In Google’s mission to organize the world’s information, we want to guide Google users to the highest quality content, the principle exemplified in our quality rater guidelines. Professional publishers provide the lion’s share of quality content that benefits users and we want to encourage their success.
The ecosystem is sustained via two main sources of revenue: ads and subscriptions, with the latter requiring a delicate balance to be effective in Search. Typically subscription content is hidden behind paywalls, so that users who don’t have a subscription don’t have access. Our evaluations have shown that users who are not familiar with the high quality content behind a paywall often turn to other sites offering free content. It is difficult to justify a subscription if one doesn’t already know how valuable the content is, and in fact, our experiments have shown that a portion of users shy away from subscription sites. Therefore, it is essential that sites provide some amount of free sampling of their content so that users can learn how valuable their content is.
The First Click Free (FCF) policy for both Google web search and News was designed to address this issue. It offers promotion and discovery opportunities for publishers with subscription content, while giving Google users an opportunity to discover that content. Over the past year, we have worked with publishers to investigate the effects of FCF on user satisfaction and on the sustainability of the publishing ecosystem. We found that while FCF is a reasonable sampling model, publishers are in a better position to determine what specific sampling strategy works best for them. Therefore, we are removing FCF as a requirement for Search, and we encourage publishers to experiment with different free sampling schemes, as long as they stay within the updated webmaster guidelines. We call this Flexible Sampling.
One of the original motivations for FCF is to address the issues surrounding cloaking, where the content served to Googlebot is different from the content served to users. Spammers often seek to game search engines by showing interesting content to the search engine, say healthy food recipes, but then showing users an offer for diet pills. This “bait and switch” scheme creates a bad user experience since users do not get the content they expected. Sites with paywalls are strongly encouraged to apply the new structured data to their pages, because without it, the paywall may be interpreted as a form of cloaking, and the pages would then be removed from search results.
Based on our investigations, we have created detailed best practices for implementing flexible sampling. There are two types of sampling we advise: metering, which provides users with a quota of free articles to consume, after which paywalls will start appearing; and lead-in, which offers a portion of an article’s content without it being shown in full.
For metering, we think that monthly (rather than daily) metering provides more flexibility and a safer environment for testing. The user impact of changing from one integer value to the next is less significant at, say, 10 monthly samples than at 3 daily samples. All publishers and their audiences are different, so there is no single value for optimal free sampling across publishers. However, we recommend that publishers start by providing 10 free clicks per month to Google search users in order to preserve a good user experience for new potential subscribers. Publishers should then experiment to optimize the tradeoff between discovery and conversion that works best for their businesses.
Lead-in is generally implemented as truncated content, such as the first few sentences or 50-100 words of the article. Lead-in allows users a taste of how valuable the content may be. Compared to a page with completely blocked content, lead-in clearly provides more utility and added value to users.
We are excited by this change as it allows the growth of the premium content ecosystem, which ultimately benefits users. We look forward to the prospect of serving users more high quality content!