Google Ending ‘First Click Free’ Policy to Appease Publishers

For years, Google has encouraged publishers to partake in its “first click free” policy, which allows its search engine users to circumvent news website paywalls for a limited amount of content. Publishers have complained that the policy hurts subscription growth, but that if they don’t participate, Google will list their sites further down in search rankings. Now, in response to long-standing publisher opposition, Google is ending that policy, letting publishers determine how users access their sites from search results.

The Wall Street Journal reports that its own site, owned by News Corp., “opted out of the program this year and saw its traffic from Google search fall 38 percent last month compared with a year earlier because its stories were demoted in search results.” That’s because Google’s search algorithm “only scanned the portions of articles outside the paywall.”

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Now, say sources, that algorithm will scan the full article, despite paywalls. According to sources, “Google will still enable subscription-oriented publishers to give search users a free sample of their stories if they choose to, but they won’t be penalized if they don’t.”

“That will fundamentally change the content ecosystem, and not just for us but for many publishers,” said News Corp. chief executive Robert Thomson. “It will allow the creation of coherent, viable subscription models. There’s a lot more to negotiate, there’s a long way to go, but their willingness to end first click free should be celebrated by all publishers.”

Google has not stated when this change will go into effect, but WSJ calls it “an apparent warming in its relationship with publishers, who have sparred with the tech giant at times over everything from its dominance in mobile advertising to what they perceive to be its role, along with Facebook, in facilitating the spread of misinformation on the Internet.”

Thomson and Google chief executive Sundar Pichai had “a breakthrough in their relationship in July,” says a source, and Thomson gives Pichai credit for “taking a different approach.” Google, which first tested changes to the policy with The New York Times and Financial Times, is also testing “sharing its data with publishers on which users are likely to buy subscriptions and using its online-payments system for subscriptions.”