For the past couple of months, we have been working on making our platform compatible with Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) format.  If you’re not familiar with AMP, I think it’s fair to summarize it thusly:  The practice of offering your website in a special format that Google invented, so that your Google SERP’s (search engine result page) have a small gray lightning bolt next to them, which leads the viewer to the AMP-formatted version of your page, which is hosted by google, and is definitely faster and more user-friendly than the default version of your page.

An AMP-enabled page in a SERP.

AMP carries a fair amount of controversy.  Many thought leaders worry about the rabbit hole of proprietary formats, and also the eyebrow-raising prospect of allowing google to serve your website. It’s worth getting acquainted with both sides of this argument if you are interested in AMP.  This podcast between web pioneer Jeffrey Zeldman and WordPress co-creator Matt Mullenweg is by far the best discussion I have found on the debate.

For me there is one simple fact that cuts through the entire argument like a laser beam: If a Google search result has a little gray lightning bolt next to it, I’m far more likely to click on it because I know it’s going to be much faster, and I know the next page I see will be content-focused, simple, and legible. In that suspenseful moment where thumbs are hovering over search results, I want LexBlog to fall among the have’s, rather than the have-nots.

How, Generally?

Several years ago I met with former LexBlog CTO, current LexBlog Fairy GodFather, and google employee Robert McFrazier.  I was delighted to pester him with questions as usual, and when I asked him an open-ended question about the best thing we could do for our platform, he told it would be to introduce AMP.  Furthermore, he noted that in the WordPress space, developers were handling AMP as a plugin concept, rather than a theme concept, which he felt was a shortcut not always worth taking.  Although taking a plugin approach allows for faster adoption, it’s very heavy-handed and leaves the AMP page with very little of the design and branding that appears on the non-AMP version.  Given the time and ability, he believed it would be much better to adopt AMP from within a theme, so as to more easily carry the theme concepts (color scheme, layout, logos, fonts, icons) into the AMP version.

Robert was right.  Even today, years after our talk, the WordPress community is approaching AMP almost entirely via the “official” WordPress AMP plugin, with virtually no theme frameworks doing anything interesting with AMP.  I’m very proud to say that at LexBlog we’ve broken that trend!  We have developed a one-click solution to enable an AMP version on any site using our modern platform, and that version carries all of the important design and branding concepts included in the non-AMP version.  As this project has matured, I’ve often had trouble telling the difference between our normal front-end and our AMP front-end.

How, Specifically?

There were three categories of things that we needed to import to our AMP version: Design, layout, and content.

Design

Because we approached this from within our theme, rather than taking the shortcut of approaching via a plugin, it was very convenient to grab design elements such as:

  • Typekit fonts.
  • FontAwesome icons.
  • Firm logos and blog logos.
  • Color schemes.

Layout

Layout was more difficult.  By layout, I mean things like white space, alignment, and a grid system.  Unfortunately, I was not able to simply load our normal CSS in its entirety, because it would have exceeded AMP’s size limit of 55kb.  I could potentially have just imported only the elements I needed, but I didn’t design that system to be served a la carte and I didn’t want to increase our bug surface area by forcing the issue.

What I did instead, was grab a subset of the Bootstrap front end framework — just their grid and white space stuff — and then modify it to be compatible with AMP’s formatting rules.  I like this solution, largely because I really like Bootstrap, and also because it was fast to implement and left me with many thousands of kb left over for adding custom styles on top of it.

Content

By content I mean the act of converting html into the format that AMP requires.  A simple example is instead of the normal <img> tag, AMP uses an <amp-img> tag.  It gets far more complex from there, as everything from animated gifs to twitter embeds require special massage therapy.  This is where I was happy enough to stand on the shoulders of giants and grab some formatting code from the official WordPress AMP plugin, noted above.  It was fun to reverse engineer all the code into a state that was maintainable for our project, and I’m happy enough to avoid re-inventing that wheel.

What Next?

At the moment we are deploying AMP on internal blogs and employee blogs, and the results have been fantastic.  We’re in the process of generating automated test results against all of the blogs on our entire network, which we’ll use to further refine the product, before eventually opening it up for widespread use in some form later this year.

I have no doubt that this product will be a massive success on a technical level.  More interesting will be the debate of, is AMP good for websites; is it good for the web?  My prediction is that the current stated fears about centralization will take on the look of John Henry’s hammer or William Jennings Bryan’s soapbox — it’s time to let the machines win something they’re going to win anyways.  If I’m being completely honest, I hope AMP eats the web.  I hope that in five years from now, we’re all making a single AMP-compatible website, rather than bolting on an AMP-compatible version.  Will that happen?  I don’t know.  But what I do know is that in order for it to happen, websites will need to preserve design and branding in their AMP offering, which is what our project is really about.

