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Google Adds a Brick to Online Publishers' Paywalls

By Peter Suciu
Oct 2, 2017 1:35 PM PT
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Google on Monday announced that it was dropping its decade-old policy of requiring media and news publishers to provide a limited amount of free content. The so-called "first click free" policy meant that publishers had to make a certain amount of content available to users who conducted a search on Google, even if their stories, videos or images otherwise were behind a paywall.

Media publishers had been required to provide at least three free stories or similar content before those clicking on links via Google would have to subscribe, or otherwise pay, to access the content. Beginning this week, publishers will be allowed to decide how many free articles to offer through Google searches -- if any -- before requiring readers to pay.

Google's users seek high-quality content, the company said, and while its search engine is there to help users find that content, sometimes it is behind a paywall.

Users have become more accustomed to paying for news, and those payments are more important than ever for news publishers who view online subscriptions as key to a successful business model, said Richard Gingras, vice president of news for Google.

To replace the "first click free" policy, Google has introduced flexible sampling, which will let media and news content publishers determine what works best.

In addition, Google announced that it is building a suite of products and services designed to aid news publishers in reaching a greater audience, and to help drive subscriptions and grow revenue.

Moreover, Google will determine how it can simplify the purchase process, while making it easier for its users to get the full value from online subscriptions across the Google platform.

Business of Search

Google over the years has expanded its original focus to undertake everything from developing a mobile phone operating system to carrying out experimental projects, including development of autonomous vehicle technologies. Still, its core business always has been built around search -- and of course, the advertising dollars that search can provide.

However, Google's strategies have not been welcomed by content publishers, which in essence were forced to give away potentially valuable content.

This latest switch in strategy suggests that Google has listened to publishers' criticisms and now will allow them to determine for themselves what to offer in the way of potential "loss leaders" in order to attract a larger audience.

The New York Times already gives non-subscribers access to 10 articles per month, for example, Google noted.

"Google's 'first click free' policy in exchange for prominence in its search results was largely loathed by publishers who hated being forced to provide readers free content," said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

"That resistance is understandable on one level, but it also demonstrates the industry's short memory," he told the E-Commerce Times.

"Before and after the dot-com boom, traditional publishers tried and mostly failed mightily to successfully get readers to buy access to their content," King recalled. "Google's 'first click free' policy may have been inflexible, but it also provided a useful framework for consumers to try out new content and determine whether or not to sign-up for paid services."

Subscription Model

The "first click free" policy undermined publishers' attempts to enforce a paywall, or even to instill in readers the value of the content, critics maintained. From the publishers' perspective, many readers became too comfortable with the belief that online content always should be free.

If those accessing the content from Google didn't have to pay for stories, it certainly lessened the need to subscribe.

Publishers were caught between a rock (lack of exposure if they did not adhere to Google's "first click free" requirement) and a hard place (not getting paid for content people desired), observed Roger Entner, principal analyst at Recon Analytics.

"Google is certainly responding to the monetization and exposure concerns of the publishers," he told the E-Commerce Times.

"Google appears sincere in its intent to help publishers drive more subscriptions," said Greg Sterling, vice president of strategy and insights at the Local Search Association.

"The new policy gives publishers more freedom and control without hurting their rankings, and that's very positive," he told the E-Commerce Times.

"The other aspects -- using ad targeting tactics and other mechanisms to expose publisher content to the right audiences -- won't roll out for a little while, so we'll have to wait and see how that will work," Sterling said.

Consumer Reaction

This strategy may help publishers, but those doing the clicking may become frustrated if paywall after paywall is all the results offer.

"At this point, it's hard to say how, or how positively, consumers will react to the new policy," said Pund-IT's King.

"Publishers are likely to celebrate their new-found flexibility, but the fact that they'll have the options to present material any which way they choose is likely to result in considerable confusion among prospects and customers," he noted.

"If the problem is significant or long-lasting, it won't be surprising to see at least some publishers shift back to a free content model similar to Google's," King added.

There may not be an immediate change due to the shift, though.

"It will be a slow and gradual process where people will have to learn that quality content does not come for free," suggested Recon Analytics' Entner. "There will be resistance at first -- but ultimately, you get what you pay for."


Peter Suciu has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2012. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile phones, displays, streaming media, pay TV and autonomous vehicles. He has written and edited for numerous publications and websites, including Newsweek, Wired and FoxNews.com. Email Peter.


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