Google is changing the way it indexes news in an online world hungry for headlines. In the wake of complaints from media companies, Google has forged a path for paid subscriptions by altering its First Click Free program.
Publishers who participate in the program let Google's crawler index their subscription content, then allow users who find one of those articles through Google News or Google Search to see the full page without registering or subscribing. The user's first click on the content is free, but the publisher can display a payment or registration request if a user clicks additional links on the site.
With the changes, publishers can limit users who aren't registered to no more than five pages of content viewing a day. As Google sees it, this approach protects searchers from cloaking -- showing one web page to the crawler that indexes it, and a different page to the user -- while allowing publishers to focus on potential content subscribers.
Putting Up Pay Walls
"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?" explained Josh Cohen, a senior business product manager at Google. "In fact, they can do both -- the two aren't mutually exclusive. There are a few ways we work with publishers to make their subscription content discoverable."
John Mueller, a webmaster trends analyst at Google Zürich, said the company is aware that creating high-quality content isn't easy and not cheap. That recognition, he said, is one reason why Google initially launched First Click Free. The changes offer publishers even more flexibility.
"This change applies to both Google News publishers as well as web sites indexed in Google's web search," Mueller said. "We hope that this encourages even more publishers to open up more content to users around the world."
An Alternate Solution
Google is also offering a second solution. Publishers can elect to allow Google to crawl, index and treat publisher-designated preview pages -- generally the headline and first few paragraphs of a story -- as free. That means Google's crawlers see the same content that will be shown for free to a user.
"Because the preview page is identical for both users and the crawlers, it's not cloaking. We will then label such stories as 'subscription' in Google News. The ranking of these articles will be subject to the same criteria as all sites in Google, whether paid or free," Cohen said. "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."
Is Google making the right move, or is it compromising its mission to index the world's information?
Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, said Google is trying to find a balance. "Google is bowing to some newspaper publisher complaints and demands with this," he said. "But yet Google is still trying make content available within Google results."