Will AMP really speed up your website?

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March 29, 2016
Will AMP really speed up your website?.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages). From February 24th onward, Google search results began to include links to mobile-page versions that were built with this open-source project. When Google begins openly backing a technology, you know that it’s going to be a big thing, but what exactly is AMP? AMP is all about the mobile user experience. Specifically, the initiative is meant to make mobile pages faster than ever before, which is a surefire way to improve the UX. Ideally, AMP proponents want to be able to create mobile content only once—and then already have it load immediately everywhere else. As with all new initiatives, we need to separate the truth from the hype…

Making your sites faster

Since Google’s public push in favor of AMP last year, many high-profile companies who publish on the web have also begun to back AMP. Some of these names include the BBC, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Twitter, Pinterest, the New York Times (itself in the middle of an ad-wars controversy), and Buzzfeed. Naturally, they want to be on the bandwagon because they’re saying to themselves that any initiative that Google supports is bound to impact our SEO rankings. However, is it really worth it for these companies to support AMP at this time? Does AMP deliver on its promise to make your site faster? [pullquote]if you already understand UX…AMP may not prove to make such a big difference after all[/pullquote] To begin to answer that question, we have to put it in context: If you’re comparing your site to a media-rich site that only has average optimization, then it’s likely. Yet if you’re comparing your site to one featuring minimal design and good optimization, then the jury’s still out. In other words, it’s case-sensitive. If you’ve been one of those early AMP fans who’s already bought into its apparent speed, consider the following: AMP isn’t a new type of technology. Why, even Google admits that AMP was created out of already existing Internet technologies, for the purpose of creating lightweight pages. So, no, there isn’t anything exactly revolutionary about it. Understanding this will help in putting into proper perspective the speed hype surrounding AMP. So if you already understand UX intimately and know how to integrate the latest performance enhancements into your site design and development, then AMP may not prove to make such a big difference after all.

What exactly is AMP?

This open-source project was born from discussions between tech companies and publishers about the need to better mobile UX for everyone involved with content: consumers, publishers, creators and users. AMP, it’s important to point out, isn’t a radically new kind of HTML. In fact, as the Project explains, AMP are like other HTML pages, the only difference being a limited set of permissible, technical functionality that’s governed and defined by the AMP spec. AMP will load in any app web view or modern browser, just like ordinary HTML pages, but speed’s a priority due to different, architectural approaches. AMP also promises greater speed because of the reduced amount of code. For example:
  • You have less than 50 kb of CSS
  • You don’t need your own JavaScript (there’s no JS-powered tabs, alerts, tooltips or modals)
  • You don’t have code for various ad providers and analytics services
All this boils down to lighter pages, which in turn means faster speeds and loading times. Then, there are AMP’s custom elements that put a priority on loading and optimization. What happens is the content on any AMP page that’s above the fold will load first. After you’ve viewed this content, that’s when the remainder below the fold begins loading in earnest. Other times, AMPs can be loaded prior to users landing on it, which makes loading seem all the faster. There are different methods that help AMP do these things. They are:
  • Lazy loading
  • Preconnecting
  • Prefetching
  • Prerendering
Interestingly, you can also optimize your non-AMP pages separately for each of these speed-boosting optimizations. So, again, not using AMP doesn’t mean that you can’t design and tweak your site for speed. Finally, AMP makes page layout more efficient. How so? Media needs to always have its width and height properties specified when added to an AMP page. While it’s still a possibility to have both responsive and resizable images, AMP’s going to know how exactly to lay out a page prior to loading said media. End users then don’t have to wait as long since images aren’t first loaded, then recalculated, and then rendered.

Only faster in some cases

The truth of the matter is that AMP will only make your site faster in some, specific situations. It all depends on the site’s tech considerations, but also the needs of the business that the site supports. [pullquote]not using AMP doesn’t mean that you can’t design and tweak your site for speed[/pullquote] Here’s when AMP can make your site faster:
  • If your site is so media-rich that it will automatically benefit from the optimized loading processes
  • If you want AMP to be in charge of optimizing your site’s speed and performance instead of you handling it yourself
So to be perfectly clear, it’s not AMP in and of itself that automatically makes your sites faster. Instead, it’s really that AMP provides the techniques and approaches to make your sites faster. Again, while you can make your sites faster using your own optimization processes, AMP simply provides speed and performance optimization in a neat and handy package.

What you have to know

For all of its fanfare, especially from Google, AMP is still in its infancy, which is a significant reality. This means that it’s still evolving, and people are far from being able to say with 100% certainty what it can only be used for. In other words, its impact for your search rankings, its performance, and even the demands of using AMP could still change abruptly. Although it’s not the magic bullet to instantly cure all slow-loading site issues, or even the only solution, it’s still worthwhile for designers and developers to spend some time with it. At the very least, AMP serves as a wellspring of potentially new and effective ideas that designers can harness to meaningfully improve page load times across the entire web. The fact that Google has rolled out AMP into its search results pages also provides an opportunity for early user feedback. It’s going to be very interesting to see what the early adapters of this initiative think about the improvement, if any, to the UX of mobile pages. If the results are good, and AMP leads to more traffic and income for big-name sites, you can bet that it’s going to get a bigger push from Google and others than ever. If the opposite happens, then AMP may well not ever get off the ground in any meaningful way. Featured image uses Agustin secret’s speed image.

Marc Schenker

Marc’s a copywriter who covers design news for Web Designer Depot. Find out more about him at thegloriouscompanyltd.com.

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