Google unveils digital subscriptions plans to help publishers

Steve Phelps
October 3, 2017

Google does a lot to infuriate traditional media companies, but one of its most controversial policies has for years been "First Click Free", in which it demanded that publishers have to give a certain number of articles to readers for free in order for those articles to appear high up in Google's search results.

This year, the Wall Street Journal stopped abiding by Google's policy, corresponding to a drop in search rankings but an increase in subscriptions.

"The tests that we've done with them have been around looking at what it would mean to change the meter within Google - or as it was known, first-click-free".

Following the complaints from huge media groups like News Corp about their effected sales Google announced on Sunday that their subscription news websites would no more be facilitating users with three free articles every day. Google introduced the policy a decade ago, on the premise that users should be able to access the news in their online search results. It required all publishers to allow a minimum of three articles free via Google Search and Google News.

Kinsey Wilson, the former executive editor of USA Today who now advises New York Times Co., said publishers must be careful about letting Google be the middleman to its readers. "We really recognize the transition to digital for publishers hasn't been easy", Google chief business officer Philipp Schindler told the WSJ.

But digital subscriptions are rising rapidly for major established newspapers. Google is recommending publishers allow 10 free articles per month as "a good starting point".

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Gingras says in the blog post: "Our goal is to make subscriptions work seamlessly everywhere, for everyone".

While Google will no longer punish publishers for failing to offer freebies to its users, it does have advice for how it prefers they implement Flexible Sampling, suggesting they offer ten free stories each month before chucking up a paywall - exactly what the New York Times already does.

The relationship between Google and publishers is complex. Facebook, the biggest driver of new traffic online has taken similar steps.

Google and Facebook are now taking the majority of the £10bn a year spent on digital advertising in the UK. This will help Google understand that the publisher is not cloaking - when sites serve different content to Googlebot than users - and that it is an approved paywall.

"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.

Google has also said it plans to help solve barriers to subscription, like the "hassles" of registering on a site, remembering multiple passwords and enterting credit card information.

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