Google Gives First Sign That Free Content Has Its Limits; MEDIA ANALYSIS

Article excerpt

Byline: Gideon Spanier

THE timing was no coincidence. Josh Cohen, a senior executive at Google, has declared that the search giant is going to help publishers enforce pay walls with a new policy which means readers can only click on to five stories a day from an individual news site before having to register or subscribe.

His announcement, made in a posting on the Google website, came just as News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch, the search engine's most vociferous critic, was addressing the Federal Trade Commission in Washington. Cohen himself addressed the same FTC hearing on the future of online news only a few minutes after Murdoch.

There is no doubt that Google is trying to offer an olive branch to a beleaguered publishing industry which continues to struggle with how to "monetise" -- that is make money -- out of online audiences which are as promiscuous as they are huge.

The search giant wants to send out the message to newspaper publishers that pay walls and having their news stories listed on Google "aren't mutually exclusive".

That is a direct response to Murdoch's threat to pull all his News Corp content, encompassing everything from The Sun to The Wall Street Journal, off Google and strike a deal with rival Microsoft.

"Google is trying very hard to soften its image within the online industry and in other industries such as publishing," says Justin Pearse, editor of New Media Age. "What is significant about this move is the way it will be viewed [by some people] as Google bowing down to Rupert Murdoch and the press. But I don't believe it is." Indeed, it is far from clear that this is much of a concession from Google -- or that it will make much difference to publishers.

Pearse describes Google's change of policy as a "tweaking" rather than something more dramatic. I am told this view is shared by News Corporation. Those close to Murdoch indicated today that it still looks as if Google is dictating the terms to publishers about, say, how many times a reader can see stories for free and so on.

Google's new policy is based on its existing First Click Free software tool, which the compamy is updating so that publishers can choose from several options.

One proposal is that the newspaper can allow the Google search engine, known as a crawler, to go behind the editorial pay wall to compile data on the whole news story. Then, when a reader searches via Google, he or she will be able to find keywords anywhere in that story. However, when it comes to clicking through to the newspaper website and actually reading the story, the user will only see it in its entirety on the first five occasions each day. From the sixth story on, only the first paragraph or so will be visible before registering.

This would not have any effect on sites which continue to be free, such as the BBC News website.

A second, new approach offered by Google is designed specifically for paywall content. Publishers will be able to ensure that when readers click onto their news site from Google News, only the first paragraph can be seen for nonsubscribers or unregistered users. …