Google promises new tools to boost subscription for online publishers

Google is extending a peace offering to publishers even as many of the top publishers worldwide are expressing apprehension about the increasing dominance of Google and Facebook

e4m by Abhinn Shreshtha
Updated: Aug 23, 2017 7:23 AM

Google is extending a peace offering to publishers even as many of the top publishers worldwide are expressing apprehension about the increasing dominance of Google and Facebook. The olive branch comes in the form of new tools and features, which the internet giant says will help boost subscription revenues for online publishers.

Bloomberg, which first reported the news, says that the latest efforts will focus on three fronts. Google is revamping an existing tool called First Click Free, a program that allows limited accessibility to content which is usually behind a paywall. The report said that Google is also exploring publisher tools around online payments and targeting potential subscribers.

Google’s move comes at an interesting time. It’s biggest competitor Facebook, recently made a similar move when it said it is in early stages of testing a new feature that would allow limited access to content behind publisher paywalls.

Both Facebook and Google are also facing increasing pressure from publishers who are getting wary about the clout the two hold in the digital space. In July this year, a US industry body called the New Media Alliance (NMA), which represents nearly 2,000 media outlets including some of the world’s most influential publishers in the world, wrote to the US Congress demanding anti-trust exemption so they could collectively bargain with Facebook and Google.


In February, the Wall Street Journal, reported by Search Engine Land, pulled its content out of First Click Free. Facebook has been facing its own set of problems with Instant Articles with a number of prominent publishers like The Guardian, The New York Times, Vice News, Forbes, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune and more, either ending their partnership with Instant Articles or scaling down the content that they post on the platform.

The question of how relevant subscription revenues are for a publisher has no easy answer. For most of the major publications in the West, subscription is very important. In India, due to the nascent nature of the industry, the situation is different.

“Right now, a lot of Indian publishers are not focussing on subscription revenues because they want to take advantage of the growth phase. This will continue till the market matures and a tipping point is reached, which should happen when internet penetration stabilizes at the 85-90 per cent level,” opined Gyan Gupta, CEO of DB Digital. Speaking about the differences in thinking between Western publishers and Indians, he opined that it could be due to differences in benchmarking.

“When a WSJ says it is not making money, it is because they are benchmarking it (digital revenue) with print. The model needs to evolve. Whether advertising revenue by itself is enough to sustain a business I don’t know, but the days of plain Jane advertising are over,” he said.

When asked whether the new subscription tools by Facebook and Google will increase dependence on these platforms, he opined that at the end of the day, the publisher should only think about what is driving their subscriptions and not the agent. “It is all about co-existing with a distribution model. The fact that they are working on these tools tells us that they realize that publishers are as important to them as they are to us. It is not a one-way street,” he said.

Manan Kotak, Partner and Digital Head at Chitralekha Group, admitted that any publisher would ideally want consumers to pay for the content but this is not possible right now.

“All these tools to boost subscription are just additional things that a publisher can do and it is a good way to reach out to new readers but in the end you have to make the core of your website, which is the content, very strong,” he said.

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