Google helping publishers to restrict access?

This is a guest post by Judith Townend

It doesn’t sound likely but it’s true: Google is helping restrict access to free content.

Rupert Murdoch has flexed some muscle and forced a small concession by Google, it would seem.

Following the News Corp CEO’s threats to remove news content from Google’s search index and Google News, Google has updated its “First-Click-Free” system allowing publishers to restrict users’ free access to their sites.

Under the system, publishers who run closed content models — those Google calls “premium content providers” — can still be a part of Google News without releasing their content in full.

It was designed to allow users to access a news item via Google once — but of course, users could do this for lots of articles each day. Now, they will be limited to five items per day.

The publishers want to be part of Google, but they don’t want to disincentivise users from paying subscriptions and/or registering on the site.

Now, it looks like the closed content publishers can have their cake and eat it too, for the time being at least: Google senior business product manager Josh Cohen announced yesterday that publishers could charge for their content and still make it available via Google with the updated system. “The two aren’t mutually exclusive,” he explained in a blog post.

But at the end of the day, it’s a small move: Google still holds the power in this search relationship. Murdoch and the other big publishers want its juice. And they know it. Why else spend so much time attacking it?

Note this little reminder in Cohen’s piece:

“Paid content may not do as well as free options, but that is not a decision we make based on whether or not it’s free. It’s simply based on the popularity of the content with users and other sites that link to it.”

And Murdoch’s bound to be even angrier about this: a Fair Syndication Consortium study in the US [PDF at this link] has revealed that Google accounted for 53 per cent of ad revenue attracted by “unlicensed” online news content.

He’ll be uneasy about the concessionary crumbs thrown down to him, well aware that the Google cake isn’t as good as it first looks. One loophole might have been closed, but it’s not goodbye to free and open access news content just yet.

Judith Townend is senior reporter for