Chasing mobile search results

“Some outlets will even choose what stories to cover based on anticipated search demand, walking the increasingly fine line between service journalism and content farming.”

In 2016, we talked a lot about the rise of off-platform publishing, and what that would mean for the future of news. Facebook Instant Articles, announced in 2015, rolled out to more major sites this year, including platforms like Medium. And Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, announced in February of this year, quickly came to account for a huge percentage of publishers’ pageviews. In 2017, the share of journalism that is consumed in Google AMP (instead of on publishers’ websites) could pass 30 percent — even as smaller publishers get on board and the easy search wins start to dry up.

helen-havlakGoogle AMP has some obvious advantages over traditional websites. For users, they load much faster than outdated mobile sites and eliminate the infuriating popup ads those sites often contain. Publishers benefit from the faster load times as well, since site speed impacts their SEO ranking. And publishing in the format puts the article in the AMP carousel at the top of mobile search results, giving it a powerful traffic boost.

The easy, AMP-driven search traffic has been particularly intoxicating because Facebook is no longer a firehose of referrals. Two years ago, Facebook made up 60 percent or even 80 percent of some publishers’ traffic. Then Facebook began emphasizing native video over article content, and in June, it updated its algorithm to prioritize family or friends over brands and publishers. Within months, Facebook-dependent publishers like Elite Daily became “essentially worthless.” A lot of sites, The Verge included, have made up for that lost Facebook traffic with increased search pageviews — and have seen AMP as a powerful weapon to boost our rankings.

The rise in mobile search traffic doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, even if Google’s algorithms shift. It’s prohibitively expensive to get someone to download an app — much less put it on their home screen — but most home screens still include a mobile search bar or browser. By optimizing news to deliver against search results, you can reach an enormous number of new readers. Some outlets will even choose what stories to cover based on anticipated search demand, walking the increasingly fine line between service journalism and content farming. As more publishers get on AMP and the SEO playing field equalizes, it will become harder to resist those temptations.

Google AMP presents other dangers, too. Publishers have less control over the appearance of their work on other platforms. Because all stories look basically the same in Google AMP, the platform can lend false credibility to hoaxes. As Kyle Chayka wrote recently on The Verge, “In a platform world, all publishers end up looking more similar than different. That makes separating the real from the fake even harder.” A Google-mediated news experience makes it harder to stand out, and harder to build a reputable brand.

In September, AMP passed 10 percent of The Verge’s total pageviews and 30 percent of our search pageviews. Next year, that number will keep growing, and we’ll face the same difficult questions as other publishers. When a user lands on an AMP page via mobile search, we have to develop new ways get them to stick around. Once they have what they came for, how do we send them to an important story that doesn’t fit a search niche? And how can we then convert them into a loyal reader?

Helen Havlak is engagement editor at The Verge.

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