A lot of paywalled news sites are easily defeated with ye olde “incognito tab,” but others have required a little Google artistry — using both the incognito browsing and incredibly precise search queries to read a paywalled article for free. However, after years of pressure from publishers, Google is finally bricking up that doggie door.
Out with the old
The policy that’s changing is known as First Click Free, and it does exactly what it sounds like. Users who get directed to a paywalled publication — like, say, the Wall Street Journal — from search results can get sent directly to that paywalled content. In 2015, Google changed the minimum number of free daily views outlets had to offer from five to three, but didn’t change any other facets of the program.
Publishers who have hard paywalls naturally hated First Click Free, because it allowed users to circumvent those paywalls. But they largely cooperated, because Google promoted accessible content over inaccessible content in its search results. Basically, anything with a paywall that didn’t participate in First Click Free found its search results — and associated traffic — severely deprecated.
The Wall Street Journal, for example, disabled First Click Free access earlier this year. As a result, the company says, it lost 38% of its traffic from Google search and 89% of its traffic from Google News compared to a year earlier.
In with the new
After a decade of First Click Free, though, Google’s finally giving up.
The new program is Flexible Sampling. Basically, instead of Google determining how much of a free sample users should get, publications will determine for themselves.
But Google does suggest that publications should include some kind of “try before you buy,” because people won’t share what they can’t access. (In jargon, that’s “an effect on brand discovery” that “subsequently may affect traffic over time.”)
Google “recommends” that publishers use monthly, rather than daily, metering to allow casual viewers to get a feel for their content and “Target those more likely to subscribe.” Ten articles per month is the sweet spot, Google suggests, much like the threshold outlets like the New York Times and some other major papers already use.
Frankly, Google adds, subscribing to content can be a pain, and so publishers should make it easier. And by the way, the company helpfully adds, you can make it easier by relying on Google’s suite of tools — like, for example, one-click sign-on that relies on your Google identity to keep you signed in correctly across multiple devices and apps.