Google turns on the charm with publishers by focusing on subscriptions

Google is vying for the hearts and minds of publishers with an appeal to their bottom lines, particularly in attracting subscribers.

Last fall, Google ended its controversial first-click-free policy that required paywalled publishers to let readers see at least three free articles to have the publishers’ content surfaced in search and replaced it with flexible sampling, where the publishers choose where to set the meter. It’s organized working groups of publishers to get their feedback on subscriptions. At a Digital News Initiative summit Google convened in Amsterdam last week, Google said it was working on ways to identify Google users who are likely candidates to subscribe to a publication, make it easy for them to subscribe within Google and then give them a tailored experience in search based on what they subscribe to.

The event was significant for the emphasis on subscriptions, after previous ones focused on advertising on Google, said Nic Newman, a research associate at the Reuters Institute. Both Google and Facebook are working on similar initiatives, but Google is further along, said City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, who attended the Amsterdam gathering.

“They’re being very open about their thought process,” he said. “Both companies have been trying hard, Google more than Facebook, to share their thinking and their road maps. They can’t collaborate with publishers unless they share some of their road maps.”

A recognition that publishers need subscriptions is an important mindset shift for Google and Facebook, both of which have, in their own ways, been wedded to the idea of free content — as both have business models premised on aggregating freely available content in order to draw audience attention and advertiser dollars. In the abstract, however, it is in neither companies’ interests for publishers to go out of business. The emerging consensus is that quality publishing, particularly news, will need a mix of advertising and subscription revenue.

Google’s moves to help subscription publishers have been in the works for more than a year, although they take on more significance now that publishers’ relationship with their other biggest referral source, Facebook, is increasingly strained, and Facebook has publicly said news would be a diminished part of its news feed. Google’s moves also take on more importance now that it’s recently surpassed Facebook as a referral source to publishers. Facebook, for its part, also has taken steps to promote subscriptions, running a test with 10 publishers, including Tronc and The Washington Post.

Google also has a clear interest in cementing its reputation as more of a friend than foe to publishers, in comparison to current media punching bag Facebook. There was a time when publishers chiefly groused about Google’s dominance, but nowadays, publishing execs are more likely to see Google as at least a benevolent ruler compared to Facebook, even as Google pursues initiatives like its Chrome ad-filtering function that worry publishers.

The current best way to gain favor with news publishers: Give them a path to reader revenue. Google gained goodwill on this front by changing its first-click-free policy. The New York Times and Financial Times did testing with Google before the policy ended in October, and both said they’ve seen some upside in subscriptions. The New York Times has seen an increase in new subscriptions from Google users hitting its paywall, even as it lowered the number of articles people could get for free before being required to subscribe from 10 to five, said Rebecca Grossman-Cohen, vp of audience and platforms at the Times.

“Friction is coming up a little sooner, and they’re forced to make a decision sooner, so it’s widening the pool of people who are willing to pay,” she said. “I think what it’s showing us is the hunch we’ve had for a long time, which is, consumers are much more comfortable with the idea of paying for news and journalism that’s worth paying for, and the Times is among the publications that we know people believe is worth paying for.”

Tom Betts, chief data officer at the FT, said the paper has also seen some upside and that it continues to test different levels of articles people can read for free before hitting the paywall. Over time, the concern is whether publishers will have to choose between raising reader revenue and being easily found in search.

“We’re obviously very happy with the ability to have more flexibility and be able to undertake these experiments, but ultimately, for flexible sampling to be a success, it has to result in a net subscription benefit for publishers,” Betts said. “So if I could double conversion, if we saw a huge drop-off in traffic, that could erode any gain. Google is an incredibly meaningful source of traffic to us. To sacrifice or lose that would have material consequences.”

Google’s stance is that publishers need to provide some form of free sampling to be successful on the internet. If it’s too little, then fewer users will click on links to that content or share it, which could limit brand discovery and subsequently may affect traffic over time.

There’s plenty to figure out about how the platforms could help push people down the road to subscribe, including how Google would decide which publication to favor in search results if the user subscribes to more than one, how much subscription revenue the platforms could unlock and whether the platforms will take a cut of that revenue (Facebook isn’t, at least for now; Google said if anything, it would only seek to cover its costs).

“Using all the data Google has on people to provide insights on whether people are likely to subscribe — it’s something publishers have been asking for for a long time,” Newman said. “That’s the kind of thing that could make a genuine difference — to be able to leverage that vast data bank.”

Then there’s whether Google will extend its support to other consumer-pay models like donations and memberships that NPR and the Guardian use.

“There’s a lot of publishers that aren’t selling access to content but are seeking consumer support,” Jarvis said. “My concern is, subs are only one model. If they go overboard, they’re putting a thumb on that scale. So that’s a next thing they have to do.”

Facebook is de-emphasizing publishers in its news feed, but Google is emerging as a friendlier face as it sends more traffic their way and promises help drive subscriptions. Join Digiday editors this Friday at 1pm for a members-only townhall discussion about Google’s changing relationship with publishers. Become a Digiday+ member here.

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