Google Expected To End 'First Click Free' Feature

In another concession to publishers, Google has agreed to put an end to its “first-click-free” feature, which allowed users to circumvent publishers’ attempts to limit free access to their Web sites by accessing them via search results, News Corp. CEO Robert Thomson revealed this week, following discussions with the technology giant.

The move will fill in one of the most common gaps in publishers’ paywalls, which should, in turn, make it easier to implement paid content strategies.

Thomson shared the news with an audience at a Goldman Sachs conference for media investors. Google has yet to officially confirm the change.

While publishers have benefited from Google search traffic by reaching a wider audience, they complained that even supposedly limited free access provided more recalcitrant users with an easy backdoor to avoid paying for content. A user who saw content of interest on a publication’s Web site could simply enter the title or headline in a Google search and click on one of the top results.



Previously, publishers could block first-click-free access for users accessing content via Google search results, but this would generally result in Google assigning them a lower search ranking. Search indexing software would only scan snippets of content outside the paywall, making it harder for the publications to surface relevant content for interested readers and drive awareness and engagement.

Thomson noted that News Corp.’s U.S. flagship newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, saw overall traffic from Google tumble by 38% when it opted out of first click free.

Under the new policy, Google will enable its indexing software to scan the full content of articles behind subscription paywalls. It will no longer penalize publishers that choose to opt out of first-click-free access in its search results, giving them equal billing with publishers who allow it.

The news comes amid an escalating contest between Google and arch rival Facebook for the loyalty of publishers, which have been increasingly vocal in their dissatisfaction with the so-called “duopoly” of the tech giants. 

Last month, Facebook extended an olive branch to publishers — it won’t demand a share of subscription revenues for subs sold on its platform. Facebook is also displaying small-publisher logos next to content in its trending and search features to help readers more easily identify news from trustworthy sources. 

Google is working on an online news subscription service allowing publishers to charge readers for content, rivaling Facebook’s system.

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