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Facebook Instant Articles, Google AMP: New mobile opportunities for local publishers

by: Amy Gahran |

Looking for more ways to get your local content in front of mobile users? On April 12, Facebook's Instant Articles program will open to all publishers. Meanwhile, a new service from Google can help you easily optimize your website for mobile.

Often, local new and community engagement projects lack the resources to pay developers for mobile website optimization -- which means they may be missing a huge swath of potential readers in their community. Mobile users tend to quickly abandon pages that take more than a second or two to load. This is especially true when connected via cellular data networks, which even at 4G speeds tend to be slower than WiFi.

Facebook is hands down the most popular, and the stickiest, mobile app. It's also where many people turn first to connect with their local community. The Facebook Instant Articles program allows publishers to select articles that get published directly through Facebook, in addition to their own websites. This creates a more seamless, faster and otherwise optimized experience for Facebook users, especially on mobile devices.

At next week's F8 conference, Facebook will formally open Instant Articles to all news publishers. It's unclear yet whether there will be a fee for this service. You can sign up to watch the conference live to catch the details.

True, using Instant Articles means directing some traffic away from your own website. But Instant Articles is compatible with standard analytics tools, including Google Analytics. So you can track traffic for content and ads via both platforms, and either add up the totals or explore options to integrate both sets of numbers. The expanded audience size and visibility might be worth this effort.

Also, based on feedback from and initial group of hundreds of news publishers (including the Philadelphia indie news site BillyPenn.com, Facebook now lets publishers earn ad revenue and solicit email newsletter signups via Instant Articles.

While Instant Articles may be worth exploring, Facebook is a walled online garden -- a huge one, to be sure, but mostly opaque to search engines. Having a mobile-optimized website still matters to local news publishers, especially since Google and other search engines boost the visibility of mobile-friendly pages in mobile search results. And most local searches now happen on mobile devices.

A new Google mobile initiative offers another option to boost your mobile web performance without redesigning your site.

Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), an open-source initiative from Google, allows publishers to improve the speed at which their pages load in mobile web browsers -- by as much as 85%. This is especially important for the mobile experience over cell data networks, which can be significantly slower than WiFi. Google AMP can vastly improve your mobile readership experience without sacrificing ad revenue options.

Initially launched last October, AMP has now been applied widely enough that many of the kinks have been worked out. You'll still probably need some help from a developer to implement AMP, but not as extensive or costly compared to doing this optimization from scratch. (More about how AMP works.) So now might be a good time to explore AMP if your site would benefit from mobile optimization.

AMP differs from responsive web design in that it produces a separate mobile version of your website. This means AMP can be applied to an existing site to yield mobile-optimized experience without requiring a full site redesign. Thus, your full website experience, for people on laptop or desktop computers, remains unchanged.

In contrast, responsive design allows a website to work on any device, by configuring what gets displayed to fit the space available. This is a more holistic solution that can decrease mobile load times (although not always) -- but it typically requires redesigning your entire site.

A big benefit of adopting AMP now is that Google will categorize your mobile pages as "fast," and will increase your search visibility in Google mobile searches. Also, adopting Google AMP can position you well to use tools and services from companies that have integrated AMP heavily into their platforms -- including many popular ad servers and analytics providers.

Plus, since AMP is open source, developers will be creating innovative ways to use it, some of which might be especially relevant to community-level engagement. There's already a Wordpress plugin available for publishing to Instant Articles.

Google AMP supports most common online ad formats -- so if you aren't already getting revenue from mobile ads, this is an opportunity to start. These ads won't slow down your pages, AMP optimizes how ads load.

SearchEngineLand offers guidance on getting started with AMP. And Google senior develop Sebastian Benz explains how to avoid common mistakes with AMP. Not sure how well your website currently performs on mobile? Try these tools.

You don't need to choose between Instant Articles and AMP. Publishers can use both at the same time. Since both processes are automated, once you get these distribution channels set up they'll just run.

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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