Google throttled non-AMP page speeds, created format to hamper header bidding, antitrust complaint claims

Newly unredacted complaints against Google allege that the search giant’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), which the company claimed would “dramatically improve” mobile web performance when it launched in 2015, was in fact a scheme to coerce publishers into using the format in order to limit advertising dollars not spent on its own ad exchanges.

The complaint, which is led by the State of Texas on behalf of 16 mostly Republican states, goes so far as to allege Google even throttled the load speed of pages not using AMP in order to give a “nice comparative boost” to AMP.

“Throttling non-AMP ads slows down header bidding, which Google then uses to denigrate header bidding for being too slow,” it reads. “‘Header Bidding can often increase latency of web pages and create security flaws when executed incorrectly,’ Google falsely claimed. Internally, Google employees grappled with ‘how to [publicly] justify [Google] making something slower,’” according to the complaint.

The lawsuit, which cites internal Google documents, was originally filed on Sept. 9 and was heavily redacted. However, a ruling by a Manhattan judge forced the release of the mostly unredacted version on Friday.

Google spokeswoman Allie Bodack, however, called the lawsuit “riddled with inaccuracies,” in an emailed statement to Search Engine Land.

“In reality, our advertising technologies help websites and apps fund their content, and enable small businesses to reach customers around the world. There is vigorous competition in online advertising, which has reduced ad tech fees, and expanded options for publishers and advertisers,” she said. “We will strongly defend ourselves from [Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s] baseless claims in court.”

Targeting header bidding. At the center of the issue is header bidding, an advertising practice where publishers can place their ad inventory on numerous ad exchanges at once. It’s a method meant to sidestep Google’s “waterfall” approach to bidding, which often favors Google’s ad servers. Publishers generally like header bidding because of its potential for higher revenue and transparency. 

However, header bidding requires publishers to place JavaScript on their pages to trigger the auction, and AMP pages do not support that JavaScript.

“To respond to the threat of header bidding, Google created Accelerated Mobile Pages (“AMP”), a framework for developing mobile web pages, and made AMP essentially incompatible with JavaScript and header bidding. Google then used its power in the search market to effectively force publishers into using AMP,” the complaint alleges.

Google also denied this, pointing to a January blog post where it said, “Engineers at Google designed AMP in partnership with publishers and other tech companies to help webpages load faster and improve the user experience on mobile devices—not to harm header bidding.”

A damning indictment of AMP. The complaint is not wrong that publishers have held a love/hate relationship with AMP. The premise itself goes against publisher instincts. AMP requires us to create versions of our content on servers we do not own using templates we have limited control over. The tradeoff meant improved user experience on mobile and a greater likelihood of showing up in Top Stories, a placement that can yield significant traffic. Using AMP wreaks havoc on internal analytics, too,  since it makes it very difficult to track users migrating across a site’s AMP and non-AMP pages.

The complaint, however, claims the speed benefits are both exaggerated and manipulated due to Google’s alleged throttling of non-AMP pages.

“All those years, all those Googlers, devs, & SEOs defending AMP… And this is just the tip of the iceberg,” wrote SparkToro founder Rand Fishkin on Twitter, sparking a thread of outrage and disgust over the allegations.

Google earlier this year stopped requiring publishers to use AMP in order to score Top Story placements. But it also rolled out its Page Experience Update this year too, which it claimed made factors like site speed a ranking factor. The combination surely had publishers wary of ripping out their AMP architecture (it certainly does for us).

Why we care. First, these are allegations made in a highly politicized lawsuit, and without access to all of these internal documents it is difficult to tell whether some of these claims represent flawed interpretations. But Google’s lack of transparency has always worked against it in terms of public trust.

This lawsuit, one of four antitrust complaints now, highlights way more than possible manipulation around AMP. It also highlights alleged collusion with Facebook to give the social media giant an unfair advantage in ad bidding. All of this supports a growing concern over the toxic relationship between Google, the only search platform that frankly matters for publishers, and the content creators and search marketers looking to compete fairly for placement on its platform. Whether it’s the favoring of Google properties in results, the ad-position takeover of the SERP, the rise of on-SERP elements that stifle clicks to actual content creators and the ham-fisted rewriting of publishers’ titles, creators are fed up.

“I’m so sick of Google. And I unfortunately make a decent part of my living working with it. That makes me sick to my stomach,” wrote SEO Sam Insalaco in response to Fiskin’s Tweet.

The AMP allegations also strike a nerve for publishers, whose businesses have seen incredible disruption in the past decade as advertising shifted to search and social and reach became so dependent on Google. AMP was heralded as a way to give publishers a chance to stand level with the competition. If these allegations are true it’s hard to believe publishers would ever trust Google again.

About The Author

Henry Powderly is vice president of content for Third Door Media, publishers of Search Engine Land and MarTech. With more than a decade in editorial leadership positions, he is responsible for content strategy and event programming for the organization.