The Wall Street Journal to close Google loophole entirely

The Wall Street Journal continues to tighten up its paywall as it strives to hit 3 million subscribers to the Journal and other Dow Jones products.

Starting Monday, it’s turning off Google’s first-click free feature that let people skirt the Journal’s paywall by cutting and pasting the headline of a story into Google. The Journal tested turning off the feature with 40 percent of its audience last year. But the eye-popping moment was when the Journal turned it for off four sections for two weeks, resulting in a dramatic 86 percent jump in subscriptions. The Journal said the full turnoff is a test, but didn’t say how long it would last.

“A consistent amount of people were avoiding the paywall,” said Suzi Watford, Dow Jones’ chief marketing officer.

The Journal recently touted a 110,000 increase in subscribers in the last three months of 2016 to 1.1 million compared to the previous quarter, which a spokesperson called its biggest quarter-on-quarter increase in history. And while it believes the Trump bump played a significant role in that increase — 13 of the top 20 stories of the past six months were political — it also reflects efforts that have been underway since last summer, when the Journal started to tighten up its paywall, tweak its subscriber messaging and allow people to share links on social media.

“We had a paywall that’s 20 years old and hadn’t really been changed,” Watford said. “We asked, how can we optimize it for subscription sales but continue to work for advertisers?”

The Journal is a rarity in publishing in that it gets more money from readers than advertising, so it’s protective of its paywall, which includes being discriminating when it comes to distributing its articles outside its own platforms. But with print advertising waning, the Journal is looking for ways to lean more on readers for revenue. According to a reader survey it’s fielding, it’s exploring an ad-free version of the Journal, charging for individual articles and even charging extra for home delivery.

Video is still in front of the paywall — video commands high ad rates so the Journal wants to maximize its audience, and it’s also a way to draw in would-be subscribers — but it’s the exception. Starting last summer, previously free sections including arts and lifestyle have joined the rest of the sections that are locked down.

Meanwhile, a new team has been tweaking the subscription messaging to get people to convert, learning that telling people they can cancel any time and putting price information front and center had positive results driving subs. Since tightening the paywall, the Journal said, the average number of stories leading people to subscribe is up 66 percent, which the pub says is testament to the strength of its long-tail.

While it’s ending Google first click free for now, which lets subscription publications be indexed by Google search, the Journal is increasing its exposure to new audiences by letting people read for free links that are shared on social media by subscribers and staffers. Since making that change, the Journal has seen a 30 percent boost in traffic from social media, primarily from Facebook. The Journal is treating the social sharing ability like a perk for subscribers, like the other ones they get from a free subscriber membership program that the Journal launched in 2014, WSJ+.

“We’re very confident in our strategy around what we’re doing in social,” Watford said. “It’s a membership benefit. We have a large and influential audience. If you’re a paying member, we want to make sure you can share those stories.”

It remains to be seen how long the good times will last, though. The 110,000 new subscribers came in at a mix of offers, of $12 for 12 weeks as well as two-month, six-month and 1-year term offers. So the question is if people renew once those deals ends and the prices goes up. The Journal’s standard annual rate is $396 for print or digital access, and while many of its subscribers may charge their subs to their expense accounts, it’s not cheap, and every subscription-based publication has a natural limit, especially when there are cheaper options in The New York Times and Washington Post.

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