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Google ditches ‘first click free’ policy that required paywalled publishers to offer free content

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Google is ditching its controversial so-called “first click free” (FCF) policy that required subscription-based online publishers give readers free access to some articles found through Google News and web searches.

In its place, Google has introduced a set of “flexible sampling” guidelines that it recommends online publishers use, however they are purely advisory and the internet giant will no longer enforce the model.

Google first introduced FCF to subscription-based content more than a decade ago, with users able to read the first article they clicked on a given site in full, however any subsequent clicks through the same site would require them to log-in or subscribe. In 2009, the company required publishers to implement a “five articles a day” lower limit, and in 2015 Google reduced this lower limit to three articles.

While publishers were, of course, free to ignore Google’s FCF policy, their content would be much harder to find if they did ignore it, given that Google would not index the content through web searches and Google News. Now what Google is effectively doing is allowing any paywalled publisher to appear in search results, irrespective of whether they offer free content.

Though Google is removing the FCP stipulation, the company’s position on the matter remains clear — it really believes publishers must offer some form of free content for first-time clickers. After all, why would anyone subscribe to a publication without knowing what they’re getting in advance? And that is why Google will continue to push the agenda voluntarily through its flexible sampling guidelines instead.

“We found that while FCF is a reasonable sampling model, publishers are in a better position to determine what specific sampling strategy works best for them,” noted Cody Kwok, principal engineer at Google.

Google added that it has been experimenting with the subscription-based Financial Times and New York Times in the build up to today’s FCF reversal and to help inform its new set of publisher guidelines.

“‘Try before you buy’ underlines what many publishers already know — they need to provide some form of free sampling to be successful on the internet,” explained Google’s VP of news Richard Gingras. “If it’s too little, then fewer users will click on links to that content or share it, which could have an effect on brand discovery and subsequently may affect traffic over time.”

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