Google to allow publishers to limit free news access

Google is to allow publishers of paid for content to limit the amount of free access internet users have to their websites from Google News.

The move, announced by the Google senior business product manager Josh Cohen late yesterday, comes after mounting criticism of the search engine giant from newspaper publishers, not least the News Corporation chairman and chief executive, Rupert Murdoch.

Just yesterday, Murdoch accused online aggregators such as Google News of "theft" of content, speaking at a US media regulators' workshop on the future of journalism in the internet age in Washington.

Murdoch plans to put News Corp content, including from UK newspapers such as the Sun and the Times, behind a paywall and has threatened to remove it from Google's search index and Google News.

However, Cohen said publishers would be able to charge for their content and still make it available via Google following the changes announced yesterday. "The two aren't mutually exclusive," he added, on a Google News blog.

Cohen said Google had achieved this by updating its First Click Free programme, so that publishers can limit Google News users to looking at no more than five pages of content a day without registering or subscribing.

"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," he added.

Cohen said that Google will also begin crawling, indexing and treating as "free" any preview pages - usually the headline and first few paragraphs of a story - from subscription websites.

"We will then label such stories as "subscription" in Google News. The ranking of these articles will be subject to the same criteria as all sites in Google, whether paid or free," he added.

"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."

"These are two of the ways we allow publishers to make their subscription content discoverable, and we're going to keep talking with publishers to refine these methods. After all, whether you're offering your content for free or selling it, it's crucial that people find it. Google can help with that."

It remains to be seen whether this will placate Murdoch, who told the US Federal Trade Commission workshop yesterday: "Producing journalism is expensive. We invest tremendous resources in our project from technology to our salaries. To aggregate stories is not fair use. To be impolite, it is theft.

"Without us, the aggregators would have blank slides. Right now content producers have all the costs, and the aggregators enjoy [the benefits]. But the principle is clear. To paraphrase a great economist, [there is] no such thing as a free news story."

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