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Google decision could end free online content

Google's agreement to improve publishers' ability to limit access to their content is likely to spark a fresh search for ways to make online news pay.

The changes mean publishers can impose a limit of five articles to be accessed from a computer on any one day.

Once the fifth article has been viewed, a pay wall will prevent further access with the offer of an option to subscribe.

This supports other functions already in place such as the ability to limit access to the first paragraph of an article.

However, charging for online content could cause difficulties for publishers and advertisers, as imposing a pay wall may result in a drastic drop in website traffic.

Rob Lynam, head of national press trading at media agency Mediaedge:cia, insists changes need to be made. 'There is a twin problem - traditional revenue from circulation and cover price is falling, coupled with declining ad revenue,' he says. 'This needs to be made sustainable or the whole thing is going to collapse.'

The main concern for the industry is the potential closure of publications that fail to adapt to the changing landscape by imposing a sustainable funding model. This would have a knock-on effect on advertisers, which will be faced with fewer publishers demanding more for their ad space.

'Digitalisation is happening and advertisers will have to get on board,' says Vanessa Clifford, head of press at media network MindShare. 'It's the speed of the changes that is the only question.'

Publishers are also looking to capitalise on the success of digital e-readers, with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp set to launch a joint venture with Time Inc, Hearst, Conde Nast and Meredith to create a portal for their combined content.

'Potentially people will stop buying hard-copy newspapers and magazines but that doesn't matter,' adds Clifford. 'It is the content that makes a media brand. The paper is just the delivery mechanism.'

News Corp has taken a lead in seeking an end to the 'free' culture online. Joining with other publishers allows it share some of the risks. Advertisers will have to adapt to fresh ways of thinking online. The more quickly they do so, the greater the influence they will have over these developments.

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