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Google Search Ends ‘First Click Free’ Policy for Paywall Sites

Google’s powerful search business is eliminating its default “first click free” program for subscription-based websites — giving publishers more flexibility in how they surface free content.

Under the Google “first click free” policy, publishers have been required to provide a minimum of three free articles per day via Google Search and Google News before people were displayed a paywall (and the opportunity to subscribe). Starting this week, Google is implementing a “flexible sampling” model, under which premium publishers — like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Financial Times — will be able to choose how many (if any) free articles they surface through search.

Google’s first-click-free program has long been a thorn in the side of Robert Thomson, CEO of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, owner of the Wall Street Journal (which operates a subscription-based model). If publishers opted-out of first-click-free, their content has been demoted in search rankings — and, according to the WSJ, it suffered a 38% drop in traffic from Google Search in August 2017 after it stopped participating in program.

In a statement, Thomson called Google’s termination of the first-click-free program “an important first step in recognizing the value of legitimate journalism and provenance on the internet.”

“I think [Google CEO] Sundar Pichai deserves a lot of credit for taking a different approach,” Thomson said. “There’s a lot more to negotiate, there’s a long way to go, but their willingness to end ‘First Click Free’ should be celebrated by all publishers.”

Longer term, Google is “building a suite of products and services to help news publishers reach new audiences, drive subscriptions and grow revenue,” Google VP of news Richard Gingras wrote in a blog post Monday.

Google said it dropped the first-click-free policy in search based on several months of trials with the New York Times and Financial Times. As part of the change, the internet giant is exploring ways to simplify the subscription signup process “and make it easy for Google users to get the full value of their subscriptions across Google’s platforms,” Gingras added. “Our goal is to make subscriptions work seamlessly everywhere, for everyone.”

That will include using Google’s existing identity and payment technologies to help users subscribe on a publication’s website with a single click to then be able to access the content on the publisher’s site or mobile app or on Google Newsstand, Google Search or Google News.

Rather setting a daily limit of pre-determined free stories before a paywall kicks in, Google recommends a monthly cap of 10 free articles per month as “a good starting point,” according to Gingras.

Reps from the New York Times and Financial Times issued statements of support for Google’s new policy.

“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,” Jon Slade, FT’s chief commercial officer, said in a statement. “It is important that we now build and accelerate on the discussions and actions to date.”

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