Google Ends First Click Free, Will Now Index Paywalled Content

Google has announced that they are ending their controversial “First Click Free” (FCF) policy and working to put more power back into the hands of news and content publishers.

The policy was hated by bigger organizations that used paywalls to access their services. FCF forced publishers to allow the search engine to access paywalled content. If a reader clicked through to the subscriber-only content, they could read it in full without paying and had access to a total of three free articles a day. If they tried to click anywhere on the site, they were prompted to log in or purchase a subscription.

This created a lose-lose situation for many large publishers: allow Google to access and link to their content for free, or remove their stories from the search giant and risk demoted search results, leading to fewer hits through the search and news features. The reason those stories were demoted is due to Google not indexing paywalled content, meaning the search engine had no access to the actual keywords or phrases needed to promote a search result.

The decade-old FCF is being replaced with Flexible Sampling, which lets paywalled publishers decide how many articles—if any at all—a single user can access for free. If they do not allow any, they will not be able to read an online piece for free and will be prompted to subscribe or login—and this won’t harm search rankings. Nonetheless, Google is recommending publishers allow 10 free articles a month as a starting point.

“In Google’s mission to organize the world’s information, we want to guide Google users to the highest quality content, the principle exemplified in our quality rater guidelines,” reads a Google blog post. “Professional publishers provide the lion’s share of quality content that benefits users and we want to encourage their success.”

The willingness for Google to work with publishers is a great sign, as it’s almost impossible to live and thrive online without using the search engine’s services in some way or another. Google drives 10 billion clicks to various publishers’ sites a month. The move helps out both parties though, as Google cannot sell ads to publishers if no one is reading their content.

“Google’s decision to let publishers determine how much content readers can sample from search is a positive development,” said Kinsey Wilson in a statement, an adviser to New York Times CEO Mark Thompson. “We’re encouraged as well by Google’s willingness to consider other ways of supporting subscription business models and we are looking forward to continuing to work with them to craft smart solutions.”

Google is also working to help publishers in the long run by making it easier to buy subscriptions. The first step is bringing in a one-click purchase method to allow for seamless reading.

“It’s extremely clear that advertising alone can no longer pay for the production and distribution of high-quality journalism—and at the same time the societal need for sustainable independent journalism has never been greater,” said Jon Slade, Financial Times CCO in a statement. “The Financial Times is welcoming of Google’s input and actions to help this critical sector of the media industry.”

Now when a user searches Google for news, they can read a truncated synopsis of an article, usually the intro or around 50-100 words of a lead. This gives a good indication to the reader that an article is worth reading and worth paying for.