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2017-10-02 10:36:03
Google Unveils Tools to Increase Subscriptions for Publishers

Publications like The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times and The New York Times have long asked readers to pay for access to online articles. But many reading this article online are probably familiar with an easy workaround: Plug a search term or headline into Google, and voilà! Free access to articles normally locked behind pay walls.

That digital sleight of hand is great for inquisitive readers, but bad for the publishers that are increasingly dependent on subscription dollars for survival.

So now, in an acknowledgment of this industrywide strategy shift, Google is working on new tools that could help news organizations bolster their subscription businesses. The tools are part of a broader effort to preserve the kind of journalism that Google’s dominance, and that of other web giants like Facebook, has threatened.

Google’s plans include doing away with the “first click free” policy, which requires subscription-based news outlets to offer three free articles a day through its search and news features, allowing users to skirt pay walls. A new program, which Google plans to start this week and is calling “flexible sampling,” will allow those publishers to determine how many free clicks to give Google’s users.

Google is also looking at ways to help people subscribe to publications more easily, including using machine learning to help publishers tailor options to a reader’s preferences and behavior.

“It’s really all an attempt to try to create a new world — a better world — for journalism,” said Philipp Schindler, Google’s chief business officer. And, he added, “we have an inherent interest in making publishers successful.”

Google’s ecosystem of information does in some ways run on quality journalism. But its efforts to support publishers also come as Google and Facebook continue to gobble up money once earmarked for the news industry. The two companies are expected to take in more than 60 percent of digital ad spending in the United States this year, according to the research firm eMarketer. And they have expanded their control over the distribution of news, even as they have come under scrutiny for their role in spreading untrue articles. Against this backdrop, both face rising regulatory and antitrust scrutiny.

Google and Facebook — which is also working on a news product that could help drive subscriptions to news outlets — may be extending olive branches in an effort to mollify their critics. But the two web giants also appear to be making good-faith efforts to help the publishers they may have inadvertently harmed.

Google’s “first click free” policy gave readers access to potentially hundreds of free articles a month before they encountered any pay walls. If publishers did not participate, Google did not fully index their articles, which made it less likely that the articles would appear prominently in search results. After The Wall Street Journal ended its participation in the program, its traffic from Google dropped nearly 45 percent, according to a Bloomberg News article.

Google’s new “flexible sampling” program is a twofold attempt to support publishers’ subscription businesses. The company said it was helping publishers embrace a try-before-you-buy approach that it hoped would induce readers to become subscribers. It also said it would index all of a publisher’s articles, regardless of the limit the publisher chooses.

Google is recommending that publishers provide 10 free articles on a monthly, rather than a daily, basis.

“What we’ve learned over the years as the market has matured is that the one-size-fits-all approach to ‘first click free’ really doesn’t make sense in this market,” said Richard Gingras, Google’s vice president of news. “We’re basically saying to the publishers, ‘You decide how much you want to sample.’”

Google is also working on tools for publishers to help drive subscriptions. One of the company’s goals, Mr. Gingras said, is to help “take the friction out of the purchase process” by using its own technological capabilities, as well as the information it has on users — including email address and credit cards — to make subscribing simpler. Mr. Gingras said Google expected to begin rolling out its suite of subscription support services in the first half of next year.

“We’re not suggesting this is a magic bullet for growing subscription revenue,” he said. “We’ll continue to collaborate — this is a journey.”