Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Business & Appointments - - FRONT PAGE -

NOW that on­line ad­ver­tis­ing is in the dog­house, Google has de­cided that pub­lish­ers and jour­nal­ists need help get­ting users to pay di­rectly for news. And so the search gi­ant has an­nounced some tools and tweaks to help drive dig­i­tal sub­scrip­tions, which are where most pub­lish­ers seem to be pin­ning their com­mer­cial hopes.

The big­gest change is Google’s re­moval of its “first click free” pol­icy. This re­quired news out­lets to give users com­ing from Google Search and Google News a min­i­mum of three free ar­ti­cles a day be­fore they were asked to pay up.

Pub­lish­ers that didn’t play ball re­ported that their ar­ti­cles were buried in search re­sult pages. Some even said that their con­tent was vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to find. For ex­am­ple, Christo­pher Mimms, a jour­nal­ist with the Wall Street Jour­nal, tweeted the fol­low­ing in Septem­ber: “Very dis­ap­point­ing to see Google de-in­dex­ing WSJ on ac­count of our pay­wall. Harder than ever to find my own pre­vi­ous work.”

But with first click free get­ting the axe, sto­ries from should be­come more vis­i­ble on search. First click free is be­ing re­placed by some­thing Google’s call­ing “flex­i­ble sam­pling”. Pub­lish­ers will be able to de­cide how many, if any, free ar­ti­cles they want to give po­ten­tial sub­scribers. Google has also ac­cepted that pub­lish­ers should be able to show users a snip­pet of the full ar­ti­cle be­fore ask­ing for pay­ment.

Google is also of­fer­ing its iden­tity and pay­ment tech­nolo­gies to pub­lish­ers to help make pay­ing for con­tent eas­ier. And it is plan­ning to help pub­lish­ers recog­nise po­ten­tial sub­scribers through its ma­chine learn­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

But it’s the re­moval of first click free that’s got pub­lish­ers ex­cited. Google says it was pulled fol­low­ing re­search, pub­lisher feed­back, and months of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with the New York Times and the Fi­nan­cial Times, which op­er­ate sub­scrip­tion ser­vices. Both have is­sued corporate-speak state­ments giv­ing Google the thumbs up.

“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,” droned Jon Slade, FT Chief Com­mer­cial Of­fi­cer. “Google’s de­ci­sion to let pub­lish­ers de­ter­mine how much con­tent read­ers can sam­ple from search is a pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment,” di­alled in Kin­sey Wil­son, an ad­viser to New York Times CEO Mark Thomp­son.

But is it a rad­i­cal de­par­ture or just an­other way for Google to con­trol how its users access news via its prod­ucts?

Well, to take part news web­sites need to use a type of code to flag con­tent be­hind their pay­walls. This code will al­low Google’s al­go­rithm to know ex­actly which bits of con­tent peo­ple are go­ing to have to pay for. And what will Google do with this ex­tra bit of in­for­ma­tion? It will use it in its search re­sults, of course.

Google could pri­ori­tise search re­sults from pub­li­ca­tions that you sub­scribe to. And de­pri­ori­tise search re­sults from pub­li­ca­tions that you don’t. It could tin­ker with how sto­ries are dis­played on its search re­sults page to also alert you which sto­ries are free. The re­sult is that while pub­lish­ers now have greater con­trol over their pay­wall strate­gies, Google can use the new struc­tured mark-up re­quired to take part in flex­i­ble sam­pling to con­trol how its users dis­cover and in­ter­act with con­tent. So flex­i­ble sam­pling is likely to be good news for large news out­lets, with strong brands and es­tab­lished sub­scriber-bases. But smaller pub­lish­ers may see lit­tle dif­fer­ence from the cur­rent set-up.

And when it comes to mak­ing it eas­ier to sub­scribe, there’s also the ques­tion of money. Google hasn’t an­nounced any de­tails of the rev­enue-shar­ing terms for the pub­lish­ers that sign up to use its sub­scrip­tion ap­pa­ra­tus. But it has said that it will be a “very gen­er­ous model”.

So while Google is un­doubt­edly sin­cere in its aims to help the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try, it also needs to look af­ter its own users. This is some­thing it does with laser fo­cus. “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,” wrote Richard Gin­gras, Google’s vice-pres­i­dent of news (pic­tured), in the state­ment an­nounc­ing the death of first click free. Those are my ital­ics, but pub­lish­ers should heed Google’s pri­ori­ti­sa­tion of its own users.

They need to do like­wise.

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