New Google ‘Flexible Sampling’ program to replace ‘First Click Free’ policy

By Shawn Eastman - Digital Marketing Executive. 

Google has ended its controversial 'First Click Free' (FCF) policy that allowed users to bypass publisher paywalls and access a limited amount of content for free, replacing it with a new system called 'flexible sampling', which will give publishers the power to decide how many free articles they want to provide.

Google search listing

Google claim that it rolled out the original policy 10 years ago, in hope that it would lead to more people choosing to sign up to the subscriptions, but many publishers lamented the idea. The most notable being The Wall Street Journal, who earlier this year decided to finally pull all their content out of Google's 'First Click Free' program.

The statistics that followed made it appear to be a bad decision, as traffic to The Wall Street Journal website from Google fell 38%, and referrals from Google News were down 89% in August compared to the previous year. Despite this, The Wall Street Journal must have concluded that actual subscription conversions weren't negatively hurt enough for them to consider re-offering the free content that Google's 'First Click Free' policy required.

What was the 'First Click Free' policy?

The 'First Click Free' policy meant that news websites were obliged to offer readers access to three articles every day, completely free of charge. In return, they would rank highly in the search engine's listings. Subscription-focused publishers that failed to opt-in to the policy would be disadvantaged with lower search ranking results, as Google's algorithm would only scan for article content that wasn't behind a paywall.

What does the new 'flexible sampling' program involve?

The new changes now mean that subscription-based content and news publishers will have complete control over how many free articles, if any, they want to let Google searchers access before showing a subscription prompt. Google will now be crawling full articles behind paywalls for indexing, and publisher decisions regarding how much free content they want to supply will not impact search rankings in any way, though Google still recommends that publishers do provide some free content.

Extra Google tools should help boost publisher subscriptions

Alongside these policy changes, Google has also said that it is currently working on an array of other useful tools that will hopefully boost publisher subscriptions. Ad targeting tactics will mean that if publishers share their audience profiles, then Google will use them to identify which audiences are most likely to subscribe, hopefully maximising subscription conversions.

Different offers and content might be shown to different audiences based on their likelihood to subscribe, and publishers will be able to adjust the presentation of their content and offers according to sub-segments or profiles.

Google also aim to reduce the subscription purchase process down to one click for those with a Google account, using a template-based checkout that can be pre-populated with details (including payment card information if kept on file) to accelerate the checkout time.

Finally, Google has also said that publications will receive further exposure to users who are already subscribed, with a one-box like treatment above the fold or towards the top of the page. So, if you were subscribed to a particular news publication and searched for something, if that publication had released content relevant to your search then it will be prominently displayed to you at the top.

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