Put another Brick in the Paywall

As I update my long-neglected website and here review content relevant to forthcoming book Be a Better Blogger, some long-ago posts are surprisingly still relevant. I refer to “Can You Charge for News? Ask Google” (August 2009) and “The Price You Pay Google for Paywalls” (April 2010). The first looks at three different content sites and their visibility to Google search. Each uses a different paywall strategy. The second story assesses a website with all content behind a paywall.

Four years later, blog, news, and other content websites still grapple with the paywall question. Whether to charge? What to charge? When? Competition from sites delivering free content is major consideration. But another is often overlooked in the public discussion: Visibility in Google search.

Paywall content can become invisible. The experiments I conducted for both stories offer another explanation for why many paywall sites allow limited free content access. One tactic is free pass to stories reached from search queries. Another is limited number of reads for time-period, such as 10 per week or month. My contention: The approach is more about search visibility than providing something to potential readers or competing with free content. Publishers pay homage to the Google algorithm.

This morning, I reviewed the tests conducted for the first story. The results are surprisingly similar, if arguably unscientific. Four years ago, Google tested its Caffeine engine, and the queries I link to lead nowhere today. But the others are surprisingly consistent with results from August 2009. Little differences matter, however, such as access to Advertising Age stories previously behind a paywall. I will need to check on current policies.

The most shocking result is unchanged. For the second story, I explored Reid Reviews, which is completely behind a paywall. Readers pay a yearly fee to access content. Except for the home page, the site is invisible to Google search. The content is dark.

In May 2011, I exchanged emails with photographer Sean Reid. He doesn’t block search spiders, nor does he mind about the site’s invisibility. Sean is more concerned about audience and notes that subscriber support means no advertising, or pressure from potential sponsors. As a highly regarded reviewer (trust me on this), Sean shouldn’t have much trouble securing advertising deals, and the pressures that come with them.

Three Things
My assessment four-and-a-half years ago:

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.

The first point is the most important, even today. There is too much content, and too much free, to support an advertising model. There is overabundance of ad space to fill, and, as such, rates are too low to adequately support paying good writers to produce valuable, original content.

Audience is the only advertising metric that matters. Or should. I remain convinced that only blogs or news sites that woo loyal audience by building brand around good writers and by producing compelling original content can succeed. If I am mistaken, aggregators will rule the web.

The second point relates to the previous paragraph. Give people a reason to pay. If not, they won’t. About two years after the “Ask Google” story, I abandoned Wall Street Journal Online. I griped about tiered-pricing in May 2010, but hung on through the next subscription renewal. We parted ways in February 2012, and I still wonder how it came to this.

In 2009, I paid $119 annually for the Journal Online. A year later, the subscription rate jumped to $155. I temporarily cancelled but returned within days after receiving a $79/year offer. I don’t recall the 2011 rate but vaguely feel it was something like $179. When WSJ snatched $207.48 from my bank account for the next annual payment, I demanded a refund and cancelled.

The third point is the most encouraging for news organizations. While iPad only-newspaper The Daily failed, many print publications smartly make the digital transition. Content generally isn’t free. Many pubs do give print subscribers a free pass on smartphone and tablet editions, which is great customer service. Others make customers separately pay for print and tablet editions (goddamn you Rolling Stone).

The key takeaway: People pay, and they should. If publications pay writers to produce quality original content, readers should pony up to consume it. But there must be value. I still subscribe to the New York Times digital and recently added the Guardian for iPad. WSJ and I are still parted.

My heart warms to see so few free newspapers or magazines on tablets. Publishers resist making the same mistakes they did on the web. Stated differently: Free content is the Fourth Estate’s serial killer.

Photo Credit: Matias Romero