With all the recent column inches in the media surrounding Google’s First-Click-Free (FCF) programme, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was some new service that Google is offering to keep publishers happy. A way to stop Google’s search users from accessing premium content for free via the back-door. Not quite.
So what is FCF, why do publishers need it and what’s the announcement about?
First-Click-Free for Premium (Restricted) Content
For a start, its not new: FCF was kicking around way back in 2005 when it was first in beta – even the Financial Times was playing with it as long ago as 2007. The recent announcement is just a revision of the programme but more on that later.
FCF is Google’s solution to the thorny issue of crawling and indexing premium content that requires registration. Google doesn’t want to upset its users by providing them with search results that point to dead-end registration pages yet publishers want Google to send visitors their way for search queries that are relevant to their premium content – but without giving it all away for free. What to do? Enter FCF.
FCF lets Google bypass the registration pages on publishers’ websites so it can crawl restricted content and include direct links to it within its search results. If a Google search user clicks on the link to the premium content, they are identified as a Google referral and presented with the full article on the publisher’s website – the so-called ‘first-click-free’.
Note the emphasis on full article – this is a requirement by Google for a publishers inclusion in the FCF programme – they must be allowed to read the full article, not just an abstract. If the user attempts to click deeper into the restricted content they would then be presented with the publisher’s registration page. Unless…
Well, unless, they make a note of the second article they’re interested in and go back to it via Google search. Or the more technically-savvy could just use the search modifier: ‘site:www.premium-content.com’ which will return all the pages Google has indexed for that site. Find another article link that interests them, click on it and start their first-click-free all over again.
Is FCF just for Google?
Not as such. Something most media coverage bizarrely seems to miss out is that Google FCF is not a service or a product but an agreement between Google and the content publishers. There is no Google technology at work here and the onus to implement FCF is on the publisher. Basically, the publisher has to set up their webserver so if it sees Google’s crawler, or the source of the original visitor referral as Google, they show the premium content, if not they show the registration page. They can do this equally for Yahoo, Bing etc and not just for Google.
Now, normally Google will penalise a site if it uses ‘cloaking’, that is, it serves one piece of (optimised) content to its crawler and another to a user. FCF is Google saying to the publisher it’s OK to ‘cloak’ your premium content and we’ll index it providing our users get to access it for free for the first click. Some would argue that this isn’t really cloaking as both Google’s crawler and its users see the same content, at least on that first click…
So What’s New in FCF? Your Five a Day…
Clicks on premium content that is, not fruit and vegetables. To minimise FCF abuse as described above, the recent announcement is that Google will allow publishers to limit users to a maximum of five, first-click-free pages per user per day without them having to register or subscribe. Fair enough, though how this will be achieved is not clear and Google doesn’t offer any guidance. If by cookies, these can be easily cleared by any user that would have been switched-on enough to abuse the system in the first place.
Why do Publishers Moan about Google?
I think FCF is really Google throwing the big publishers a token olive branch. I’ve never understood why publishers moan about search engines accessing their content? Rupert Murdoch et al accuse them of unfairly profiting from their journalistic efforts by linking directly to newspaper articles. If it’s such a big issue, why don’t the content owners just block them? It’s not rocket-science. Just tell those nasty little crawlers to go away (robots.txt or noindex tag). Or maybe I’m missing something fundamental to the argument here? The reality is that Google and the publishers need each other; the real question is how can publishers encourage more search-engine visitors to sign-up and pay for their premium content.
Do you have any experiences with first-click-free or any comments on my interpretation of it?