Earlier this month, Google made a move many in the news industry have anticipated for years: the internet giant ended their first-click-free program that allowed users to read paywalled news items for free, if accessed through the search engine. The move comes only months after The Wall Street Journal pulled out of the program, declaring the program unfair to paid news outlets. Now, Google has agreed to work with news organizations that keep their content behind a paywall, and paid news sites are set to reap the benefits.
Paywalls are fairly new to digital-only news. While they have existed for traditional print news outlets — such as the Journal — since the early days of online news, sites that operate behind a hard or 100 percent paywall are still few and far between. More common are sites that use a soft or metered paywall, allowing readers to access a certain number of free articles before being prompted to subscribe, or permitting unhindered access through social media links or search-engine clicks.
Those sites that allow some non-subscriber access had an easier time working within the first-click-free environment, because Google’s algorithm could scan the articles in full, while paywalled articles could only be “read” by the algorithm up to the subscription prompt, usually only a paragraph or two into the story.
“The program rewarded free content over paid content and had a propensity, due to the way the algorithm had been designed, to reward click-bait over high-quality content,” the Journal says of their move to end their first-click-free relationship. “First-click-free was seriously undermining our business model and it was presenting publishers like ourselves with a false choice: either make your content free and findable within Google, or make it paid and it will disappear from Google, and we always felt that was abusive and wrong.”
Now that Google has ended the program, publishers like the Journal hope that they’ll see search traffic return and that Google’s proposed plan to support paid news will help them reach new subscribers.
However, even after ending their first-click-free program, Google is still pushing news outlets to open up their paywalls. In an official statement posted by Google’s principal engineer, Cody Kwok, the company says, “Our evaluations have shown that users who are not familiar with the high quality content behind a paywall often turn to other sites offering free content. It is difficult to justify a subscription if one doesn’t already know how valuable the content is, and in fact, our experiments have shown that a portion of users shy away from subscription sites. Therefore, it is essential that sites provide some amount of free sampling of their content so that users can learn how valuable their content is.”
But paywalls haven’t deterred readers as much as Google implies. Many subscription-based news sites saw a rise in subscribers following the election and inauguration of President Donald Trump, known in the industry as the “Trump Bump,” but the increased willingness of readers to pay for news isn’t all attributable to the new administration.
Part of what’s drawing in paying readers is quality content. As the Journal tells us, “By going behind a paywall, you’re attributing a value to the journalism…It seems obvious now that quality content needs to have a paid business model behind it…More recently I think other publishers have come to that same conclusion that a direct relationship with consumers is the way to go.”
Of course, not every outlet can achieve the subscription numbers the Journal has with a hard paywall. “Everybody needs to do what’s best for their audience, their skill and their brand strength,” says Kathleen Greenler Sexton, the CEO and publisher of SubscriptionInsider.com. “But with the Wall Street Journal, they are able to do what they do because of their strong brand. That’s not to say that a smaller, really niche paper that has a very rabid following couldn’t adopt a hard pay wall [and be successful].”
Indeed, several regional publications, like The Boston Globe and the Star Tribune, have done well with their paywalls, with tens of thousands of digital-only subscribers now paying to access online content. Even niche outlets are doing well with paywalls at this moment, with tech sites like The Information and newsletters like Stratchery drawing in paying readers, something that would have been almost unheard-of in years past.
Publishers looking to institute a paywall of their own don’t have to choose to be paid or unpaid, either. There are, according to Sexton, a handful of options: 100 percent paid content, as practiced by Financial Times; metered paywall, as The New York Times uses, which allows readers a certain number of free stories per month before they are prompted to subscribe; soft paywall, where the publisher chooses which content is free and which is behind the paywall; or fully free, which allows users to read the website for free, but which requires payment to read the digital edition of the paper.
If you’re going to institute a soft paywall, however, Sexton says you need to be very strategic in what you put behind that barrier. “The most common mistake that we see is media companies not creating enough of a difference [between free and paid content], so that when that consumer hits [that paywall], it almost seems random, and it kind of diminishes the value of everything,” she says. “So you need to be very mindful as you develop your content strategy of what’s in front of the paywall versus what’s [behind] the paywall to help your potential customers understand why they need to pay for what’s behind the wall.”
For sites that already operate with a paywall of some kind, Google — as well as Facebook — promises to work on a new program that will help — and even encourage — readers to subscribe. We’ll be keeping an eye on the program as it rolls out to let you know how it will affect your search rankings and subscriptions.
Jennifer Peters is former content manager of the News Media Alliance.