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July 12, 2017 | Lucy Tozer

Does Google Discriminate Against Paid News?

In February The Wall Street Journal revealed that they were pulling out of Google’s First Click Free model due to the fact they had discovered users ‘playing the system’ to access locked down content for free.

This news once again raised concerns over whether paid for content gets less exposure than ‘free’ content within the major search engines.

The First Click Free model was introduced by Google so that users could access a limited amount of paid news content without facing the publisher’s paywall barrier. Publishers have the choice to ‘opt’ into this model which typically allows readers to access a minimum of 3 stories per day for free, however, publishers can choose to increase this.

The benefit of this model for publishers is that their content can be fully indexed by Google to rank within the Google News search engines – in return they offer the first article requested by a reader for free without them needing to purchase a subscription.

By making this decision The WSJ knew that they risked receiving less traffic from Google due to the fact that their articles were not going to be indexed as well, however this was a risk they were willing to take to promote the value of their content.

Results showed that The WSJ increased subscription revenue after removing themselves from the Google FCF model as they found their audience were willing to pay for their content. Their content still appears within Google but has a ‘subscription’ label alongside the headline to alert users that it is paid content. To help with the transition they offered various subscription incentives which were designed to encourage their readers to adopt digital habits. In the final three months of 2016 the WSJ saw subscriber numbers jump by a record 110,000.

However, from a traffic perspective they revealed that visitor numbers from Google dropped by 44% which is a significant figure. Suzi Watford, the WSJ’s Chief Marketing Officer, said in an interview with Bloomberg: “Any site like ours automatically doesn’t get the visibility in search that a free site would. … You are definitely being discriminated against as a paid news site.”

So, the argument as to whether Google discriminates against paid news is still prevalent – now that The WSJ has cut ties with the FCF model their search engine traffic has plummeted. The hope for The WSJ is that any loss in ad revenue will be countered by a rise in subscription revenue.