Google’s “First Click Free” policy weakens Microsoft’s hand in its struggle to improve Bing

London, 2 December, 2009 - Google has announced a change to it's so called "First Click Free" policy. It used to say that newspapers and other subscription sites are allowed to erect pay walls around their content while still letting Google in to index (and subsequently rank) that content in its search results, providing that the first page of content on a newspaper website is always free to view for users coming from Google.

While this had been designed so that newspapers can theoretically charge for their content and still benefit from Google traffic, the reality was quite different, as evinced by the persistent rumours and stories over the past 6 weeks surrounding Rupert Murdoch's supposed intention to block his site from Google entirely.

What has ensued is a 'Mexican standoff' in which both parties claim they have no need of the other, which in the event has been broken first by Google. "First Click Free" now only requires that the first five page views by Google users on any given day are free, after which sites are free to charge whatever they like.

So Google has at least signaled its willingness to compromise its previous hard line on news content. It will help to neutralize public concern over its apparent lack of care towards publishers. But it also weakens Microsoft's hand in its struggle to improve Bing, Google's only foreseeable challenger in the search game.

Microsoft was previously rumoured to be discussing the possibility of exclusive deals with major newspapers. That would have seen Bing become the only search engine able to include those papers in its results; if Microsoft were to get enough publishers on board, that could potentially have harmed Google's relevancy. But now, that approach may be less attractive to the publishers themselves as they see the possibility of making more cash from Google following the changes to "First Click Free".

Whether these changes alone will be enough to placate newspaper owners is questionable. After all, how many Google users click through to the same site, from Google, more than 5 times per day? Whatever the number, it's almost certainly a tiny proportion of those who visit news sites at all. Furthermore, of those who do, how many are willing to pay for their news content versus the alternative option of simply reading essentially the same story elsewhere? Again, only time will tell, and whether this will be the end or beginning of negotiations between the papers and the search engines remains to be seen.

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