Google’s shift levels the playing field for publishers & advertisers
Google’s latest changes to its product suite for news publishers gives greater control to publishers and may signal a growing consumer trend for quality content and growth for premium publishers.
The Times app
Out with the old, in with the paid
To anyone who has watched its repeated public commitments to frustrated news organisations over the years, Google’s latest announcement is a familiar one - a tweak to search behaviour, a pledged subscription payment infrastructure, and a promise of further, future help.
Specifically, Mountain View is replacing First Click Free, the system through which Google Search and Google News users have been able to read three full stories per day from subscription publishers like Wall Street Journal for several years, with Flexible Sampling, a variant which allows publishers to set a monthly limit instead.
Furthermore, Google is pledging to enable one-click subscriptions to publishers for readers who have a logged-in Google Account, and, in future, to help identify the readers most likely to subscribe, using machine learning algorithms.
These changes are to be welcomed. Google’s tweaks give control back to publishers that were growing agitated at inflexibility and dominance of big digital platforms.
Now publishers can execute both major monetisation strategies - advertising and subscription - simultaneously. The pair may have commonly been framed as mutually exclusive, but revenue from readers and benefactors alike are just as important - indeed, publishing has long been kept afloat by a dual income stream.
Google’s changes recognise the growing need to levy reader subscriptions in the digital age. But they don’t mean ad funding is dead. In fact, there is a very strong argument that premium content also makes advertising more valuable to publishers, since the value of a paying reader naturally increases in a premium environment.
What I like, then, about Google’s new Flexible Sampling approach is that it manages to combine the best of both these worlds.
Recalibrating for success
Publishers must embrace subscriptions where they see fit - but that doesn’t mean they should throw the advertising baby out with the bath water. Remaining open, by showing off a range of stories as preview material to potential customers, is a vital way to drive paywall conversion, and Google is now giving publishers a better way to do so.
You wouldn’t open a clothes store without letting customers try on the garments, and you wouldn’t run a bakery without showing your fresh wares in the window.
So it is good news that Google’s modified scheme keeps paywalled articles visible in search results.
The consequence I hope will transpire is a flight to quality. More visibility of more of the kinds of stories produced by quality, premium publishers should necessarily mean a reduced profile for bottom-of-the-barrel clickbait peddlers.
Google’s changes are bad news for bad publishers - the kind which ride off the back of the real news by throwing out cheap, copycat articles.
And, so, they are good news for the quality end of the funnel, and for readers who care about being informed.
Audiences seem to have a growing understanding of the importance of quality. They are beginning to vote with their thumbs, toward sources that can be trusted upon in an era of fake news and bias.
Increased traffic to subscription publishers will show them more of what trustworthy looks like, and will bring more paid custom to publishers’ doors.
But it will also mean a bigger advertising opportunity. Attracting audiences in search of quality, and with the means to pay in what will now be a more friction-free environment, will grow the overall display spending pie, and will lead to more publishers creating branded content or native advertising to meet demand.
I hope that means darker days ahead for the cheap-clicks merchants locked into a single business model, and a greater respect for quality content, whatever form it takes.
Dale Lovell is the chief digital officer and UK managing director at ADYOULIKE