Google has unveiled measures to help publishers sell more digital subscriptions, after concluding that advertising is not enough to sustain large news operations.
Richard Gingras, Google’s vice-president of news, said the changes would improve the “sometimes painful process” of buying or renewing a digital subscription, adding that “advertising alone can no longer pay for high-quality journalism”.
The company has been in discussions with News Corp, the New York Times and the Financial Times and, from this week, will give publishers the ability to set limits on how many articles they allow users to see for free, which it calls “flexible sampling”. The sampling will replace Google’s “first click free” model, which required publishers to provide a minimum of three stories a day for free access via Google search.
Publishers had criticised first click free and have welcomed the latest Google initiatives. But they also say the company has not yet done enough to support paid-for content.
“If the change is properly introduced, the impact will be profoundly positive for journalists everywhere and for the cause of informed societies,” said Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp, which owns titles such as the Wall Street Journal and The Times. “Fake news has prospered on digital platforms which have commodified content and thus enabled bad actors to game the system for commercial or political gain.”
Kinsey Wilson, an adviser to Mark Thompson, New York Times chief executive, also sounded a positive note, saying: “We’re encouraged . . . by Google’s willingness to consider other ways of supporting subscription business models and we are looking forward to continuing to work with them to craft smart solutions.”
Mr Gingras said Google’s goal was “to make subscriptions work seamlessly everywhere, for everyone”, and the company would launch “products and services to help news publishers reach new audiences, drive subscriptions and grow revenue”.
Publishers have lobbied for changes to Google’s search that would give stories behind paywalls parity in search rankings with those available for free. Google has, to date, ruled out changing its algorithm and Mr Gingras denied paywalls negatively affect rankings. “The algorithm has never biased free content versus paid content,” he said.
The company said it hoped to remove “hassles” from subscription buying by integrating user data with other Google applications, such as Google News. “We’re taking advantage of our existing identity and payment technologies to help people subscribe on a publication’s website with a single click,” said Mr Gingras.
Google is also looking at how artificial intelligence might help publishers increase subscription sales. Mr Gingras said the company was “exploring how Google’s machine-learning capabilities can help publishers recognise potential subscribers and present the right offer to the right audience at the right time”.
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