Today, the FTC held a hearing on the crisis in the (print) news publishing industry, which gave Rupert Murdoch yet another opportunity to publicly call out Google about its supposedly thieving ways. Google’s response: Hey, we send out 4 billion clicks a month to news sites. If you don’t now what to do with all that traffic, it’s not our fault. (I’m paraphrasing).
But Google also gave a concession to news publishers who have been complaining loudly about the backdoor to subscription-protected sites that is Google News. For instance, you can read WSJ.com stories for free if you search for them on Google News and then click through. News Corp, the owner of the Wall Street Journal, knows this, but allows it because otherwise Google won’t index its site and then it will lose 25 percent of its traffic.
Now Google is allowing publishers to opt into a First Click Free program, which should actually be called the First Five Clicks Are Free. A news site now can limit the number of free clicks from Google News for any individual to five a day. After that, anyone coming to their site from Google News will see a pay wall asking them to subscribe to read more. They can set the limit higher if they want or not have any limit at all. It’s up to them.
While this change in policy answers one of the main criticisms of Google News from publishers who want to grow their online subscription revenues, in reality it will do little to change the economics of the online news industry or the behavior of online news readers. Very few people call up a search of every article from the Wall Street Journal on a given day and click back and forth between Google News and the WSJ.com to read the entire paper for free. The vast majority of people find one or two WSJ.com stories on Google News, click through, and then continue surfing elsewhere across the Web.
The days of sitting down and reading an entire paper from front to back is over. On the Web, reading is more scattered as you flit from one link to the next and from site to site. Five free clicks per day is all most anyone really needs.