Google is known as an innovator, but sometimes the best solution to a search problem comes from outside the company. That’s the case with a recent op-ed by Danny Sullivan, who basically just solved one of the most annoying issues in the world of search: paywalled news stories. These are stories that are published on the internet but can’t be seen without paying a subscription fee. The practice is one of of the dinosaurs of the digital era, but also a necessary bread and butter for news outlets.
So how do you make news more accessible without bankrupting the publisher? Danny has an idea.
The State of the Paywall
To understand the problem, and why it’s so infuriating, let’s look at the current landscape of news websites. “News” here can be broadly summed up not just as journalism, but any kind of literary content that would have once appeared in magazines and periodicals. This is usually higher quality writing that requires research, fact checking, and considerable time and money to produce. Giving it away free can be unprofitable.
So, as Danny points out, there is basically a spectrum of ways that sites offer this content from “free” to “paid”:
- Sites that are completely free. These sites are indexed by Google, and when you click on them in search results you read the article gratis. They only earn whatever they can scrape together from ads—which, as you know if you run banner ads on your own site, isn’t much.
- Sites that are “first click free.” These sites are indexed too, but when you click on them you get to read that one article for free. Click to another article and you’ll be asked to pay. There’s also usually a limit on how many times per day you can get a free first click.
- Sites with a “subscription” label. These sites allow Google to index their content, but when you click on an article in the results you have to pay before you read it. (Sometimes there is a partial preview, but never the full article.) Obviously, this is annoying, so this content doesn’t rank well and Google labels it with a “subscription” tag.
- No pay, no read, no exceptions. These sites jealously guard their paid content and won’t even let Google index it. As a result, it might as well not exist to anyone but paid subscribers—it won’t even show up in a search.
News Is a Different Beast
While this complicated pay system is troublesome, it’s also inevitable. Danny believes that news shouldn’t be any different than other kinds of content—after all, you can search for “Game of Thrones” and Google will tell you where to legally download it. The same is true for music. Danny insists that news companies should have gotten on the bandwagon a long time ago.
But news is fundamentally different from other media, in that the words themselves are what’s valuable. Google can index written articles about Game of Thrones all day, but reading those articles in not the same as watching an episode. News articles, on the other hand, are the product; it’s reading the page that’s valuable. So it makes sense that there are lots of hurdles to indexing news sites.
But surely there’s an easier way to give searchers access?
Your All Access Pass
It turns out that Danny is way ahead of us—and ahead of Google. He presents a simple, elegant way to handle news sites across the board: pay a monthly subscription fee to Google, Google lets you see any paid news content on the web, and a portion of your subscription fee is paid to the news sites you frequent.
This is genius.
It’s a win for all three sides. Users would get easy access to better content, without a million subscriptions to deal with. News companies themselves would now have a whole new market and a direct financial incentive to outperform other news sites. And Google could index everything, while making a little money as the middleman.
Danny models his idea after an existing Google service, Google Play Music All Access, which does the same thing for paid album tracks. It’s essentially an “access pass” to better online reading. As a neat side effect, it would improve the quality of information people get online. (For the same reason, I’d love to see an access pass to academic paywalls, too.)
Will Google adopt this plan? Will publishers realize how win-win it is and get on board? I don’t know, but someone should offer Danny a job right away. Bravo.