Even Google knows when it’s pressing publishers too far, and after enough complaints about internet advertising revenues drying up for most news publishers, the big G is letting them make money through subscriptions.

Most can agree that even those that used to make a good amount with Google ads have seen those diminish drastically in the past few years and sponsored content has been the main source of income to keep your writers paid.

Google is ending a decade-old policy that required publishers to provide some free stories to Google users —though it’s not clear how many readers will even notice, at least for the moment.

Publishers had been required to provide at least three free stories a day under the search engine’s previous policy, called “first click free.” Now they have the power to choose how many free articles they want to offer readers via Google before charging a fee, Richard Gingras, vice president of news at Google Inc., wrote Monday in a company blog post.

The goal is to help publishers build up digital subscriptions, an imperative for many media outlets that pay large sums for news production but are starved for advertising revenue.

Google’s previous approach had let readers skirt paywall policies by typing a headline into Google and getting access to a story without having it count against a monthly free article limit, said Kinsey Wilson, an adviser to New York Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson.

IMPACT ON READERS

Many online readers may not notice a change overnight unless they visit a particular site several times a month without subscribing. And not every publication blocks users from reading stories with a paywall. Newer digital-only outfits tend not to.

Newspaper companies that do cut off readers tend to do so after a certain monthly allotment of free stories. The Times offers 10 free articles, for example; the Boston Globe, two.

Newspaper companies are trying to cope with steep declines in print-ad revenues as advertising has moved online. Google and social media companies like Facebook and Twitter are powerful drivers of traffic for publishers. But mandated freebie articles can complicate publishers’ attempts to bolster their paid-subscriber base.

News Corp.’s Wall Street Journal had turned off “first click free” for its four main sections in January. It then lost half its Google traffic to articles, said spokesman Steve Severinghaus. Google would demote a publisher’s content if they didn’t use first click free, but now says that won’t happen anymore.

Jason Kint, the head of the Digital Content Next media trade group, said he expects Google’s change will lead to news sites enabling more subscription models, making it harder down the road for web users to gorge themselves on stories from a particular outlet without paying for it.

TURNING TO SUBSCRIPTIONS

Subscription revenue is increasingly important for newspaper publishers. Print-ad revenue continues to shrink, and Facebook and Google are gobbling up most digital ad revenue. Research firm eMarketer says the two companies will take in 63 percent of U.S. digital ad dollars this year.

Facebook, too, is working on a way for news articles to charge readers for articles they share and read on the social network.

News outlets have become more aggressive at challenging the Silicon Valley giants. In July, news outlets sought permission from Congress for the right to negotiate jointly with Google and Facebook, given the duo’s dominance in online advertising and online news traffic.

In a statement Monday, News Corp. CEO Robert Thomson said Google’s change would be good for journalism if “properly introduced.”

In months of testing with Google, reducing those free clicks from three to zero “generally improved” subscription rates, the New York Times’ Wilson said. But he added the Times continues to assess whether to actually reduce the number of free clicks now that it can. He said it was “not simply a mechanical decision” because the Times’ mission was in part to make sure its news was available to a wide audience and to set the news agenda.

Google says it made the changes after feedback from and experiments with publishers. The company also says it wants to make subscribing to publications a more streamlined process and says it is working on ways to use its artificial intelligence capabilities to help publishers find new subscribers.

Google Driving Future Of Digital Subscriptions

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 with a focus on the following:

First, Flexible Sampling will replace First Click Free. Publishers are in the best position to determine what level of free sampling works best for them. So as of this week, we are ending the First Click Free policy, which required publishers to provide a minimum of three free articles per day via Google Search and Google News before people were shown a paywall.

Longer term, we are building a suite of products and services to help news publishers reach new audiences, drive subscriptions and grow revenue.

We are also looking at how we can simplify the purchase process and make it easy for Google users to get the full value of their subscriptions across Google’s platforms.

Our goal is to make subscriptions work seamlessly everywhere, for everyone.

First Click Free

We will end our First Click Free policy in favor of a Flexible Sampling model where publishers will decide how many, if any, free articles they want to provide to potential subscribers based on their own business strategies. This move is informed by our own research, publisher feedback, and months-long experiments with the New York Times and the Financial Times, both of which operate successful subscription services.

“Google’s decision to let publishers determine how much content readers can sample from search is a positive development,” said Kinsey Wilson, an adviser to New York Times CEO Mark Thompson. “We’re encouraged as well by Google’s willingness to consider other ways of supporting subscription business models, and we are looking forward to continuing to work with them to craft smart solutions.”

Publishers generally recognize that giving people access to some free content is the way to persuade people to buy their product. The typical approach to sampling is a model called metering, which lets people see a pre-determined number of free stories before a paywall kicks in. We recommend the following approach:

Monthly, rather than daily, metering allows publishers more flexibility to experiment with the number of free stories to offer people and to target those more likely to subscribe.

For most publishers, 10 articles per month is a good starting point.

Please see our Webmaster blog and our guide on Flexible Sampling for more detail on these approaches.

“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. 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.

Subscription support

Subscribing to great content should not be as hard as it is today. Registering on a site, creating and remembering multiple passwords, and entering credit card information—these are all hassles we hope to solve.

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.

And since news products and subscription models vary widely, we’re collaborating with publishers around the world on how to build a subscription mechanism that can meet the needs of a diverse array of approaches—to the benefit of the news industry and consumers alike.

We’re also exploring how Google’s machine learning capabilities can help publishers recognize potential subscribers and present the right offer to the right audience at the right time.

“It’s extremely clear that advertising alone can no longer pay for the production and distribution of high-quality journalism—and at the same time the societal need for sustainable independent journalism has never been greater.  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,” said Jon Slade, FT Chief Commercial Officer.

“The Financial Times is welcoming of Google’s input and actions to help this critical sector of the media industry, and we’ve worked very closely with Google to aid understanding of the needs that publishers have and how Google can help. That mutual understanding includes the ability to set controls over the amount of free content given to readers, a level playing field for content discovery, optimised promotion and payment processes. It is important that we now build and accelerate on the discussions and actions to date.”  

We are just getting started and want to get as much input from publishers—large, small, national, local, international—to make sure we build solutions together that work for everyone.

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