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Free till Five

Last week, Google finally buckled under pressure from major news organisations and modified its ‘first click free’ policy that allowed us to read ‘subscription only’ content for free, reports Aman Sethi.

business Updated: Dec 06, 2009 00:17 IST
Aman Sethi

Last week, Google finally buckled under pressure from major news organisations and modified its ‘first click free’ policy that allowed us to read ‘subscription only’ content for free.

The new policy will allow each user five free news stories per website per day with the option of paying for additional content.

As anyone who surfs for news knows, many news organisations such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and all major Indian newspapers offer their content for free online. There are a few exceptions such as Wall Street Journal’s (WSJ) website, wsj.com, that successfully implement an online subscription model where users must pay for content.

The rise of Internet advertising at the expense of print advertisements has undercut the business model of most newspapers. While the Indian newspaper industry continues to grow, western — particularly American — newspapers appear to be in terminal decline.

According to the Pew Research Centre’s 2009 Report on the State of the News Media, in 2009 American dailies may employ 20 to 25 per cent fewer people than in 2000. Online subscription seems to be a good way to recover the costs of running a newsroom, but a Google policy makes it difficult to implement.

“Google has strict policies against what’s known as cloaking: showing one web page to the crawler that indexes it but then a different page to a user. We do this so that users aren’t deceived into clicking through to a site that’s not what they were expecting,” writes Josh Cohen, senior business product manager, Google, on his blog. “Anti-cloaking policies are important for users, they do create some challenges for publishers who charge for content. Our crawlers can’t fill out a registration or payment form to see what’s behind a site’s pay wall, but they need access to the information in order to index it,” he adds.

But once Google ‘sees’ a website, it makes it available to its users for free — irrespective of whether the news item is free or ‘subscription only’. Thus, if WSJ charges you to read an article, you can search for it on Google News and read it all for free.

Google calls this its ‘first click free’ policy: the first click directs you to free content, but offers a subscription if you try to click on other stories. Rupert Murdoch, owner of WSJ, calls this policy “theft” and “whole-scale misappropriation” as a reader can vault any pay wall by routing through Google News one headline at a time. This makes subscription pointless.

What’s the answer?

“Microsoft will lure newspapers into Bing. Money talks, obviously, and we understand that the payments could be (a) part in revenue share from advertising on Bing (b) the inclusion of news partners in adverts for Bing,” reported Techcrunch, a popular technology blog. “In other words, you’d start to see ads with ‘You’ll only find theWall Street Journal on Bing.com’.”

This could fundamentally change the nature of Internet, based on ‘neutral search’, where websites don’t pick sides in search engine battles.

Google’s new policy of limiting the number of free stories could be the search giant’s olive branch to the news industry. As Cohen says, “Whether you’re offering your content for free or selling it, it’s crucial that people find it. Google can help with that.”