The Australian tightens its Google access to drive digital subscriptions

Those trying to skirt The Australian’s paywall could find they’ll need to buy a subscription with changes to how its site works with Google Search.

Until recently, determined users could get past the paywall by searching for the page on Google and clicking through, a by-product of Google’s ‘First Click Free’ program. However from last week, readers looking for a freebie found this would redirect them to the subscription page.

The Australian is strengthening its wall

Paywalled sites like The Australian previously risked not being indexed by the Google search engine, risking a fall in website traffic and disquiet from journalists who now see their bylines as being an important part of their career in online media.

It now appears that News Corp has negotiated a way around the Google program with The Australian’s CEO, Nicholas Gray telling Mumbrella they are still in the program:  “The Australian has not dropped out of Google’s ‘First Click Free’ service. Our July Nielsen result, where The Australian’s unique audience grew 20% to 1.8m, shows that more people than ever are sampling our journalism online.

“But it is reasonable to expect that it will get harder to read our journalism online without paying for it, and we’re in discussions with the tech titans on that point.”

Gray’s comment that discussions with the ‘tech titans’ are continuing, dovetail with those of Facebook’s vice president for news feed, Adam Mosseri, on his recent visit to Sydney where he mentioned the “good conversations” between the two companies.

Should The Australian replicate the Wall Street Journal’s experience, this new strategy could see a sharp uptake to the paper’s $4 a month digital subscriptions.

In an interview with Bloomberg News earlier this year Suzi Watford, the Journal’s chief marketing officer, described the effects of turning their back on the First Click Free service. “Any site like ours automatically doesn’t get the visibility in search that a free site would,” she said. “You are definitely being discriminated against as a paid news site.”

However, despite a traffic fall of 44%, the WSJ experienced a four-fold increase in digital subscription conversions and no impact on online advertising revenue, mainly due to traffic coming from social sites, said Watford.

The change in strategy saw overall digital subscriptions grow from 948 to 1,281 – a rise of 35%. The Australian hasn’t been so lucky, with only a 13% increase to 84,000 up until February this year.

Google spokesperson Nic Hopkins, emphasised that the company was working with publishers but wouldn’t be drawn on specifics: “We have a long history of collaboration with publishers around the world to get their input when creating products that can add value to the industry and to consumers. 

“That’s why we have been engaged in conversations on how can we build and expand on the efforts already underway via AMP and Newsstand in supporting an important source of revenue for publishers. We are excited to be partnering together on the future of subscriptions.”

Richard Gingras, Google vice president of News

Google is reportedly testing subscription tools with New York Times Co. and the Financial Times, with Richard Gingras, Google’s vice president for news, told Bloomberg last week the search giant is talking to dozens of other outlets as media companies move toward online subscription models.

“It’s clear from news publishers that they can’t live on advertising alone,” Gingras said at the time: “But it’s also clear that we’re seeing a shift in a market.”

While that is true, subscriptions haven’t proved to be the solution for the Wall Street Journal’s revenues, with 2017 down 6% to  $1.479 million although circulation and subscription revenues increased $9 million.

The Australian though may well perform better, with Nicholas Gray telling Mumbrella earlier this month how the publication found its way back to profitability partly on the back of paid subscriptions.

“The Australian has some advantages in having an established national newspaper, a large group of quality reporters and the benefits of being part of the News Corp stable,” he said. “We have demonstrated if you put out high-quality deep product every day, the number of people who will pay for it and engage with it will grow.”



Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.