Is It Time For Google To Rank Paid News Content Better?

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For years, Google has suppressed the ability for paid news content to rank well in its search results. It’s time for that to change, given how Google doesn’t suppress other types of paid content. The change may help people value news content more. It might also produce real revenues for news publishers, if they can come together on an “all access” subscription plan run through Google.

The Paid News Problem

Many news publications have “paywalls,” where people can’t read content unless they have a paid subscription. Some of these are very strict, such as with The Times of London. If you don’t pay, you don’t get to read. Some are “leaky,” such as with the New York Times. It allows people coming from Google or from social networks to read some or all content for free.

Strict paywalls pose a big problem for Google. The company has long said that searchers generally don’t like being sent to sites that have paywalls. Searchers are used to the idea that they can read anything they click on from a Google search for free. If they hit a paywall, they get annoyed. Some of that annoyance blows back on Google. “Why did you send me to this place!”

The First Click Free Solution

To solve this, Google created First Click Free. Publishers in this program agree to let anyone clicking from a Google result to read the listed article. That’s the “first click” which is free. If those visitors then make a “second click” from that article to read more at the publication, the paywall or subscription barrier can go up. To stem abuse, publishers can also limit any individual to five First Click Free clicks per day.

This is exactly why the New York Times and so many other papers have leaky paywalls. They want the Google traffic from the first visit, which they hope to monetize with ad views and paid subscription conversions.

First Click Free has been a good system but has some issues. Publishers don’t always follow the rules. Publishers like the New York Times might follow them so strictly that search visitors get discriminated against in a way that social visitors don’t. Some publishers simply don’t know how to implement First Click Free correctly. Others don’t even know it exists.

Discrimination Against Non-First Click Free Content

Not every publication wants to do First Click Free. Some believe that giving anything away makes it harder for paid subscriptions to have value. They’ll keep their paywall strict for everyone, including Google’s “crawlers” that gather up content from across the web. If Google can’t crawl a site, then the content within that site — perhaps important and useful information — is effectively invisible to Google and those searching through it.

Google hates the idea of content that it can’t see. That’s why Google tries to appease those with strict paywalls. It will include them in its search results, if they let Google behind their paywalls, without requiring them to give away the first click free to Google visitors. Instead, they’ll have a “Subscription” designation next to their listings.

Here’s how that looks in Google News:

subscription content in google news

I suspect most people reading this haven’t seen articles with this designation showing up much in Google News. That’s because, to my understanding, Google generally won’t rank this content as well as free or First Click Free content. I did ask Google several months ago to confirm this — twice — but I never got a response. But that’s the explanation I’ve known from years ago, when all this started.

I know people doing regular Google searches haven’t seen this next to news articles. That’s because Google only uses this designation in Google News itself. I suspect it doesn’t bother with it for news in its main results because such subscription content is even further suppressed there.

Some publications, to get around this suppression, may post summaries of their articles. The Information is a great example of this, where you might see the first few paragraphs of a story. It allows for some inclusion in Google without the subscription discrimination. But since the entire story isn’t being crawled, it might not show up for all the searches it could be relevant to.

No Discrimination For Music & Video

Now let’s flip things around from the logic Google uses for news content and apply it to music and videos.

If someone searches for Game Of Thrones, those episodes aren’t free anywhere (at least legitimately). Nevertheless, Google doesn’t hesitate to point searchers to a variety of places where Game Of Thrones is behind a paywall.

Want to download “Uptown Funk” for your music player? Search for “uptown funk download” or “uptown funk mp3,” and Google’s happy to send you to Amazon and iTunes, where the music is behind a paywall. Google will also send you to a lot of places where you can get pirated copies, but that’s a whole other issue.

In either of these examples, most searchers probably aren’t going to be upset with Google for sending them to where the content can be purchased because they expect to pay. Yes, some want it free. Yes, some of those will keep hunting. But many will actually be grateful if Google directs them to legitimate places where the content they expect to purchase can indeed be bought.

End The News Discrimination

Why should news be different? As Google’s brought in more and more support for the paywalls of Hollywood, maybe its time to do the same for those of newspapers.

There’s an argument that Google’s helped train people to expect that news content should be free, even though it has a cost. If Google removes the discrimination it has in place against paid news content, over time, people might accept that clicking into it will require payment in the same way they accept that with entertainment content.

More Visibility Doesn’t Mean More Paid Subscribers

While increasing the visibility of paid news content might help people regain a sense that news has a cost, there remains the huge challenge that most people aren’t going to buy expensive subscriptions for each and every publication they encounter.

Let me use myself as an example. I pay for a subscription to my local newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, at a cost of about $250 per year. I have a Wall Street Journal subscription at a great rate of $100 for six months right now. When that expires, the WSJ will want around $350 per year, at least. I’m overdue to buy a New York Times subscription just so I feel I’m supporting it more. That’ll be $200, but it won’t include my tablet. Or I can pay for that but not get my phone. Or I can try to figure out the crazy pricing they have with a spreadsheet. Because yes, New York Times subscription costs are that insane.

That’s nearly $1,000 per year spent on news. Yet, none of these expensive subscriptions are going to help me if I encounter paid content in Google, assuming it does make it more visible. I’m unlikely to pay $100 to $300 for an annual subscription to a new publication to read a single article I’ve happened upon in my search results. Even a trial offer means dealing with a form that will likely take longer to read than the news article I wanted.

Better visibility alone isn’t the solution. There needs to be an easy way for publications to be paid by visitors for their content that’s reasonable, that’s workable and appropriate for those single reads that happen.

Introducing “Google News All Access”

No, it’s not micropayments. At least, it’s not micropayments by the consumer. It’s micropayments by Google itself, as a broker for those consumers.

Let’s call it Google News All Access. I’m taking that name from Google Play Music All Access. That’s Google’s program where it charges consumers $9.99 per month to listen to whatever songs they want. Behind the scenes, that revenue gets shared to rights holders according to some mystery formula but one that’s clearly good enough that many participate in.

I want Google to do the same for news. Maybe it launches Google News All Access that allows people for $10 per month to read any content in Google News they want. Maybe Google keeps a small amount of this to manage the program. The rest is divided up among the publishers.

There will need to be some hard thinking on the formula. Sites that don’t have paywalls already might not get any payout. Those that have expensive paywalls might get a bit more per click than those with less expensive ones. But it’s far from impossible to do. If it happens, then you get the best of both worlds for news publications with paid content. The content is made more visible and also converts into subscription fees.

Other things would have to be worked out. Some publications might value the idea that everyone can read some of their articles without a subscription. Perhaps First Click Free continues but it gets modified, so that people get only one free click to a publication per day, not up to five. Publications might also choose to keep some articles open to everyone while others are more fully locked down than First Click Free currently allows.

I don’t pretend to know all the solutions, the exact solution or even if what I propose would be it. All I know is that the justification of suppressing paid news content no longer makes as much sense as it once did. It’s arguably harmful to the news industry by devaluing its content. But if paid news content is going to be made more visible, news publishers will finally have to get innovative about how they want a mass audience to pay for it.

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