Google Loosens Policies on News Website Paywalls

The search giant says it will change its "First Click Free" policy, which has been controversial with publishers, in favor of an alternative that allows publishers more flexibility in how users access paywalled content through Google's search engine.

If your organization’s magazine or publication is behind a paywall, you might be frustrated by the way Google has traditionally handled access to your restricted content.

The reason: the company’s “First Click Free” policy, which allows users who click on an article that’s behind a paywall to view the whole thing—whether they’re subscribers or not—as many as three times per day, as long as the click originally came from Google. Websites that did not agree to allow this were shut out of traffic from the world’s most-used search engine.

So, many publishers welcomed Google’s announcement this week that it will replace First Click Free with “Flexible Sampling,” which gives publishers some control over access to content behind a paywall via Google.

With Flexible Sampling, “publishers will decide how many, if any, free articles they want to provide to potential subscribers based on their own business strategies,” Google’s vice president of news, Richard Gingras, stated in a blog post. “This move is informed by our own research, publisher feedback, and monthslong experiments with The New York Times and the Financial Times, both of which operate successful subscription services.”

The move comes months after The Wall Street Journal, following years of frustration with Google’s policy, pulled out of the First Click Free agreement entirely. For years, readers took advantage of a well-known loophole that allowed them to access Journal articles simply by searching for the headline in Google. The company closed the loophole in February, and the Journal saw its search traffic plummet.

“Any site like ours automatically doesn’t get the visibility in search that a free site would,” WSJ Chief Marketing Officer Suzi Watford told Bloomberg in June. “You are definitely being discriminated against as a paid news site.”

Google’s shift will likely have an impact on more than just well-known sites, giving publishers more control over what the search engine shares—without the disadvantages of putting a hard paywall on content.

“We really recognize the transition to digital for publishers hasn’t been easy,” said Philipp Schindler, Google’s chief business officer, in comments to the Journal [subscription]. “The economics are pretty clear: If publishers aren’t successful, we can’t be successful.”

On top of offering more flexible subscription options, Google is also offering new subscription tools to news outlets based on its existing identity and payment technologies. The intent is to make subscriptions a single-click process through standard platforms like Google Newsstand, Google Search, or Google News, along with the publishers’ sites.

The company will also look into using its machine learning skills to help target potential subscribers.

(GCShutter/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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