Google Kills Unpopular Free Article Access Requirement for Publishers

Publishers with a paid subscription model will no longer be required to provide free access to three articles per day, Google says.

Google will no longer require news publishers with a paid subscription model to provide at least some free access to their content in order to ensure they get discovered in Google News and Google Search.

After ten years of insisting that such publishers implement a so-called "First Click Free " policy, Google on Monday said they could now decide how many free articles, if any, they want to offer readers before charging for it.

"As of this week, we are ending the First Click Free policy, which required publishers to provide a minimum of three free articles per day via Google Search and Google News," the company's vice president of News Richard Gingras said in a blog.

Publishers are best positioned to decide how much free sampling to offer potential subscribers. So Google will implement a 'Flexible Sampling' model to replace the previous one, he wrote.

In addition, Google is also building a set of products and services to help publishers acquire more paid subscribers for their content Gingras said. For example, the company is exploring the use of machine learning tools to help publishers identity potential subscribers so they can send customized offers to them.

Similarly, Google will use its existing identity and payment infrastructures to enable easier signups for people who want to subscribe to particular publications. Instead of having to register, create a profile and enter credit card information, users will be able to sign up for subscriptions with a single click via Google's infrastructure, Gingras said.

Google is currently working with publishers around the world to build a mechanism that will accommodate a wide range of subscription models, he added.

Gingras described the move to roll back the First Click Free policy as being driven by its own research as well as feedback from publishers.

Paid news sites have long chafed at Google's decade-long requirement that they offer free access to at least three stories daily. But given the company's dominance in the search space, many publishers have acquiesced to the requirement, while pushing for change.

In 2009, Google updated the first click free policy so publishers could set a limit of five free articles per day. The company made the change in response to complaints from publishers who claimed they were losing out to readers who were abusing the system to get free articles.

In September 2015, the company again revised the policy and introduced the three-article limit per day requirement. From the time it first introduced First Click Free Google maintained that its goal has been to ensure that people looking for quality content can always find it, even if the content is behind a paywall.

The decision to rollback that policy and give control back to publishers is significant because it comes at a time when there's growing concern that Google—and other tech companies like Facebook and Amazon—have become too big and too powerful in the information market.

Just last week, Google agreed to modify the manner in which it displays certain product search results after regulators in the European Union slapped the company with a $2.9 billion fine for anti-competitive practices.

The EU is also investigating Google on two other fronts, one pertaining to the company's Android bundling practices, and the other to the use of its ad platform. If regulators find the company violated competition rules there as well, the company could face additional billions of dollars in fines.

In the U.S., Google's alleged role in getting a researcher fired from a think-tank for lauding the EU's decision got the company considerable negative publicity recently and revived concerns about its outsize influence on the Internet.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.