Google will no longer force news providers to offer free content if they want articles to appear high in the search engine’s results.
To rank well in the search engine’s listings, news websites had to offer readers access to three free articles a day under the “first click free” policy.
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Google will now replace “first click free” with a flexible sampling model, allowing news organisations to rank even if they don’t offer free content.
The decision follows complaints from publications with paywalls including The Wall Street Journal and The Times, both owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
The Wall Street Journal went so far as to drop out of Google’s “first click free” program in February.
Almost immediately, the publication lost all traffic from the search engine.
Why did Google decide to make the change?
“It’s really all an attempt to try to create a new world — a better world — for journalism,” said Philipp Schindler, Google’s chief business officer.
Robert Thomson, News Corp’s chief executive, first revealed that it was likely that Google would get rid of “first click free” policy at a conference last month.
Prior to the conference, Thomson had already engaged in a series of talks with Google “about the future of content.”
“If you don’t sign up for ‘first click free’, you virtually disappear from a search. Given the power of that Google platform, that is disadvantaging premium content of great provenance,” he said at the time.
Google also conducted trials with two subscription-based publications, the New York Times and the Financial Times in August to assess the initial impact of removing “first click free” on their business models.
In a blog, Richard Gingras, vice-president of news at Google, said:
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Journalism provides accurate and timely information when it matters most, shaping our understanding of important issues and pushing us to learn more in search of the truth. People come to Google looking for high-quality content, and our job is to help them find it. However, sometimes that content is behind a paywall.
“While research has shown that people are becoming more accustomed to paying for news, the sometimes painful process of signing up for a subscription can be a turn off. That’s not great for users or for news publishers who see subscriptions as an increasingly important source of revenue.To address these problems we’ve been talking to news publishers about how to support their subscription businesses,” he added.
Will the end of “first click free” help news publications make money?
As Gingras indicates, the change is part of Google’s broader push to make it easier for news organisations to increase their subscription base and generate revenue.
News publishers have struggled as advertisers increasingly focus their attention on Facebook and Google.
The two tech giants will together garner more than 60 percent of the $83bn digital advertising market this year, according to EMarketer.
Richard Peel, the director of the Media Society, a UK-based charity which conducts research into the media industry applauded Google’s policy change. He told Verdict:
The change in this policy will allow publishers to decide what to do in the best interests of their businesses. It has taken away a constraint which was resented by many organisations who will now have the ability to determine the number of free articles they want to offer for free — if any. It is a welcome development, as is the promise to make it easier for readers to subscribe to news services.
As well as dropping “first click free”, the search engine will let people subscribe to news publications with a one-click option available through Google’s existing payment technology.
As Gingras explained in his blog post:
As a first step we’re taking advantage of our existing identity and payment technologies to help people subscribe on a publication’s website with a single click, and then seamlessly access that content anywhere — whether it’s on that publisher site or mobile app, or on Google Newsstand, Google Search or Google News.
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