Google is ending its controversial First Click Free (FCF) policy that publishers loathed because it required them to allow Google search results access to news articles hidden behind a paywall. The company is replacing the decade-old FCF with Flexible Sampling, which allows publishers instead to decide how many (if any) articles they want to allow potential subscribers to access. Google says it’s also working on a suite of new tools to help publishers reach new audiences and grow revenue.
Via FCF, users could access an article for free but would be prompted to log-in or subscribe if they clicked anywhere else on the page. Publishers were required to allow three free articles per day which Google indexed so that they appeared in searches for a particular topic or keyword. Opting out of the FCF feature was detrimental because it demoted a publisher’s ranking on Google Search and Google News. Google said articles from those publishers were demoted because its search engine didn’t index stories that were locked behind paywalls.
The Wall Street Journal notes that when News Corp (which owns the WSJ) diasabled free access to its articles via Google Search earlier in 2017, its stories were heavily demoted in search rankings. The WSJ says it experienced a 38 percent reduction in traffic from Google Search, and a loss of 89 percent from Google News in August compared to a year earlier. Now, publishers that decide to opt out of Flexible Sampling won’t be demoted in Google search rankings. Google is recommending publishers allow 10 free articles per month as “a good starting point.”
As part of its push, Google is working to make subscibing to publishers easier like single-click sign-ups through Android devices and Google services. It’s also working to allow seamless access to subscriber content across publisher sites, Google Newsstand, Google Search, and Google News. Google also is looking into giving publishers its user data to target potential subscribers.
Google drives 10 billion clicks to publishers’ websites each month. Today’s change comes as a way to bolster Google’s position — the company can’t sell ads if print media fails to move online, so it has to promote the move to digital, not usurp it. “We really recognize the transition to digital for publishers hasn’t been easy,” Google chief business officer Philipp Schindler told the WSJ. "The economics are pretty clear: If publishers aren’t successful, we can’t be successful.”
So far, publishers have been cautiously optimistic. "Google's decision to let publishers determine how much content readers can sample from search is a positive development,” said Kinsey Wilson, an adviser to New York Times CEO Mark Thompson in a statement. "We're encouraged as well by Google's willingness to consider other ways of supporting subscription business models and we are looking forward to continuing to work with them to craft smart solutions."