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.
Publishers are increasingly moving their articles behind subscription paywalls, rather than relying on digital advertising for their revenue, so this policy has become increasingly troublesome. For example, when The Wall Street Journal stopped giving free tasters of its content earlier this year, its traffic from Google users plunged by 44%. As Google has a global search engine market share of over 90%, that level of control matters for any publisher.
Something had to give, and on Monday it did. In a blog post, Google News chief Richard Gingras announced that First Click Free was being replaced by a new policy called “Flexible Sampling.” Instead of being forced to serve up three free articles per day, publishers will instead be able to set their own number of free monthly samples—Google recommends 10 a month.
“Publishers generally recognize that giving people access to some free content is the way to persuade people to buy their product,” Gingras wrote.
Google also promised to work with publishers on making it easier for people to subscribe to their articles. Judging from Monday’s announcement, it appears Google wants to ensure that its services become central to that process.
“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 said.
The Wall Street Journal quoted News Corp CEO Robert Thomson as saying the move was “an important first step in recognizing the value of legitimate journalism.”
Google and Facebook pretty much own the digital advertising market between them and, if subscription models become the norm, they will be vying for control of that mechanism too. Like Google, Facebook is also working on support for paywalled articles within its social network.