Mixed feelings on Google concessions to newspapers

In two concessions, Google has made it easier for newspaper publishers to better control their own content. Is this too little too late?
Written by John Dodge, Contributor on

I have mixed feelings about Google's two latest concessions to newspapers that want to wall off paid or subscription content or restrict what content Google News crawls. What do you think?

On one hand, this old print hand has adapted well to the online world and spent the last five years figuring out how Google can best find my content. I'm used to  living in a world of tallied page views and my compensation at various stages has been tied to how many of those I generate.

Without Google, I'm toast on that score as readers who find my work have mostly looked for it on Google. Where else do people go searching for stories? Remember the archaic notion of factory piece work? That's where factory workers were paid on how many pieces or products they produced as opposed to punching a clock. Being paid on page views is the blogging equivalent to factory piecework. Under such a system, one has to be creative and fast lest he or she quickly get weeded out.

On the other hand, Google is second biggest reason media companies are laying off scores of talented journalists and shuttering magazines and newspapers. The first reason is the Internet which by itself had newspapers in a slower decline. Google has put their demise on the fact track. Indeed, a substantial chunk of Google's $20 plus billion used to go into the pockets of traditional media companies for better or worse. New York Times columnist David Carr wrote a terrific column Sunday on the demise of tradiitional media and who's filling the void.

What did Google do exactly? This morning in one blog post, Google described how it has made it easier for publishers to opt out of being found by Google News and listed in its search results. It was something publishers could do all along by filling out an exclusion contact form and submitting it to Google. Now publishers can block out the crawler themselves by adding instructions to a .txt file embedded in something called a Robots Exclusion Protocol or REP for short.

When I first learned about these concessions, where did I go? Google News, of course where I came up with 854 related stories. For research, I use Google News multiple times every day although 20 stories on any single news event usually suffices.

The other concession would limit the number of free stories on subscription or paid sites a user could access through Google. It's called the First Click Free program which has been around for a while. Google in separate posst announced modifications to the program yesterday.

"As most users are generally happy to be able to access just a few pages from these premium content providers, we've decided to allow publishers to limit the number of accesses under the First Click Free policy to five free accesses per user each day," Google wrote in its Webmaster Central Blog yesterday.

The original First Click Free program apparently emerged a couple of years ago and gave users unrestricted access to subscription-based or paid content without subscribing or paying for it. In the case of the Wall Street Journal, that is a problem because it is one of few newspaper sites to charge for premium content.

"If you aren’t familiar [with it], First click free is a way for publishers to share their subscription-only content with Google News readers. All articles that are accessed from Google News are allowed to skip over the subscription page," Google posted in September, 2007.  Translation: You can have the WSJ's content for free through Google News while everyone else has to pay for it.

"Now, we've updated the program so that publishers can limit users to no more than five pages per day without registering or subscribing. If you're a Google user, this means that you may start to see a registration page after you've clicked through to more than five articles on the website of a publisher using First Click Free in a day," Google wrote yesterday.

Still doesn't seem like cricket, does it Ruppert?

That's Ruppert as in News Corp. media magnate Ruppert Murdoch who's been threatening to do a deal content-licensing deal with Microsoft and cut Google completely off from News Corp content. WSJ  managing editor Robert Thomson has warned if WSJ.com did not charge for content, News Corp. would have to fire 290 reporters (there's plenty of that going around, anyway).

My main paper, The Boston Globe, has been mulling ways to charge for content without losing droves of readers. It may not be possible, but something has to pay for great journalism. There is something unfair about the way Google capitalizes on content created and paid for by others. if I understand this correctly, Google News users can only circumvent the WSJ's subscription wall only five times a day, now.

Indeed, the WSJ has the right to establish the rules of its business. But the choice for publishers is difficult. You can either exclude your content from Google News entirely through the REP so almost no one finds it unless they are on your site. Or you can use First Click Free and have your content indexed so the Google search engine can find it. The exchange is give away a few pages of premium content free for all important content indexing.

All that said on behalf of fairness, I have moved deeply into Google apps, News, dashboard...you name it. Google is an enormously powerful and everyday tool for me. I've moved on, but I like it that newspapers are fighting back.

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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