Why the end of Google’s ‘First Click Free’ is a step in the right direction

Many would argue that Google’s move to pull the plug on its controversial “First Click Free” policy was inevitable, following The Wall Street Journal’s decision to boycott the feature earlier in 2017. In reality, the move highlights Google’s acceptance that subscriptions are driving a refreshed approach to publisher monetization.

Now, instead of Google dictating that subscription-driven publishers must provide access to three articles a day to feature in search results, publishers can decide how many, if any, articles they offer for free.

Premium publishers understand the importance of search to drive traffic but must also balance this with the realization of their content’s value and how this should complement their chosen monetization strategy. Coupled with the fact that almost a fifth of online users are willing to pay for an ad-free browsing experience, according to Nielsen Media Labs, it is increasingly evident that alternative models of compensation — such as subscriptions — are gaining popularity and are set to shape the future of digital media consumption.

Paving the way for publishers to prevail

As subscription-based consumption steadily gains traction, Google isn’t the only company recognizing the importance of allowing publishers more control over their monetization strategy. Facebook — which has also faced criticism from The Wall Street Journal, among other publishers — is currently updating its Instant Articles news format to facilitate subscriptions, with the promise of channeling revenue back to publishers who “work hard to uncover the truth.”

These industry developments go a long way to support the rise of the subscription model and allow premium-content publishers — which are often favored over social media platforms, a recent Sharethrough survey found — to work toward sustaining brand loyalty by fostering a more direct relationship with their readers.

But while this is great news for publishers, what is the true impact on consumers? While it’s true that subscription models are on the rise, as Richard Gingras, Google’s vice president of News, observed in a blog post, “[T]he sometimes-painful process of signing up … can be a turn off.”

The digital media industry is still in its infancy, but one thing is clear: Today’s consumers expect transparency and choice. The remaining proportion of online users who aren’t yet prepared to sign up for subscriptions or pay for ad-free browsing admit to accepting some degree of advertising as part of their viewing experience, Nielsen found, demonstrating an increased awareness of the value exchange between publishers and consumers.

So, as consumers begin to accept the need for publishers to monetize the rich and varied sources of content they provide, it’s time publishers looked for a way of offering their readers a wider browsing choice — or “content compensation” choice.

Balancing friction with consumer experience

The ultimate goal of offering content compensation choice is to provide minimal disruption for maximum browsing pleasure. Emerging ad-supported models, for example, can include ad-light viewing experiences, as well as highly personalized browsing sessions that deliver only the most relevant advertising. Despite the need for a certain amount of “friction” — i.e., interruption — these formats ensure the experience is as smooth and seamless as possible.

And as consumers become more educated on the need for a value exchange — and increasingly familiar with emerging data protection practices such as those dictated by the forthcoming GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and ePrivacy regulations, which will apply to all US companies that engage with consumers in Europe — they will become used to the inevitable friction of being approached during their browsing session. The real opportunity for publishers lies in the ability to balance consumer preferences while minimizing this friction.

Developing a content compensation strategy doesn’t need to be a headache for publishers, as machine learning will play an increasing role in facilitating personalized messages asking users to select their preferred method of compensation. These messages can be tailored according to a user’s particular viewing preferences or habits, country of origin, or even route to the site (e.g., whether they have arrived via search or driven by social media).

What’s more, sophisticated algorithms could help publishers build a clearer picture of how effective the text, or even timing, of the message is to the reader, allowing them to continually optimize the message to achieve a satisfactory value exchange for both parties.

Premium publishers should use Google’s abandonment of its “First Click Free” policy as an incentive to take control of the direct audience relationship they’ve been seeking for so long. Deciding how to monetize content — whether that’s through ad-based revenues, subscription packages or micropayments — is the responsibility of the publisher, and one that should be prioritized.


About The Author

Ben Barokas
Ben Barokas is Founder and CEO of Sourcepoint, the first content compensation platform designed to support a sustainable media ecosystem through a fair value exchange between publishers and consumers. Barokas is a digital publishing veteran who has spent the last 15 years building solutions that cater to the unique needs of premium publishers. In 2009, Barokas founded Admeld, a leading RTB platform, which was acquired by Google in 2011. Following the acquisition, he headed Google’s Global Marketplace Development team. Prior to Admeld, Barokas ran advertising at JumpTV and spent six years at AOL running ad product development and operations. A serial entrepreneur in the digital advertising industry and angel investor in start-up technology companies, Ben founded Sourcepoint in 2015 to bring greater levels of transparency to consumers and publishers as it relates to compensation for digital content.