Under Google’s “First Click Free” (FCF) policy, publishers’ paid content can be indexed in Google Search & News, but under certain conditions. The policy only applies to publishers that monetize their content through paid models such as subscriptions. On September 29, Google announced an update to the FCF policy in response to publisher’s complaints. Considering the timing of the changes, are there bigger implications for publishers?
The free issue
In order to be discovered through Google Search & News, premium content providers must comply with Google’s FCF policy. Since 2009, publishers had to allow Google-referred traffic free access to their paid content at least five times a day. After five organic clicks via Google Search & News, a user would no longer have access to that publisher’s paid content for the rest of the day. The user would instead be prompted to pay or subscribe as they normally would (i.e., through a paywall) as if they had entered by way of other digital channels or through clicking a News result with a “subscription” label.
Recently these publishers have complained to Google that today’s multi-device world allows users to abuse the FCF policy. If that’s true, Google’s policy would be negatively affecting the publisher’s business models and bottom line. As a result of the complaints, the daily allowance in the FCF policy has been reduced from five to three free articles per day.
First click fix
The change in policy illustrates the relationship between Google’s goals and those of premium content providers. On one side, Google maintains its ability to provide quality and timely information to users of its core product, Google Search. Meanwhile, the publishers continue their pursuit of revenue by further supporting their paid content models.
The recent pushback toward Google signals that the previous FCF policy was not ideal for these publishers. Following the recent update, the policy continues to provide quality results to Google users while publishers market their paid content to a larger audience. While this appears to be a reasonable solution, the policy may still prove troublesome for these publishers.
By reducing the number of permitted clicks each day, publishers are hoping that their revenue models are less taken advantage of. The move reflects an effort to increase the chances that subscription-based models will succeed in the editorial industry, as they have in many vertical markets.
The timing of the changes is worth noting. As ad blockers become more prevalent, the value of each piece of content could decrease alongside publishers’ ad revenue. According to a report published by Adobe and PageFair, ad-blocking adoption has grown a staggering 41 percent from Q2 2014 to Q2 2015. This represents an increase of 60 million active ad-blocking software users in one year alone. As the highly publicized iOS 9 update continues to roll out, this number is expected to grow even more due to the software’s ad-blocking integration.
Publishers are responding and are pushing back against Google and its FCF policy. If the value of publishers’ content drops as a result of a decrease in ad revenue, publishers could be preparing to turn to other revenue models, such as subscription-based models.
The bottom line
Publishers are reassessing their business models. Some have begun experimenting with A/B testing to prevent ad blocking. Others have gone so far as to block ad blockers from accessing their content at all.
As ad blockers become more prevalent, will publishers pursue alternative revenue sources? Could advertorial opportunities (paid coverage or at least inclusion in third-party content) become more common with premium publishers? Is the adoption of ad blocking a sign for smaller publishers to “clean up” their overuse (abuse, in some cases) of ads? Perhaps new technical solutions in ad delivery will emerge to overcome ad blocking. We’ll see.
Meanwhile, the digital world is becoming more relevant and tailored to the needs of the individual. Will this push brands and agencies to be more relevant in both their online messaging and location of that messaging? Could content marketing opportunities with publishers and influencers become more appealing to brands?
As the questions pile up, publishers, agencies and brands will continue to adapt in a search for answers.