Experience the Lightning Bolt

 

Three months back we announced how we are transforming the shopping experience at eBay, enabling our users to browse with style and speed. Our goal was to provide an engaging experience not only to users who are within the eBay site, but also to mobile users accessing eBay from external platforms like Google and Twitter. This is where AMP technology comes into play. We implemented an AMP version for our new product browse experience, along with the regular mobile web pages, and launched them in June. At that time we did not make our AMP content discoverable to Google, as we had a few pending tasks to be completed. Also, AMP links surfaced in Google search results only for publisher-based content and not for eCommerce.

Things have changed now. Google announced that they are opening AMP beyond the news industry to include eCommerce, travel and so on. From our end, we wrapped up the pending items and linked the AMP pages from non-AMP pages to make them discoverable. Today we are happy to announce that users around the globe will start seeing eBay AMP links in Google search results and experience the lightning bolt — instant loading. We have close to 15 million AMP-based product browse pages, but not all will appear as AMP right away. This feature is being ramped up and will eventually surface. Check out some of the popular queries in a mobile browser — “iPhone 6 no contract” and “canon digital cameras,” for example. The AMP lightning bolt appears next to links as an indication. AMP for eCommerce is now a reality.

eBay AMP Product Browse Page eBay AMP link in Google search results (left); eBay AMP product browse page (right)

Between now and then

Following our initial launch in June, we did a couple of things to make AMP ready for prime time. We outline a few these efforts here.

Robust analytics system

Understanding how users interact with our pages is critical for us to provide the most optimized experience. The back-end system that powers the new product browse experience is designed in such a way that it constantly collects users’ screen activity, learns from it, and optimizes the experience for subsequent visits. For example, if users interact more often with a module that appears below the fold in the screen, then in future visits to the same browse page, that module will start appearing above the fold. Our non-AMP page has a custom analytics library that does the reporting to the back end.

AMP has a component (amp-analytics) for doing this. In our initial AMP launch, we used this component just to track page impressions. It provides a fairly exhaustive tracking mechanism. But what we wanted was more granular control at an element level, where each element dictates what it wants to track. We started working with the AMP team on this and came up with a spec. We went ahead implemented the spec and contributed it back to the open-source project. With the implementation in place, we were able to achieve a robust and advanced analytic system that reports user interactions like click, scroll, and visibility to our backend, which in turn optimizes the subsequent visits.

Feature parity

We mentioned in our previous blog that most of the code is shared between the AMP and non-AMP pages. Even with this code sharing, there were still small feature inconsistencies between the two versions. We closed these gaps, fixed the inconsistencies, and put a process in place to make sure they do not creep in. Having said that, there were certain UI components and behaviors that we were not able to achieve in the AMP version due to restrictions. Some of these components are eCommerce-specific. We are working with the AMP team to add them to the component list so everyone can benefit. A good example would be tabbed UI component, and there is already a feature request to get this implemented.

Streamlined build process

During the initial launch, we put manual effort into managing assets (CSS and JavaScript) between the AMP and non-AMP versions. In the AMP version, there should be no JavaScript, and all CSS should be inline, whereas in the non-AMP version, both CSS and JavaScript should be bundled and externalized. Doing this manually was not ideal. Our asset pipeline tool, Lasso, had a solution for this —  conditional dependencies. We created an AMP flag that gets initialized to true if the request is AMP and then set as a Lasso flag. The pipeline gets access to it and automatically bundles, externalizes, or inlines resources based on the conditions. This was a big time saver and ended up being very efficient.

The road ahead

We are not done yet; in fact, we are just getting started. We have a bunch of tasks lined up.

  • Beyond AMP — We know AMP pages are fast. But what about the subsequent pages the user visits? Currently when users click on a link in the AMP page, a new tab opens, and the destination page is loaded there. In our case, the mobile web version of the destination page is loaded. We want that experience also to be as fast and consistent as the AMP experience. There is an AMP component (amp-install-serviceworker) to achieve this goal, and our top priority is to leverage this utility and create a seamless transition from the AMP to the target page. We are also discussing with the Google team about how to avoid the new tab and continue the experience in the same window.
  • Cache freshness — AMP content is served from Google AMP cache, and the cache update policy can be found here. What this means to eBay is, for popular product queries, users always see fresh content. But for certain extremely rare queries, a few users may end up seeing stale content. While this is not a common scenario, there is an AMP component (amp-fresh) in the works to fix this. We will be integrating this component as soon as it is ready. In the meanwhile, we have a script that we manually run for a few products to update the AMP content in cache.
  • Unified version — Currently we have two versions of the new browse pages — AMP and non-AMP. The AMP version shows up to users searching in Google, and the non-AMP version shows up to users searching within eBay. Although both of them are highly optimized, look the same, and share most of the code, updating both versions is still a maintenance overhead. In addition, we always need to watch out for feature parity. In the future, based on how AMP pages are performing, we may choose to have one mobile version (AMP) and serve it to all platforms.

We are very excited to provide the AMP experience to our mobile users coming from Google. We have been playing with it for a while, and it is indeed lightning fast. Mobile browsing can be slow and sometimes frustrating, and this is where AMP comes in and guarantees a consistent and fast experience. We hope our users benefit from this new technology.

Senthil Padmanabhan | Principal Engineer at eBay

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