It’s been not quite a week since Google basically demolished publisher paywall models by “closing a loophole” that allows publishers to see when site visitors are using an incognito browser.
They gave publishers a two-week notice last month, and the announcement sent publishers into an understandable tizzy. This functionality is important for paywall strategies; if they can’t tell a reader is using a private browser, they can’t track how many free articles they’ve already been served. And limiting the number of free articles is a critical part of most publishers’ paywall strategies.
When the update went into effect on July 30, “metered paywalls became practically worthless for publishers big and small,” writes Monojoy Bhattacharjee in What’s New in Publishing, who says up to 33% of publisher paywalls were impacted.
“As we observed publisher reactions unfolding live on Twitter, the anger was palpable,” Bhattacharjee continues. “Online news media had spent years to get their readers used to metered paywalls and recreate value. A single decision from Mountain View, and all of it started to unravel.”
“It’s akin to Google walking into a store, taking a newspaper outside (without paying for it) and giving it to a passerby for free,” said tech journalist David Zweig.
Others took a more philosophical approach, wondering is this might not be a good thing in the long run, forcing publishers to figure out a value proposition that made people want to buy outright. But ultimately, it serves to deepen the divide between news publishers and Google, which is already part of the digital duopoly that has throttled down publisher engagement in an attempt to keep readers behind Google’s garden walls … and news brands paying for ads.
Google, Apple and Facebook have all inadvertently helped defund modern journalism, at the same time they overpromised and undelivered on their publisher programs. No one was really surprised when publisher engagement plunged and media brands backed out of these new social publishing paradigms.
This latest move by Google leaves the news industry scrambling, and readers faced with a choice. Do we rejoice — like so many are on Twitter – that all this content is now “free” and just enjoy browsing incognito? Or do we recognize the value of what we are consuming, do the right thing and pay for what we consume?
The balance of the fourth estate – and our modern society – depends on what each one of us does the next time we want to read the news from a source we trust.