Every job has its benefits. I don’t mean 401k or paid sick leave. No, I’m talking about the unforeseen side effects of working in various industries. I remember getting free pizza at my first job as a dishwasher and I felt exceedingly blessed. I also remember getting free books from my time working at Eastern Washington Univ., but again I digress. So the question, what is the side benefits for working at a company filled with successful bloggers? Since I started working for LexBlog, I’ve wanted to try my hand at a serious blog.

At LexBlog, I will be attempting to use the LexBlog platform to launch my new blog. Unlike my failed attempt at a food blog years ago on google blogger: Grim’s Gratitudes, or my “never-was” blog Tech Comm Corner last year, my hope with this blog is to gain access to a community of scholars. Currently, I have two blogs on WordPress, my nerdy friendship club Currently Undecided and my courtship with my significant other, Intentional Vulnerability. I also write from time to time here on donuts. While blogger was meh and I haven’t had any issues with WordPress, when offered to use LexBlog to launch my new blog, I couldn’t help but think of all that I could learn.

So far, I reach out to a multitude of bloggers to add them to LexBlog for free, but I don’t ask them to switch platforms or even use LexBlog in any capacity though many of them have started subscribing to different channels. However, I never thought to ask what the process looked like to make a blog on LexBlog. I’m curious to see the result. So far, there has been mention of a checklist and I’ll be reaching out to the Success Team for more info. In any case, I’m excited.

My day is filled with looking at blog after blog, some good and some, well, not-so-much. I even follow several law blogs now. My day is filled with people collectively thinking, writing, and sharing about experiences, thoughts, ideas, and innovations. They are doing this at no-cost. Sure, many of these people want to advance their careers, but otherwise, the motivation seems to be more valuable. They want to share and explore the world. I use to have a professor that talked about the “power of thirty people in the room all knowledgeable about a singular subject”. The room has now expanded to incorporate the entire world. Blogs, allow you to step into that room. I hope to take that first step.

Between process and motivation, I feel as though I’ve stacked the deck in my favor. In a few weeks I’ll write another donuts post about all the things I’ve learned. Maybe my motivation will take on a new form different from the “collective experience”, but we’ll see. Right now, I’m in the planning stages. I want to give the serious effort of 2 posts a week and have a good idea on the tone I would like the blog to take. I have images already set for the first several posts. I even have a logo. With all the ingredients for a good blog, I hope to bake me a delicious multi-layered blog. The process will be the most interesting.

In the meantime, I will continue to reach out and learn what good blogging looks like. I’ll sift and sort as many law blogs as I can learning what good blogging looks like. I won’t go into details about what my new blog will entail. I will only say that it involves something that lawyers know all too well. So, stay tuned. We’ll see what we learn.

Lately, I’ve been think a ton about lead theory and how it concerns all of our jobs. In manufacturing, lead time is the amount of time between initiation and action. For example, you press a button on your coffee maker and 10 minutes later you have a full pot of coffee. For a full moving process like making a car, there can be hundreds of initiations within one major one. Look at Rube Goldberg machines if you want to know what I am talking about. Lead theory, in my mind, is the missing “verb” in the sea of adjectives that make up gestalt design principles, but now I’m just diving into the nerdom of information design. What I’m terribly getting at is this: you change 1 small part of a process, it can change the whole process.

I recently changed my email process. Instead of treating attorneys like I’m Oliver Twist asking for scraps of attention, I cut-to-the-chase and just tell them, “I want your blog”. In my new process, of which I have cut down dramatically, I can get through more than 20 emails in an hour. In the past, my record was 18 in an entire day’s worth of work. Match this with sorting 100+ websites a day, I can get through a ton of blogs. Honestly, it makes me feel like I’m sorting legos sometimes and I really like sorting. This whole change was not just, “fix your email”, but a whole series of small changes. Now we can dive into nerdom together.

The process, in its entirety, is fairly complicated with many small moving parts. Here is only some of the major steps: I look at the master list of contacted blogs. I pick one that is blank. I look over the website. I try to find author, size of the firm, contact info, style, and about 15+ other small things. If I get the sense that the website is already on LexBlog, I look for our logo, search on our contributors list, check hubspot, and look in our blog dashboard. Most of the time, I don’t have to dive that deep, but only every so often. If a blog does not meet our standard, I click the “r” button that highlights the row red and click from a dropdown as to why I chose to mark it red. If the blog is from a larger firm, has 5+ authors, multiple blogs, etc., I mark the row yellow for “let’s come back to this”.  If the blog is not red or yellow, I mark it blue meaning, “I call dibs!”. The blue blogs are mine. I’m going to email them and they will be my responsibility. I then get to finally email them.

