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Google tweaks News indexing to placate publishers

The changes means publishers can let Google index paid content but offer only five pages a day for free

By Jeremy Kirk, IDG News Service
December 02, 2009 07:51 AM ET

IDG News Service - Google said Tuesday it is changing how it grants access to news stories through its search engine to give publishers more control over how much content people can see for free.

The move by Google marks a step toward placating the publishing industry, which has raised concerns that the popular search engine has undermined its revenues.

The changes will be made to Google's "First Click Free" program, which allowed users free access to content through Google News that a publisher would normally charge for.

Users could click and read a story for free when coming from Google News. If a user continued to click within the publisher's Web site, the publisher could then display a pay wall, asking the user to pay to read more content.

To avoid paying since there was no limit on free stories, users theoretically could go back to Google News and search for more premium content, effectively undermining the publisher's revenues.

Google prevents publishers from showing readers part of a story on Google News and then shunting them directly to a registration or payment form if they click on it. Google calls the practice "cloaking" and forbids it.

That put publishers in a tough position of deciding whether they wanted to allow Google to index their content at all. On one hand, the search engine refers readers to the publisher. But on the other, it there was a low likelihood of converting readers to paid subscribers since stories were already free.

Under the new changes, people will be able to obtain free access to participating sites' premium content via Google a maximum of five times a day. The changes apply to searches done through both Google News and its regular Web search.

"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 Web site of a publisher using First Click Free in a day," wrote Josh Cohen, senior business product manager, on a Google blog.

Google is also making another change. The search engine will crawl and index any Web pages considered to be "preview" pages that show the headline and a few paragraphs of a story. As long as the content seen by Google's crawler and the actual page is the same, Google doesn't consider it cloaking. Those stories will then be labeled "subscription" in Google News, Cohen wrote.

"The ranking of these articles will be subject to the same criteria as all sites in Google, whether paid or free," Cohen wrote. "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 remains to be seen if Google's new approach will temper some of the hostility of publishers. News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch recently said he was considering not allowing Google to index any of the company's publications, which include The Wall Street Journal and The Times. It was rumored News Corp. was working a deal to only allow Microsoft's new search engine, Bing, to show the content.

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