Google makes a major change to boost online publisher subscriptions

2 Oct 2017

You may see some changes to how many free articles you get from your favourite sites. Image: Makistock/Shutterstock

The controversial ‘first click free’ policy is being replaced with something entirely different.

After running a series of tests in August with major publishers such as the Financial Times and The New York Times, and exploring new tools to boost subscriptions for online publications, it looks like Google is shaking things up.

Goodbye to ‘first click free’

Google is abandoning its ‘first click free’ feature, which required publishers to offer three free articles a day before displaying a paywall to a reader. It had been widely decried by publishers, as not signing up for the scheme meant that articles would not list as highly in Google search results.

The much-maligned feature will be replaced by a flexible sampling model, which will allow publishers to determine the quantity of content pieces that they will give out for free. Many may no longer offer any pre-paywall content at all.

The metering will go by month, rather than the previous three-articles-daily model that was in force, allowing more time for publishers to experiment and target those more likely to subscribe.

Publishers are acutely aware that some level of free sampling is required of most of them to be successful online, but this new scheme will give them greater control over how it is distributed.

Taking the hassle out of subscribing online

Google is also helping publishers to make subscribing to content platforms easier, with new subscription support tools.

Vice-president of news at Google, Richard Gingras, said: “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.”

Google is also exploring how its machine-learning capabilities can come to the aid of publishers that need to recognise the right subscribers at the right time.

Jon Slade, CCO of the Financial Times, explained that advertising is simply not enough to pay for the production and distribution of high-quality journalism. “Reader-based revenue, aka paid content or subscription services, are therefore not just a nice-to-have, but an essential component of a publisher’s revenue composition.”

These changes will most likely see the emergence of a more flexible news model, with a level playing field for content discovery on the horizon. Google and Facebook have the lion’s share of digital advertising power, so it makes sense that both companies are now working with publishers, rather than against them.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects