Monday 16 September 2019

Publishers must prioritise their users, not Google's

Google's vice-president of news Richard Gingras. Photo: Weinberg-Clark Photography
Google's vice-president of news Richard Gingras. Photo: Weinberg-Clark Photography
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Now that online advertising is in the doghouse, Google has decided that publishers and journalists need help getting users to pay directly for news. And so the search giant has announced some tools and tweaks to help drive digital subscriptions, which are where most publishers seem to be pinning their commercial hopes.

The biggest change is Google's removal of its "first click free" policy. This required news outlets to give users coming from Google Search and Google News a minimum of three free articles a day before they were asked to pay up.

Publishers that didn't play ball reported that their articles were buried in search result pages. Some even said that their content was virtually impossible to find. For example, Christopher Mimms, a journalist with the Wall Street Journal, tweeted the following in September: "Very disappointing to see Google de-indexing WSJ on account of our paywall. Harder than ever to find my own previous work."

But with first click free getting the axe, stories from should become more visible on search. First click free is being replaced by something Google's calling "flexible sampling". Publishers will be able to decide how many, if any, free articles they want to give potential subscribers. Google has also accepted that publishers should be able to show users a snippet of the full article before asking for payment.

Google is also offering its identity and payment technologies to publishers to help make paying for content easier. And it is planning to help publishers recognise potential subscribers through its machine learning capabilities.

But it's the removal of first click free that's got publishers excited. Google says it was pulled following research, publisher feedback, and months of experimentation with the New York Times and the Financial Times, which operate subscription services. Both have issued corporate-speak statements giving Google the thumbs up.

"The Financial Times is welcoming of Google's input and actions to help this critical sector of the media industry, and we've worked very closely with Google to aid understanding of the needs that publishers have and how Google can help," droned Jon Slade, FT Chief Commercial Officer. "Google's decision to let publishers determine how much content readers can sample from search is a positive development," dialled in Kinsey Wilson, an adviser to New York Times CEO Mark Thompson.

But is it a radical departure or just another way for Google to control how its users access news via its products?

Well, to take part news websites need to use a type of code to flag content behind their paywalls. This code will allow Google's algorithm to know exactly which bits of content people are going to have to pay for. And what will Google do with this extra bit of information? It will use it in its search results, of course.

Google could prioritise search results from publications that you subscribe to. And deprioritise search results from publications that you don't. It could tinker with how stories are displayed on its search results page to also alert you which stories are free. The result is that while publishers now have greater control over their paywall strategies, Google can use the new structured mark-up required to take part in flexible sampling to control how its users discover and interact with content. So flexible sampling is likely to be good news for large news outlets, with strong brands and established subscriber-bases. But smaller publishers may see little difference from the current set-up.

And when it comes to making it easier to subscribe, there's also the question of money. Google hasn't announced any details of the revenue-sharing terms for the publishers that sign up to use its subscription apparatus. But it has said that it will be a "very generous model".

So while Google is undoubtedly sincere in its aims to help the publishing industry, it also needs to look after its own users. This is something it does with laser focus. "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," wrote Richard Gingras, Google's vice-president of news, in the statement announcing the death of first click free. Those are my italics, but publishers should heed Google's prioritisation of its own users.

They need to do likewise.

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