The Rise And Fall Of Google’s “First Click Free” Policy

The rise and fall of Google's “first click free” policy headerWith the decline of print media, online information has emerged as a main source of published content for much of the developed world. Timely delivery of information, virtual infinity of sources, and the omnipresence of devices has made the search engine the actual “engine” of a silent revolution in information peddling. The situation seems less rosy when it comes to publishers, who feel that the “Duopoly” of Google and Facebook is eating away most of the large digital advertising cake. Thus, Google felt the need to make amends to publishers by introducing its “first click free” model that was supposed to restore balance in content generation and subscription segment. Yet its results have left a lot to be desired, leading to its inevitable demise. Stay with us to learn if Google’s recent policies regarding accessibility of paywalled content are friend or foe for your publishing business.

Free Content for Better Visibility


Let’s check out how this program was supposed to work, and how good was the rationale for introducing it in the first place. Apparently, the model emerged as a sort of olive branch gesture Google gave to publishers, as they felt that a disproportionate number of the online advertising market were taken over at the expense of original content creators. In addition to its intention to get both the readership and content deliverers back to the web, Google has also recognized an opportunity to restore the power of the search engine as a giant machine which powers global online advertising business.

Thus, Google offered a feature named First Click Free, which allowed the consumer to have free access to articles made by publishers. Due to their dwindling revenues the publishers were increasingly relying on subscription-based models for content delivery from other media (primarily print). So, publishers that wanted to participate in the program simply had to let readers have limited access to their paywalled content, in exchange for higher visibility in the Google News search results.

Specifically, publishers were asked to make available at least three free articles on a daily basis, which Google indexed and presented as part of the search results for a specific keyword or topic. It was all about strengthening the subscription prospects for participating publishers, as the first article was made available to visitors without subscribing in order for readers to get a “taste” of it. After this, any continued interaction with the webpage would end by prompting the visitor either to subscribe to the content or provide login information.

googleImage Source: Blue Diamond Gallery

Subscriptions Impaired by Abuses


Yet, the issues emerged immediately after the model’s introduction. Large publishers such as the Wall Street Journal immediately opted out from the program, which they saw as a limitation to moving on with their subscription-based model. According to the WSJ, blocking Google users from reading free articles in this manner made their in-house subscription model record a fourfold increase in the conversion rate of readers who became paying subscribers.

Google has seemingly struck back, with the publication’s traffic from Google going down by 44 percent due to its algorithms that scan the web in search of free content. Once the WSJ’s articles were put behind a paywall, Google’s bots ranked them lower, resulting in limited visibility of its content. This has caused massive backlash from the publisher’s’ side, since they felt that they were discriminated on the basis of introducing a subscription model for access to their content. The situation was further exacerbated by the reports that many users (at least one million of them, according to WSJ) were abusing the first click free model by clearing their cookies in order to peek above the paywalls and read articles for free.

All of this came to light at the time of publication of reports which claimed that more than half of American adults pay for access to the news content, with nearly 4 in 10 of them belonging to the category of people aged less than 35. Paired with reports that Google’s model introduced some unexpected requests to complete surveys or register for free, the writing was on the wall for the first click free policy, and Google ultimately decided to pull the plug on it in October 2017.

Enter Flexible Sampling Model


So, was this a victory for publishers, after all? The jury is still out on this one, yet Google was quick to offer a replacement in form of a Flexible Sampling substitute model, which allows publishers to actually decide on the number of available free articles for free on monthly basis. In addition to this, they will be able to decide on the portion of article content that will be visible prior to prompting users to pull out their wallets.

Google itself recommends publishers offer at least ten free articles on monthly basis, as a sweet spot for enticing readers to subscribe to their content. In addition, Google advises combining this with allowing for at least limited access to a portion of paywalled content for the same reason.

Yet the final decision ultimately rests with you, with the knowledge that your search rankings will remain untouched even if you decide not to offer any content for free. In addition, Google also wants to help you by working on streamlining subscription procedures across the board, in form of single-click sign-ups via Android devices and Google services. This effort will be paired with its drive to find a way to offer publishers its user data in order to allow for better targeting of subscribers. At least for now, it seems that publishers have Google’s ear and that is a good sign for the future collaboration.



The story of the rise and fall of Google’s first click free policy only serves to illustrate the turmoil in the online publishing business, which searches for the best partnership model to both protect its audience and secure its financial sustainability. Despite it’s shortcomings, assistance of tech giants such as Google is surely welcome, as it helps with finding a holistic solution that works best for all parties involved. In the end, you’ll do well to learn from the examples provided here, while keeping an eye on the latest developments that can be used as an example for establishing best practices for the future.