Google flips focus from free news to subscription support

Paywalls beat out free news at Google after years of First Click Free policy

online news

Publishers, rejoice: First Click Free is dead. Google is ending its controversial policy requiring publishers to offer at least a few news stories for free or risk their ranking in search results and further sweetening the deal by sharing user data for easier subscription signups and offers.

First Click Free was a Google policy that required publishers to offer a set number of articles for free, or risk losing their ranking in search results. To appease publishers concerned Google was giving away their work for free, two years ago the number of free articles could be limited to three.

That wasn't good enough for some: the Wall Street Journal stopped giving any stories away for free this year, leading to a drop in traffic but a boost in subscribers, according to Reuters.

The Guardian reported Robert Thomson, CEO of News Corp, as telling a conference last month: "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."

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Google now appears to agree, ditching First Click Free in favour of a new Flexible Sampling policy, which means publishers can decide for themselves how many if any free stories to offer readers who aren't logged in or subscribers. "Publishers are in the best position to determine what level of free sampling works best for them," noted Richard Gingras, VP for News at Google, in a blog post.

The change follows "months-long experiments" with both the New York Times and Financial Times, he added, both of which have paywalls.

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 aim is to encourage readers to sign up for subscriptions, suggesting paywalls have beaten out free news, at least for large newspapers. "'Try before you buy' underlines what many publishers already know they need to provide some form of free sampling to be successful on the internet," said Gingras. "If it's too little, then fewer users will click on links to that content or share it, which could have an effect on brand discovery and subsequently may affect traffic over time."

To help make subscriptions easier, Google will share user data with publishers for one-click purchases and prefill signup forms, and eventually help news sites offer deals to regular readers.

"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," Gingras explained.

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Alongside that, Google is working with publishers to build a "subscription mechanism" and use its machine learning skills to "help publishers recognise potential subscribers and present the right offer to the right audience at the right time".

In other words, Google is, at least for larger sites, ditching the free news model in favour of the subscription game. Indeed, Gingras told Search Engine Land the subscription offer tools might become a formal ad product, but was currently "just trying to understand costs and value delivered".

Gingras also suggested to Search Engine Land that content users subscribe to may be boosted in search results, possibly in a box separating it from organic results.

First Click Free is being replaced this week, but the other tools won't arrive until next year.

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