Can You Charge for News? Ask Google

The pundits opining about Rupert Murdoch’s plans to charge for his media conglomerate’s online content miss the forest for the trees. The majority spout conjecture about whether or not people would pay and in that context whether or not anyone should charge, considering the abundance of alternative online informational sources. What everyone should ask: Can you put content behind a paywall, even just require registration, and fully participate in the Google economy?

Can we be honest, here? If your business is content and selling online advertising around it, you must pay homage to the great Google algorithm. As was with previous age’s deities, the minions must make sacrifices before the great Google god. To receive its blessings, they must do Google’s bidding—quite literally on keywords—and give away all their worldly possessions (e.g., content, for free). But can they give to Lord Google and keep something for themselves, too?

The answer isn’t rocket science. Google provides all the search tools you need to get the answer, meaning whether content can be placed behind a paywall and still participate in the Google economy. I start with Advertising Age article “What Marketers Can Learn From Obama’s Campaign,” published on Nov. 5, 2008. I choose this story because:

  • I have quoted from it a few times
  • AdAge uses registration and a paywall
  • AdAge articles are available briefly online without registration
  • The article should be indexed but is no longer accessible without registration

Case Study: AdAge
The search results might surprise some people. I first start with the article title, which brings back the full article as published elsewhere, but not AdAge. More surprising, the results don’t really change using current Google search or the testing Caffeine engine. Putting quotes around the title doesn’t bring up the story from AdAge, at least in visibly top results.

OK, how about using keywords related to article: Advertising Age, Obama, Ries (the author), BMW; Regular Google and Google Caffeine. The results are different, but not necessarily better. The first two entries lead to AdAge, which is something. The full article no longer comes first from third parties but from the author’s website. But that’s still not AdAge.

The question to ask: How much of a barrier is that paywall to Google search? The third parties reposting the AdAge story or linking to it don’t have paywalls and, from my cursory review, they’re all search-engine optimized and most have advertising and/or sell marketing services. Something, and I can only assume the paywall, prevents AdAge from getting its deserved search results.


Case Study: Wall Street Journal
Surely, one search at one site is no scientific measure. How about another? Veteran technology reviewer Walt Mossberg writes columns that appear on All Things Digital (no registration, or paywall) and the Wall Street Journal Online (with registration and paywall). How would Google treat identical columns on both sites, and I’ll caution that many blog and news sites avoid duplicating content for concern about causing hiccups in Google search results.

I choose March 25, 2009 Walt column, “Some Favorite Apps That Make iPhone Worth the Price,” which appears at D and WSJ. Results: Google; Caffeine. The story tops both search results, with the Journal story ranking higher. So much for that paywall barrier, right? Wrong.

I’ve paid for a WSJ online subscription since 1996, and until today I assumed that all content is behind a paywall. Apparently not. I can access any of Walt’s Personal Technology stories without being logged into WSJ. So, I try searching for something different—April 3, 2008 WSJ story, “Bad News U: Colleges Reject Record Numbers.” I presume the story is behind a paywall. Results: Google; Caffeine. Looks good for the paywall, eh? Maybe not. Once again, I can access the story without being logged into WSJ. I use two different browsers, with clean cookies at start for the one not logged in.

My questions: How much of the Journal’s content really is behind a paywall, and how much does the freely available stuff juice up Google search results? Conceptually, content behind paywalls isn’t indexed, or if it is without benefit from other metrics that boost search rankings. If Rupert puts all this content behind a true paywall, will its search rankings diminish or disappear and, therefore, move out of the mainstream Google economy?

Case Study: GigaOM Pro
Questions like these require at least one more unscientific search test. GigaOM is one of the recent new media success stories. I see its rise as being similar to Engadget, Gizmodo or TechCrunch. These newer sites pull big pageview numbers and are highly search-engine optimized. They make mighty big offerings to the great Google god. But GigaOM recently started a Pro service, for which subscribers pay 79 bucks a year.

How does the paywall affect GigaOM Pro content search? See for yourself: Google and Caffeine for May 9, 2009 post “Cloud Security: Best Left Understated.” Regular Google search brings back the story as top result, but it’s MIA from Google’s newer—and still testing—search engine. Uh-oh. Something else: The top hit is the only one. The post might not show up at all, if not for free GigaOM site popularity and the Pro post being viewable as link with single paragraph of teaser text. (“Does the Google god say, ‘Thou shalt not charge for the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?’ Pay $79 and your eyes will open.)

Now compare non-paywall GigaOM post “How ISPs Can Survive Becoming Dumb Pipes,” which posted a day earlier. Results: Google; Caffeine. Not only does the story top the results, but the Google god’s “link angels” highly rank, too. These linking sites drive traffic, and presumably pageviews, to the story. GigaOM Pro doesn’t receive the praise given by the link angels; GigaOM only gets the benefit from making an offering to the Google god.

Yes, You Can Serve Two Masters, or None
So, can you charge for news and still participate in the Google economy? Yes and no. For the true worshippers, those willing to make their offerings to the Google god, the answer is yes. Whether they can subsist on that economy is topic of another post. For others, paywalls will come at a price, in terms of traffic, pageviews and incoming links.

Advertising Age, GigaOM Pro and WSJ use different paywall tactics. AdAge makes content available for about a week and then puts it behind a paywall. GigaOM Pro content is all behind a paywall. WSJ makes some content freely available, while putting much of its more investor-related stuff behind a paywall.

I’ll restate the question: Should any news organization have to pay homage to the Google algorithm to succeed online? I say, “No!” But they will have to try new tactics:

  1. Audience, and not pageviews, must become the measure for advertising’s value. Search’s early promise, as it has been with Nielsen TV ratings, is demographics. Not just how many, but whom.
  2. People need a reason to pay. I value WSJ content enough to have paid 13 years for it. GigaOM sells for $79/year analyst content that dedicated analyst firms sell for thousands of dollars.
  3. Some, or all, dedicated application content should be paid for. The free web is Google’s domain, but dedicated applications need not be. Many news organizations now offer iPhone apps. Financial Times sets the gold standard for iPhone news apps by giving away 10 articles/month for free. To read more, you pay.

I think Rupert Murdoch will take lots of risks by putting all content behind a paywall, that is if he plans to use existing search and pageview metrics as means of measuring advertising’s value. If he plans to sell advertising around audience, maybe he can rewrite the rules for selling and buying advertising.

I predict this: The day audience becomes the measure for advertising’s value, the quality of content will begin to improve on the web. But that also is topic of another post.

Photo Credit: U.S. Library of Congress

Do you have a Google or news media story that you’d like told? Please email Joe Wilcox: joewilcox at gmail dot com.