This week, Google killed its 'first click free policy', which required that publishers employing a paywall offer Google Search and Google News users three free articles per day. Those that didn't saw their search rankings demoted.

For years, publishers complained that first click free policy made it difficult for them to maximize their subscription revenue. Yet many chose to follow it rather than give up Google referral traffic.

One of the biggest problems first click free presented publishers with was the fact that consumers, especially those loath to pay money for subscriptions, often took advantage of the policy to circumvent paywalls. Many learned that after finding a paywalled article of interest through another channel, such as social media, Google Search and Google News could be used to access the article thanks to first click free.

Eventually, the abuse of first click free factored into some publishers' decisions to abandon first click free and accept the consequences. For instance, the Wall Street Journal revealed that its Google Search traffic dropped by more than a third when it stopped adhering to the policy at the beginning of the year.

But after months of testing with the New York Times and Financial Times, Google decided to drop first click free in favor of a “flexible sampling” model that will allow premium publishers to select how many free articles are delivered through search results.

In a blog post, Google explained:

We found that while [first click free] is a reasonable sampling model, publishers are in a better position to determine what specific sampling strategy works best for them. Therefore, we are removing FCF as a requirement for Search, and we encourage publishers to experiment with different free sampling schemes, as long as they stay within the updated webmaster guidelines. We call this Flexible Sampling.

Flexible sampling comes in two forms: metering, “which provides users with a quota of free articles to consume”, and lead-in, “which offers a portion of an article’s content without it being shown in full.”

Google says that “lead-in clearly provides more utility and added value to users” because it “allows users a taste of how valuable the content may be.”

But for publishers that prefer metering, Google is recommending monthly instead of daily metering and suggests they start with 10 free articles per month.

A case of be careful what you wish for?

While publishers are celebrating the end of first click free, Google's move is not completely altruistic. Long-term, Google's VP of News, Richard Gingras, stated that Google will create “a suite of products and services to help news publishers reach new audiences, drive subscriptions and grow revenue.”

He added, “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.”

In other words, instead of letting publishers do what they want free of first click free, it would appear that Google intends to try to find a way to insert itself into their subscription businesses.

This is interesting in light of Google Contributor, an offering that allows users to pay to remove ads from the sites they visit.

Of course, if Google can help publishers profit, many will likely err on the side of working with the search giant, but given that the publishing industry has previously expressed considerable concern about Google's power, expect some bumps in the road.

Patricio Robles

Published 6 October, 2017 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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