Industry giant, Google, will be ending its ‘first click free’ program which allowed the search engine users to access articles on subscription-based news websites without having to purchase a subscription. The announcement came this Tuesday from the News Corp CEO, Robert Thompson, a long time critic of Google’s practices towards publishers, who has been discussing the possibility of shutting down the ‘first click free’ program with Sundar Pichai, Google's CEO, since July this year. Once the existing program shuts down, Google will give publishers a choice of offering search engine visitors a free sample article and they won’t be penalized in search rankings if they decline to do so.
So far, the so called ‘first click free’ program was designed to let search visitors read an article or two on a news site that requires subscription, thus evading the paywall. Google claimed its practice would help the publishers grow their subscription count, but quickly came under fire when some of the websites claimed that not only it hasn’t helped with their growth, but also hurt their rankings on search results if they decided to opt-out of program. The websites not participating in the program weren’t scanned fully by Google’s bots. Instead of search engine indexing the full articles, it would scan only the parts of articles available to users without paid subscription, which directly influenced the ranking of the websites on the platform. News sites like The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and New York Times are dependent of their subscriber base and have been strong opponents to Google’s policies. The Wall Street Journal, for example, saw the traffic drop of 38% just last month compared to previous year once it opted-out of first click program and its stories being demoted in search results. Google’s new program will therefore index the whole website even if the publisher doesn’t allow the visitors to read anything for free, but other tools are also planned like providing more data about users who’d be more likely to purchase a subscription so the publishers could more easily target the audience.
The battle of publishers against Google seems to be nearing its end, yet the company still hasn’t officially confirmed the policy change or announced when exactly will it shut down the first click free program. There are still many negotiations to be done, but the publishers are already cheering for these changes as news business has been moving away from print ads, through digital advertising, to websites having subscriptions to keep their sustainability.