The promise of the AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) project was that it would make the web, and, in particular, the mobile web, much more pleasant to surf. The AMP HTML framework was designed to make web pages load quickly, and not distract the user with extraneous content that took them away from focusing on the web page’s content.
It was particularly aimed at publishers (such as news organizations) that wanted to provide the best, fastest web experience for readers catching up on news stories and in depth articles while on the move. It later became valuable for any site which values their mobile performance including e-commerce stores, job boards, and media sites.
As well as the AMP HTML framework, AMP also made use of caches that store copies of AMP content close to end users so that they load as quickly as possible. Although this cache make loading web pages much, much faster they introduce a problem: An AMP page served from Google’s cache has a URL starting with
https://google.com/amp/. This can be incredibly confusing for end users.
Users have become used to looking at the navigation bar in a web browser to see what web site they are visiting. The AMP cache breaks that experience. For example, here’s a news story from the BBC website viewed through Google’s AMP cache:
Notice how the browser says the page is from google.com. That’s because of the AMP cache. This made the page load very quickly, but can be confusing. To help “fix” that problem Google shows that actual site at the top of the AMP page. There you can see that it was bbc.co.uk. Clicking on bbc.co.uk brings you to the same page served by the BBC’s web servers with bbc.co.uk in the web browser’s navigation bar:
But the problems with the AMP cache approach are deeper than just some confusion on the part of the user. By serving the page from Google’s cache there’s no way for the reader to check the authenticity of the page; when it’s served directly from, say, the BBC the user has the assurance of the domain name, a green lock indicating that the SSL certificate is valid and can even click on the lock to get details of the certificate.
Last November we announced a technical solution to these problems that would allow AMP pages to be served from a cache while retaining the original page URL and all its benefits. The in depth technical blog post by Gabbi Fisher and Avery Harnish gives the full details. The solution makes use of Web Packaging (which incorporates some clever use of cryptography) to allow the cache (run by Google, Cloudflare or others) to keep a copy of an AMP page and serve it quickly to the end user, but to also contain cryptographic proof of where the page originally came from.
In cooperation with a browser that understands Web Packaging this means that a page can be stored in an AMP cache and served quickly from it while showing the original site URL in the browser’s navigation bar. A major win all round!
We’re calling this “AMP Real URL” and it’s free to all of our customers starting today.
How It Works
Google’s AMP Crawler downloads the content of your website and stores it in the AMP Cache many times a day. If your site has AMP Real URL enabled Cloudflare will digitally sign the content we provide to that crawler, cryptographically proving it was generated by you. That signature is all a modern browser (currently just Chrome on Android) needs to show the correct URL in the address bar when a visitor arrives to your AMP content from Google’s search results.
Gone is the hated grey bar, all your visitors see is your proper URL:
Importantly your site is still being served from Google’s AMP cache just as before; all of this comes without any cost to your SEO or web performance.
Since our original announcement we’ve had a chance to engage with dozens of members of the publishing and e-commerce community and would like to share what we’ve learned.
State of AMP
The Google-initiated AMP Project drives a huge percentage of mobile traffic and has greatly improved the experience of browsing the Internet on a phone. Many of the sites we have spoken to get as much as 50% of their web traffic through AMP, and the speed benefit it provides directly translates to better conversion rates.
AMP Real URL provides some serious benefits to sites which use AMP:
- Brand Protection: Web users have been trained that the URL in the address bar has significance. Having google.com at the top of a page of content hurts the publisher’s ability to maintain a unique presence on the Internet.
- Easier Analytics: AMP Real URL greatly simplifies web analytics for its users by allowing all visitors, AMP or otherwise, to coexist on the same tracking domain.
- Increased Screen Space: Historically when AMP was used room would be taken for a “grey bar” at the top of your site to show the real URL. With AMP Real URL that’s simply not necessary.
