Instant Articles, Accelerated Mobile Pages, Twitter Cards and Open Graph

By R. S. Doiel 2016-05-30

The problem

The web has gotten slow. In 2016 the average page weight is in multi-megabytes and the average number of network requests needed to deliver the content is counted in the hundreds. In the mix are saturated networks and a continued public expectation of responsiveness (web wisdom suggests you have about 3 seconds before people give up). The odd thing is we’ve known how to build fast websites for a decade or so.
Collectively we don’t build them fast.

Meet the new abstractions

Corprations believe they have the answer and they are providing us with another set of abstractions. In a few years maybe these will get distilled down to a shared common view but in the mean time disc costs remain reasonably priced and generating these new forms of pages or feeds is a template or so away.

The players

Twitter Cards and Open Graph

Twitter’s Titter Cards and Facebook’s Open Graph offer approaches to build off of our existing meta elements in an HTML page’s document head. They are named space to avoid collisions but supporting both will still result in some content duplication. The k-weight difference in the resulting HTML pages isn’t too bad.

Adopting either or both is a matter of adjusting how your render your web page’s head block. It is easy enough to do manually but easier still using some sort of template system that renders the appropriate meta elements based on the content type and contents in the page being rendered.

Google and other search engines can leverage this richer meta data and integrate it into their results. Google’s Now application can render content cards based on either semantic. It also appears that content cards are being leverage selectively for an aside and related content on Google search results pages. You could even built this into your own indexing process for use with the Solr or Elasticsearch.

Content Cards offer intriguing opportunity for web crawlers and search engines. This is particularly true when combined with mature feed formats like RSS, OPML, Atom and the maturing efforts in the linked data community around JSON-LD.

AMP - Accelerated Mobile Pages

The backers of AMP (not to be confused with Apache+MySQL+PHP) are largely publishers including major news outlets and web media companies in the US and Europe. This is an abridged list from 2015–

In additional to the publishers there is participation by tech companies such as Google, Pinterest, Twitter, LinkedIn and Wordpress.com. Accelerated Mobile Pages offer benefits for web crawlers and search engines supporting surfacing content is clearly and enabling easier distinction from advertisements.

Instant Articles

In additional to Open Graph Facebook has put forward Instant Articles. Like AMP it is targetting content delivery for mobile. Unlike AMP Instant Articles is an explicit binding into Facebook’s walled garden only exposing the content on supported versions of iOS and Android. You don’t see Instant Articles in your Facebook timeline or when
your browser from a deskop webbrowser. Unlike the previous examples you actually need to sign up to participate in the Instant Article publishing process. Sign up cost is having a Facebook account, being approved by Facebook and compliance with their terms of service. Facebook does provide some publishing tools, publishing controls as well as some analytics. They do allow 3rd party ads as well as encourage access to their advertising network. Once approved the burden on your content manage process appears managable.

You can submit Instant Articles via a modified RSS feed or directly through their API. In this sense the overhead is about the same as that for implementing support for Twitter Cards Open Graph, and AMP. Facebook does a good job of quickly propogating changes to your Instant Articles across their platform. That’s nice.

Why go through the trouble? If you’re a content producer and your audience lives on Facebook Facebook commands the attention of a lot of eye balls. Instant Articles privides another avenue to reach them. For some Facebook effectively controls the public view of the web much as America Online and Prodegy did decades ago. Dave Winer has written extensively on how he implemented Instant Article support along with some very reasoned pros and cons for doing so. The landscape is evolving and Dave’s river of news is worth following.

Impact on building content

These approaches require changes in your production of your HTML and RSS sent to the browser. Twitter Cards and Open Graph change what you put in the HEAD element of the HTML pages. AMP proscribes what you should put in the BODY element of the webpage. Instant Articles tweaks your RSS output. Not surprisingly the major content management systems Wordpress and Drupal have plugins for this. All can be implemented via your template system or page generatation process.

Whither adopt?

Because these approaches boil down to content assembly the adoption risk is low. If your audience views Twitter, Facebook or Google search results then it is probably worth doing. All allow you to continue to publish your own content and own your URLs as opposed to being a tenent on one or another platform. That benefits the open web.