LONDON (Reuters) - Google offered publishers a way to attract paying subscribers without having to remove their content from Google News search results, after Rupert Murdoch and others accused it of profiting from their news.
The Web search giant said it would adapt its so-called First Click Free program to prompt online readers to register or subscribe to a news provider’s site after reading five free articles from that publisher in a day.
Previously, the user’s first click on any article would be free for an unlimited number of articles, provided the user did not click through any more links from any article.
Google said the update would allow publishers to focus on potential subscribers who were accessing a lot of their content on a regular basis.
Google Senior Business Product Manager Josh Cohen said: “As newspapers consider charging for access to their online content, some publishers have asked: Should we put up pay walls or keep our articles in Google News and Google Search?”
"In fact they can do both -- the two aren't mutually exclusive," he wrote on Google News's official blog (googlenewsblog.blogspot.com).
John Ridding, chief executive of the Financial Times, welcomed Google’s move but told Reuters it would not alter the FT’s strategy, which currently makes readers buy subscriptions if they want to read more than 10 FT stories per month.
“I would regard this as a move in the right direction,” Ridding told the Reuters Global Media Summit, but said the FT would continue to pursue its own strategy -- which it can afford to do thanks to its niche global audience for financial news.
“We’ve always been very determined that we should have a paid-for model that works for us independent of what the aggregators or anybody else is doing in the industry or in the market,” he told the London leg of the summit.
News Corp limits all online access to its Wall Street Journal newspaper to paying subscribers, and plans to do the same for its Times and Sunday Times newspapers in Britain.
Many other news providers are also considering putting up pay walls around online content as a recession-led slump and structural changes in advertising mean they can no longer fund newsgathering operations from ad revenues.
“We want to be linked to the global audience. That’s a fantastic opportunity, so we should never forget that,” he said.
“But equally, we expect and hope that those people who come in through the top of the funnel through whichever channel will appreciate FT journalism, look around the site more and make a decision either to become a registered user ... or, hopefully, to come down the funnel and become subscribers.”
Patrick Charnley, solicitor at international law firm Eversheds, said: “Publishers have taken a long-awaited stand against Google.”
“The emerging business model is ill-defined at present, but limiting Google free dissemination of news is a vital step toward any attempt to erect pay walls.”
Google’s relationship with publishers who put news behind pay walls is complicated by the fact its web crawlers need to access the content behind the paywall to index it and make it discoverable by its search engine.
But its crawlers cannot fill in registration or subscription forms, leading to the potential for users to be shown different content from what the crawler sees, and hence encouraging users to click through to pages that are not what they expected.
First Click Free is Google’s way of addressing that problem, known as cloaking.
Google also offers free previews of articles that publishers give it -- typically a headline and the first few paragraphs of a story -- and labels them as “subscription” in Google News.
It said on its blog post the ranking of such articles would be the same whether the articles were paid for or free.
“Paid content may not do as well as free options, but that is not a decision we make based on whether or not it’s free. It’s simply based on the popularity of the content with users and other sites that link to it,” Google said.
Google said it would keep talking to publishers to refine its methods.
Editing by Dan Lalor and David Cowell
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