Media, look Google Flexible Sampling gift horse in mouth

Publishers are breathing a sigh of relief after Google recently agreed to change the way it displays premium or subscription content in its organic search listings. But their celebrations may be premature.

Media, look Google Flexible Sampling gift horse in mouth

For the past decade or so, Google has operated a policy called First Click Free (FCF). This was designed as a compromise to ensure that content from subscription publishers — such as Tiso Blackstar’s BusinessLive — features in Google’s index (the paywalls that publishers use to prevent non-subscribers from reading premium content also tell search engine bots not to access the sites).

The policy was supposed to support both parties: the publishers wanted to appear in search results because they needed Google’s traffic to sell ad inventory and they knew that a percentage of people clicking through to their articles would take out a subscription; and Google wanted to show the publishers’ content because it needed a diverse array of information to appear in its listings.

Under the terms of the agreement, Google would crawl and index the content, making it discoverable to searchers, if the publisher agreed to allow any visitor (subscriber or not) to read articles that they accessed directly from the search results. After this free “first click”, the publisher could enforce their paywall if the visitor tried to access additional pages on the site.

There’s a hole in my paywall
Few publishers were happy with FCF because of the gaping hole it left in their paywalls — pretty much any article on any newspaper site could be viewed by googling the headline and clicking on the search result. While publishers could implement a cap to try to prevent this, it was largely ineffective as the cap was greater than the daily average consumption of most visitors (Google required them to allow access to at least three articles per day).

So corks could be heard popping in the fourth estate when Google announced the end of FCF in early October 2017. But the two alternatives it’s offering publishers under its Flexible Sampling programme may not be all they seem.

Metered usage
The first option, metering, is really more of the same. To have their content indexed, publishers need to offer Googlers a number of free clicks per month (the exact quantity may be defined by the publisher). The primary difference between this and FCF is that publishers may limit the number of times a single user gets free content after clicking through from Google (although going incognito will continue to offer cheapskates a way of overcoming this restriction).

Leading us in
The alternative to metering users is to adopt what Google terms “Lead In”. This allows a snippet of the article to appear in the search results — but the publisher has no requirement to provide the full article content free of charge when the user clicks through.

At a glance, Lead In sounds like a no-brainer to publishers. As such, it’s likely to be adopted by most of the existing premium platforms and may persuade a number of advertising-funded free content providers such as News24 to switch to a paygate model. But, when you look at the small print behind Google’s update (and this affects both Metered and Lead-In adoption), the picture becomes more murky and hints at some fairly significant future disruption.

Structured markup
The search giant requires publishers to mark up the content that’ll sit behind their paywall with a machine-readable structured markup code. Google’s been using structured markup for some time now; from a user perspective, it’s great because it allows us to see things such as reviews and product prices in the search results, alongside a basic description of the page contents.

But there’s a strong chance that Google will use data from this code to show that a site requires a subscription in its search results page. That’ll mean the flow of search traffic to premium publishers’ site dries up — after all, if the search result tells you that you won’t be able to read content on the page you’re after, what’s the likelihood of your clicking through?

There’s also a possibility that Google will do to the publishing industry what Apple’s done to the music industry and become a licensed content aggregator. In this scenario, Google will know which publishers have premium content — and it’ll have enough behavioural data on existing subscribers to predict accurately which of its other users have the potential to become future subscribers.

This would make it fairly easy for it to strike a deal with publishers to sell their content for them. Although this means publishers would sign over a significant chunk of subscription revenue, Google’s sheer scale means that many more subs would be sold than currently.

But the scenario presents a troublesome moral dilemma… do we really want the business that controls our advertising budgets to become our editorial overlord as well? I guess we’ll have to wait and see how this one plays out.

As a side note, the requirement to implement structured data is pretty complex — in no small part due to Google’s cloaking guidelines. Each time a publisher makes a structural change to its site, it’ll have to run checks to make sure it hasn’t broken any of the rules designed to prevent cloaking. The probability is that it’ll unwittingly break them all the time. And that’ll more than likely lead to its site being sandboxed and vanishing from the search results.

Publishers, beware… this gift horse may not be all it seems!

*This article first appeared on MarkLives.com.