Google attempts to appease Murdoch

Matt Bowman · December 2, 2009 · Short URL:

The search giant allows publishers to limit the number of articles Google users can view for free.

 In an attempt to placate Big Media, Google said late Tuesday that it would let publishers limit the number of free articles a user can access through through its search engine before hitting a pay wall.

The move is largely a response to News Corp. kingping Ruper Murdoch, who has threatened to block Google from indexing articles published by his properties, and is said to be in talks with Bing to give it exclusive access to Fox’s content. Speaking Tuesday at an FTC workshop on the future of journalism, Murdoch said that media companies should charge for content and stop news aggregators like Google from "feeding off the hard-earned efforts and investments of others."

Google has repeatedly insisted that it helps drive traffic to publishers and that organizations are free to block Google from indexing their pages, but it seems the heat coming from Bing has forced the search giant into a more conciliatory stance.

Before today, Google prevented publishers for charging for their content when users came to that content via Google News. If a user clicked on an article title from Google News and a publisher tried to send users to a "pay for this first" screen, Google considered that "cloaking" and would not honor it. Instead, Google gave users the full article for free, even when those visiting the publisher's Web site directly would have to pay for it to see it. If a user proceeded from that article to other pages on the publisher’s site, then they could then be hit with a paywall.

The practice understandably disgruntled publishers like Murdoch, whose Wall Street Journal was one of the first major newspapers to introduce an online paywall. "There are those who think they have a right to take our news content and use it for their own purposes without contributing a penny to its production," Murdoch said at Tuesday’s FTC event. "Their almost wholesale misappropriation of our stories is not fair use. To be impolite, it's theft."

Google responded quickly and indirectly. In a blog post yesterday, Josh Cohen, Google’s senior business product manager who was also at the FTC event, explained the update to the system. "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 ... while allowing publishers to focus on potential subscribers who are accessing a lot of their content on a regular basis."

Murdoch hasn’t yet responded publicly to the new rules, but my gut says he'll see this as a tad symbolic. I pay for the WSJ but I rarely read more than 5 articles per day. I’d be surprised if this change would impact News Corp’s bottom line. Murdoch could play his Bing hand a bit longer, and if he gets the AP or Reuters, who are as hungry for revenues, on his bandwagon, Murdoch could begin to squeeze significant rev share out of the search engines.

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