Google Allows Publishers To Strengthen "Pay Walls'

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    TK
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    MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - AUGUST 16: Michelle Rogers uses free Google WiFi while sitting outside of a cafe August 16, 2006 in Mountain View, California. Mountain View became the first city in the U.S. to offer completely free WiFi for all within city limits courtesy of Google, who set up broadband transmitters throughout the city's 12 square miles. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

    LONDON (AP) -- In a move that could help improve relations between Google Inc. and the media industry, the Internet search company is offering publishers a way to build more solid "pay walls" around their online stories while still appearing in search results.

    In an official blog post Tuesday, Google said it will let publishers limit the number of restricted articles that readers can see for free through its search engine.

    The change could remove one significant hurdle publishers face as they contemplate charging readers online. Many newspapers are considering such fees because online advertising on free sites hasn't offset the precipitous decline in print ad revenue that has come with the recession and competition from the Web.

    The Wall Street Journal is perhaps the best example of how the new tool could help.

    The newspaper charges for access to most articles on its Web site, but its pay wall is "leaky." Readers can grab the first sentence from a preview of the story, punch it into Google and access the full story in the search results.

    The Journal could simply block Google from indexing its stories, but that would cut traffic to its site significantly. Less traffic means less ad revenue.

    The problem has infuriated executives at News Corp., which owns the Journal.

    News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch told a conference organized by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday that media companies should charge for content and stop news aggregators such as Google from "feeding off the hard-earned efforts and investments of others."

    The change to Google's "First Click Free" program would allow publishers to limit the number of paid articles a reader could access through its search engine to five per day.

    That could assuage the anger of media titans like Murdoch, allowing news outlets to stay relevant by appearing in search results while still trying to wring fees from readers.

    A News Corp. spokesman declined comment Wednesday.

    In Google's blog post, Josh Cohen, senior business product manager, stressed that publishers and Google could coexist.

    "After all, whether you're offering your content for free or selling it, it's crucial that people find it." he said. "Google can help with that."

    In another conciliatory gesture announced Wednesday, Google will use a separate "crawler" -- which is a piece of indexing technology -- to compile content for its news section. This will make it easier for publishers to prevent their content from appearing in Google News, while still allowing the material to appear in Google's main search results, the most popular part of its Web site. The distinction may not mean much to Web surfers, but it could placate publishers who view the bundle of stories and photos assembled in Google News as a competitive threat.

    More than 25,000 news sites are currently are indexed in Google News, and Cohen indicated he expects few of those to opt out.

    The indexing changes underscore Google's desire to be seen as an ally of publishers instead of an enemy.

    "We have conversations with publishers all the time and some have asked us for more control over their content," Google spokesman Chris Gaither said. He said the timing of the changes was not tied to the FTC workshop, where Cohen was among the featured speakers.

    Limiting the number of times people can use Google News to circumvent pay walls is the more significant revision because hundreds of publishers are considering imposing some fees on their content.

    The Journal has charged online readers for more than a decade, and those fees have turned into an essential part of the newspaper's revenue. The Internet subscriptions have paid off so well that Murdoch has said that he intends to start charging online access for News Corp.'s other newspapers, which include the New York Post and The Sun in London.