You  can imagine why I’m able to max out sorting at 100/hour. This is of course assuming that I don’t have anything else going on. That is only one small part to the whole system. Emailing is its own process, responding to calls/emails, adding the memberships (seriously takes the longest time), checking hubspot, double checking other’s sheet work, and the extra work that I add for myself is really a ton. I would like to get through the master list as soon as possible and that’s why I keep trying to improve the process. At the 1st of December, I was happy to get through 10-20 blogs a day with emailing 5 bloggers. I was happy to get anyone responding. Now, the process is still a bit of a clunky Volkswagen beetle, but is able to keep pace at the Indy 500. I know the process can be faster.

This whole thought of “lead theory” and the correlation to the LexBlog method, as I am coining it now, was spurred by a documentary I watched multiple times every year in high school. I was a runner and my coach was none other than Pat Tyson. If you’ve worn Nikes, he is one of the guys to thank. In cross country, Tyson would show documentaries and movies all the time. Billy Mills was one of my favorite. When Billy talked about going just “snap his fingers” faster, I would be filled with a drive to do better. By the way: Billy Mills interview can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfLLNksZmoY. If you watched it, you could understand why focusing on just one small instant can change the outcome of an entire race. It also makes sense why this interview reminded me of manufacturing theories. In the case of my work at LexBlog, small instances define everything that I do.

So, if you made it this far into the post, I hope that you glean one thing: change one small thing at a time. Find the small things that work. For the things that don’t, see if you can’t make them just a snap faster. The picture is the first bite of a well deserved donut.

At LexBlog we manage over 1,000 sites across nearly 30 multisite installations of WordPress. Some of these sites have been publishing unique content for over a decade while some are in their first days of writing, slowly building an audience with each post. These sites share something in common, however, regardless of the subject matter, length of time on the web, or size of the publisher: Visitors are coming to their site on mobile devices at a rate that I’ve never seen before. 

When LexBlog gave me the opportunity to join the team in the summer of 2013 as an Account Manager, one of the first things I tried to understand was the audience of each site that was under my purview. It was my job to provide advice, guide, and suggest opportunities to the publishers and managers of these sites. At the time, LexBlog was just dipping its toes into the world of responsive design and was utilizing WP Touch to serve up a mobile version of our WordPress sites for those sites that weren’t responsively developed right out of the gate. 

Some of the first conversations I had with clients was around the subject of responsive redesigns of existing properties, or trying out a responsive design project on a new publication. At the time, it was a harder sell. Apple had released the iPhone 5 the year before, and was still moving at a relatively slow pace in pushing out new models, and the Android marketplace was relatively anemic. While it was clear there was a new game in town it wasn’t entirely clear what that game was to many internet neophytes.

To our development team, it was obvious that new game was responsive design. The flexibility of this approach was attractive, especially in a world where each pixel was highly scrutinized by marketing and business development teams. 

To our clients, the chief question was why would they spend an arm and a leg on a new technology when only 10-15% of their traffic was from mobile devices. 

Fast forward to today when I got it in my head that I would take a look at our network wide traffic to see what the current trends were. Some of the key stats for 2018 include:

  • Just over 1 in 3 people (34-35% of total traffic to be more exact with that number rising to 40% on some installations) visited a LexBlog managed site on a mobile device
  • Apple devices lead the way with about 60% of mobile device visits coming from an iPhone or iPad
  • Samsung is next in line with about 8-10% of the mobile device share on our network (the S7 through S9+ are the best represented Samsung devices)
  • Google’s devices are still lagging way behind much to the chagrin of our COO and CTO, the two Pixel advocates at LexBlog

Some of this ascent is no doubt due to our emphasis on responsive designs over the years. If a site looks good on a mobile device the first time you see it, you’re more apt to return on a phone or tablet when you’re not at your desk.

Beyond that, however, Google and other search engines continue to push usability as a component of their search results algorithms, and mobile friendliness is a key part of this. If your site does not render well on a phone or tablet, you’re likely to loose a key demographic, especially considering the rise of searches conducted on a mobile phone. 

Today, the conversation has changed from, “This is why you should consider a responsive design,” to “Here is your responsively designed site” without an option for anything else. Why would we suggest a subpar product and reading experience when we know the truth? The internet is expanding to more devices, more screens, more interfaces than we ever thought possible and consumers of content are keeping up with this breakneck pace; shouldn’t your site?