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Google’s First Click Free

22 Dec 2009
By Paul

How will content providers ever align their goals with those of Google? First Click Free is an attempt to do so through a compromise between the two sides.

For all those not yet acquainted with the process, here is a quick run-down of Google’s ‘First Click Free’ strategy, designed to protect subscription-only content while simultaneously making it accessible via Google’s search results.

The problem

Online news sites have often complained that users can circumvent their subscription pages and gain free access to their premium content by finding the page in Google’s search results. Every time Google indexes a page it becomes available to searchers, so users can often click directly from the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPS) to the article and get to read it for free.

The solution

Google’s idea is to limit how much of that premium content a user can view. A user would search for a news story, click on the link to the site and then would be restricted to viewing up to 5 pages within that site before being redirected to a subscription page. That way, Google can maintain its index, show relevant results to its users and still allow online publishers a degree of control over their content… In theory.

News sites can already protect their content

Online publishers can already prevent Google from indexing pages that they do not want to appear in the Google index, or the index of any search engine for that matter. Entering two lines of code into a page makes it impossible for users to gain access to these pages without subscribing.

So why do news sites not want to do this? The answer lies in Google’s webmaster guidelines, which states that a site cannot ‘cloak’ its pages.

The Best of Both Worlds

Ideally, online publishers would like all their pages to appear in Google’s SERPS, but have users redirected straight away to a subscription page. However, in order to do this they would have to submit one version of the page to the Google index and then serve up another page (the subscription page) when a user clicks through. This is known as ‘cloaking’ and Google doesn’t like it.

Google does not want pages to be cloaked, as users would find their search results to be of less use unless they were prepared to subscribe to every site that they were interested in. Google wants users to be able to click through from the search results and find the page they expected to see.

Google’s ‘First Click Free’ appears to be an attempt to find a middle ground between these two opposing goals. The sites can allow users to click through unimpeded, satisfying Google, and then click around that site’s premium content 5 times before eventually being redirected to a payment page, satisfying the publisher.

Will This Save Online Publishers?

Whether this will work in practice remains to be seen. It may be that the average user will not need to view more than a couple of pages before having their thirst for information quenched.  Furthermore, as long as similar content can be found on free sites, such as the BBC, it may not be enough to generate the income that publishers desperately need.

This isn’t the end of the ‘Should Users Pay for Online News’ debate, so watch this space!

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