Google Ditches ‘First Click Free’ in Favor of ‘Flexible Sampling’
A publisher-friendly tool that returns some control to publishers.
Google has finally ditched its ‘first click free’ program in favor of a publisher-friendly tool the company is calling ‘flexible sampling,’ reports The New York Times. With ‘first click free,’ readers can access paywalled content by searching for a particular headline or relevant keywords through Google Search or Google News, a frustrating workaround for publishers with metered or hard paywalls.
‘While research has shown that people are becoming more accustomed to paying for news, the sometimes painful process of signing up for a subscription can be a turn off. That’s not great for users or for news publishers who see subscriptions as an increasingly important source of revenue,’ said Richard Gingras, VP News for Google, in an October 2 announcement.
Under ‘first click free,’ subscription-based publishers like The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post were required to give readers three free articles each day. That’s changing with ‘flexible sampling,’ a new tool that puts the control back in the hands of publishers. Now publishers get to determine how many free articles, if any, to allow readers to access.
‘This move is informed by our own research, publisher feedback, and months-long experiments with The New York Times and the Financial Times, both of which operate successful subscription services,’ Gingras said.
Google recommended monthly metering, rather than daily, so publishers have the flexibility to experiment with how many free stories to offer. They suggested 10 articles per month, though they believe most daily news publishers will range between six and 10 per month. Google also suggested publishers experiment with a ‘lead-in,’ allowing a reader to see the first portion of any article after they’ve accessed their free quota for the month.
‘Bear in mind that our user studies have shown that when users who have experienced only a small amount of content are required to subscribe, their interest in the product diminishes greatly. Our analysis shows that general user satisfaction starts to degrade significantly when paywalls are shown more than 10% of the time (which generally means that about 3% of the audience has been exposed to the paywall),’ Google said in its general guidance for the new program. ‘We recommend caution in approaching that limit, because you may start to alienate users who have not yet become convinced of the value of your content.’
In addition to the new flexible sampling program, Google said it is working on a suite of products and services to support news publishers in identifying and reaching new audiences and to drive subscriptions and revenue. Google also wants to simplify the purchasing process for Google users ‘to get the full value of their subscriptions across Google’s platforms,’ though they didn’t elaborate.
‘Our goal is to make subscriptions work seamlessly everywhere, for everyone,’ Gingras said.
‘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. ‘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.’
Publishers have not been fond of Google’s ‘first click free’ policy, and some have said that the policy has actually reduced traffic to their websites, because Google wasn’t indexing paywalled content. This new ‘flexible sampling’ program will return some of the control to publishers.
It seems like Google has extended an olive branch to publishers, much like Facebook did with its new tools and testing of subscription options. The fact that these two huge tech companies are willing to work with publishers is a step forward, though it remains to be seen what those tools will be and how they will work. There is still room for improvement, particularly in how Google and Facebook will help publishers expand reach and grow subscription revenue.