coming from mobiles or tablets, optimising this performance is crucial, particularly for events such as the [UK] general election where we saw over 85% of traffic coming in on mobile devices in the morning after as final results came in."

The Guardian's chief strategy officer Tony Danker added that there was huge benefit in his industry taking co-ordinated action to reduce the appeal of ad-blockers.

"Users are not spending hours discriminating between sites based on their speed," he said.

"They punish each of us for the sins of the whole ecosystem."

Image copyright Eyeo
Image caption AdBlock Plus recently launched a version of its plug-in for iOS handsets

More work needs to be done, however, to ensure approved ads appear and to let the publishers track readership of their work.

Test demo

Google said it did not plan to automatically prioritise AMP-enabled articles in its search results.

However, since loading times are one of the factors its algorithms take into account there is an added incentive for other news organisations to join.

It is already offering a demo for users to see how the service might work on mobiles.

One industry analyst said he expected the service to be popular.

"Anything which enables content to be distributed more quickly and makes it more accessible is good for the industry," said Ian Maude from Enders Analysis.

"And because it's backed by Google and other companies of its ilk and several of the major publishers it could have an impact on Facebook's own efforts to promote Instant Articles."

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