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Google’s First Click Free and the Paywall Dilemma

It’s been a good few years since Google first announced that they were working on a solution to the content subscription model that sees paywalls go up shielding content from the access of the search engine, but then in October last year this became a reality – First Click Free.

If you are a publisher you have a daunting time ahead. Traditional publishers have had to adapt to other revenue streams to survive. Several high profile cases (notably the New York Times) marked a demise in the typical paid for subscription model of newspapers which resulted from the proliferation of free journalism on the internet. But today there is an approved solution for Google that means you don’t have to leap towards an advertising model that can cause disruption.

I say ‘approved’ as there are other solutions that one can deploy for search engine visibility. These solutions would also work for other engines like Yahoo & Bing unlike the Google published solution. Here are the options:
1) Unlock everything
There’s a school of thought that says the more you are able to give away the more you will ultimately win over your competition. However this business model is high risk and in many cases still unproven as enough reassurance from alternative revenue streams needs to be proven i.e. on-site advertising, etc.

2) Write twice
Write in depth articles for subscribers and write 400 word optimised alternatives for the web. This ticks both boxes, should keep subscribers happy and allows you more chance to pander to SEO from articles that should of course remain originated for your customer-base first rather than for search engines first. It’s additional time and effort however.

3) User detection
Use user detection to allow a search engine to crawl all of the content on your sites but then if a user visits you check for the cookie and put up the paywall if it doesn’t exist. This is a lower risk strategy but would allow for the savvy user to read your content for free if they view the cached version of the page or use a browser like Firefox and chance their user agent.

4) Publish expiring content
To make the most of the content that you do publish under subscription and to not annoy your subscribers you could publish content after it has run it’s course under subscription i.e. after a month? In this way the search engines get their teeth into all that great content. However as it’s not necessarily fresh it would ideally need to be specifically tailored (linked) to newer articles to try and secure the cross-sell to new business.

Google’s solution is called First Click Free and in essence it’s a lot like number 3 above. What Google wants is access to your content. It’s mission is to organise the worlds knowledge. Some argue that hiding content behind a paywall is immoral – that’s a little harsh, but there is no doubt that you will fall behind if you don’t find a solution and this is in part it.

As Google puts it “In order to successfully crawl your site, Google needs to be able to crawl your content without filling out a registration form.”

Here are the principles:

  1. allow all users who find a document on your site via Google search 
  2. allow them to see the full text of that document (even if they have not registered or subscribed)
  3. once that user clicks a link on the original page, you can require them to sign in or register to read further

The exact technical implementation will depend on your server architecture and the capabilities of your technical team but the process is pretty straightforward and something we can help with.

Don’t be fooled by some articles stating that this is simply cloaking or that it’s easy to delete the cookie or change browser settings. It’s beyond the capability of the majority and actually much more clever than that.

Read all about the detail on the Google Webmaster Tools page here.

Google does suggest 2 other options on it’s Registration/Subscription Sites page, but I wouldn’t recommend them.

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  1. ¥s Schriver says:

    Nice overview – thanks!

  2. ¥s Schriver says:

    Nice overview – thanks!

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