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The biggest load of old rubbish ever has been written about the changes to Google's first click free program. Here's a round up of who understands what they are talking about (and might survive with a paywall) and who hasn't got a clue ...

How first-click free works

First, a reminder of how first-click free works. If you have a paywall (ie you require registration or subscription to access content), Google has a problem. It wants to index your pages. But it doesn't want its users to have a rubbish user experience - and people would stop using Google if every time they clicked a result, all they saw a was a 'sign up now' message.

The solution was the first-click-free compromise:

  1. Publishers allow Google behind their paywall.
  2. Google indexes their content and shows it in its results - on condition that searchers can also see it if they come via Google.
  3. If seachers click a link in Google, the publisher lets them read that page of content.
  4. If searchers click any other  links on the publisher's site, the publisher shows them a sign-up now message.

(This is a high level summary - the rules for searchers coming via Google news and from Google web search are slighltly different)

The drawback ...

It is easy to circumvent First Click Free if you can be bothered. If you want to read a second story on a first-click-free site, you copy and paste the URL into google and then click the result. So go direct to this page and you can't see it. Click the first result here and you can.

The change that Google has announced means publishers can limit to five a day the number of pages a user can see when they come via Google:

While we're happy to see that a number of publishers are already using First Click Free, we've found that some who might try it are worried about people abusing the spirit of First Click Free to access almost all of their content. As most users are generally happy to be able to access just a few pages from these premium content providers, we've decided to allow publishers to limit the number of accesses under the First Click Free policy to five free accesses per user each day.

All of this is TOTALLY in the publishers' control. All Google is saying is that, if you want to be in Google's index, you have to let users see the content when it appears in Google's results. If you don't want to do this, don't join first click free and don't let Google beyond your paywall.

Which news organisations don't understand?

Got it? Let's see who hasn't ... (to be fair, some of them explain it properly under the hopelessly wrong headlines ...)

BBC: wrong

Google to limit free news access

Times: wrong

Google to limit access to paid-for web content

Sky News: wrong

Google Limits Free Access To News Articles after criticism by News Corp Boss Rupert Murdoch

These are all wrong. Google is not doing the limiting. It's allowing publishers, who set the rules on what people to see, to limit access yet still remain in first-click free. Publishers do the limiting.

Press Association: wrong

Fewer free news pages on Google

There's the same number of free pages on Google. There's just a limit on how many you can read if you click through to a publisher's site.

BBC: wrong again

One particular bugbear for all newspapers is that a Google search allows readers access to their content even if it is behind a paywall.

No, a paywall keeps Google out unless the publisher decides to let it in and chooses to join first click free. Google respects paywalls, unless the publisher asks Google to index its content and voluntarily implements first-click free.

And who has got it right ...

Guardian: correct

Google to allow publishers to limit free news access

Telegraph: correct

Google to let publishers limit free online news

Reuters: correct

Google offers publishers limit on free news access

These headlines are all accurate. Well done, you might be able to get people to pay for your information as it is at least correct...


Published 3 December, 2009 by Malcolm Coles

Malcolm Coles is Director at Digital Sparkle and a contributor to Econsultancy. He also blogs at malcolmcoles.co.uk. You can follow him on Twitter here.

16 more posts from this author

Comments (4)

Jayne Reddyhoff

Jayne Reddyhoff, Director at Zanzi Digital

Thanks for explaining all that so clearly. I had definitely misunderstood what was happening!

almost 7 years ago



Sadly the BBC are in your list of innaccurate publishers.  The standard of BBC editorship has declined sharply over the last couple of years or so.  Shortcuts seem to be taken leading to factual errors, the standard of English has declined (which must be the primary tool of a journalist) and the leap to hyped items rather than real news items is ever present.

almost 7 years ago


Arlington SEO

Found this on LinkedIn posting by someone from the Telegraph Media Group in UK.  Good article.  Fox and family seem to want to bail from Google and sign exclusive with Bing, because they don't want to give even first click for free without financial compensation.  Google's new approach seems to be a reasonable compromise to keep the other media outlets happy, while still maintaining the benefit of First-Click-Free for visitors.  I think that a 5 article limit may be a bit low, however, particularly for a major new outlet where someone may find multiple news stories of interest that day, all from the same source!  But I guess that will depend on the individual media outlets - those that want to be a BIT more generous, and those that want to push visitor restrictions as far as Google will let them!

Any idea how this is intended to be implemented - cookies, or IP address, or what?  And is Google planning to provide any technical help with imposing this limit, or is it going to be strictly up to the individual news organizations to implement these restrictions?

almost 7 years ago


Malcolm Coles, Director at Digital Sparkle

Google doesn't seem to be giving much guidance. On the post I link to above it says:

Q: What is the preferred way to count a user's accesses?
A: Since there are many different site architectures, we believe it's best to leave this up to the publisher to decide.

almost 7 years ago

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