- Reduced Bounce Rate: We believe website visitors are less likely to bounce back to Google or another site when the publisher’s actual domain is in the address bar, but we will gather more data about this as AMP Real URL is rolled out.
- Content Signing: By relying on cryptographic techniques, AMP Real URL ensures that the content delivered to visitors has not been manipulated protecting the sites and brands it is used on. It’s now not possible for any external party to add, remove, or modify the content of a site.
We also spoke to Internet users of AMP, and there certainly are frustrations. There are some users who struggle with its complexity, or sites simply fail to load for them. Others are annoyed and confused with the “grey bar” at the top of the page and the gymnastics it requires to get a page’s original URL. Finally, there are folks who would like to ensure that Google is not modifying the content of pages as they travel through the AMP cache.
AMP Real URL happily fixes all of these issues. It ensures that sites are cryptographically signed which protects them from being modified by Google or anyone else, even when physically delivered from a domain you do not control. If the site is changed in any way the browser ensures the site’s real URL will no longer appear. It also greatly simplifies AMP, fixing many of the reliability issues people experience: AMP Real URL-powered links aren’t opened using the complex iframe mechanics used by AMP traditionally, instead they are loaded as any other website (Google uses rel=”prefetch” to get much of the same performance benefit). Finally, the “grey bar” is unnecessary, as the correct URL is right in the address bar at the top of the page, and copying the URL of a site to save or share works just as it does for non-AMP websites.
We are also taking this opportunity to sunset the other AMP products and experiments we have built over the years like Ampersand and Firebolt. Those products were innovative but we have learned that publishers value AMP products which pair well with Google’s search results, not which live outside it. Users of those older products were informed several weeks ago that they will be gradually shut down to focus our attention on AMP Real URL.
On Your Site
Google is rolling out support for AMP Real URL (referred to as Signed Exchanges outside Cloudflare) today, beginning with the primary Google search results. Over time, the hope is they will expand it to other areas of the search results page including the “Top Stories” news area at the top of the page. This makes AMP Real URL most valuable today for sites which get most of their AMP traffic from the primary search results like e-commerce, job boards, and ad-supported sites. News publishers can and should enable AMP Real URL, but the benefit they experience now will be from search results which live outside the “Top Stories” box. AMP Real URL is only supported in the Chrome browser at this time, but we are optimistic it will be supported more widely as its benefit to Internet users becomes clear.
After speaking with publishers and with Internet users, we have decided not to charge for AMP Real URL. This is not because our customers haven’t been excited or willing to pay for it, AMP makes up a huge component of many site’s traffic. Our motivation is the same as for offering CDN or SSL services to millions of customers free of charge, we are here to help build a better Internet and improving AMP is a huge step in that direction. We believe AMP Real URL is a technology which will fundamentally change the mobile web for the better and should be adopted by every AMP-supporting site. We do have another motive: we are hoping that this will motivate potential customers who value AMP to choose Cloudflare.
Beginning today you will find a new section on the Speed tab of your Cloudflare dashboard:
We will be rolling out support for AMP Real URL in stages over the next few weeks. Enable it now and we will notify you when it is activated on your domain. If you are an interested enterprise customer please reach out so we can expedite your activation.
We'll leave you with some perspectives from the early users of AMP Real URL:
"The performance benefits of AMP deliver value to our business and we are excited to see how AMP Real URL is able to take that even further"
— Solomon Moskalenko, Director of Interactive, US Xpress Trucking, The Johnson Group
"AMP is a crucial part of helping our business to grow and reach consumers everywhere. With AMP Real URL, we now have more control over our brand and can run analytics on our business site."
— Sumantro Da, Sr Director, Product Innovations & Growth Brands GM, 1-800-FLOWERS.COM
“AMP has played a key role in helping us to more effectively reach our audience and develop our online community, we’re keen to use AMP Real URL to better manage our online presence and keep our users engaged on the site.”
— Andrew Warner, CTO of Genius