If reports in this morning’s Daily Telegraph are accurate, News International’s frosty relationship with Google may be thawing.
After two self-imposed years in the wilderness, quality news titles owned by Rupert Murdoch’s British publishing division could find themselves re-included in Google search results as soon as next month.
The Times and The Sunday Times websites were originally removed from Google’s search index at the same time that paywalls were introduced at the thetimes.co.uk (then timesonline.co.uk), as part of News Int.’s attempts to stop users accessing content for free. Murdoch’s objection to consumers viewing premium content free of charge is no secret, and the media mogul hasn’t pulled any punches in his criticisms of Google’s operating policies.
News International has yet to confirm the rumours, but signs of a rapprochement between parent company News Corp and the Internet search giant have been surfacing since the beginning of this year. As the SFN blog recently noted, Murdoch-owned Fox Television signed a video-on-demand agreement with Google, in a tacit acknowledgment of the tech company’s influence and reach.
Outlining the company’s plans to block Google back in 2009, News Corp’s chief digital officer at the time Jonathan Miller shrugged off the importance of Google’s role in directing traffic to The Times’s online edition: “The traffic which comes in from Google brings a consumer who more often than not read one article and then leaves the site. That is the least valuable of traffic to us… the economic impact [of not having content indexed by Google] is not as great as you might think. You can survive without it.”
It’s a stance the company now appears to regret, as its hard-line paywall failed to bring in the hoped-for volume of readers and revenues and saw a steep drop in visitor numbers. The Times newspapers are something of a money hole for News Corp.’s UK publishing interests, and as the company prepares to split into two separate entities questions are increasingly being asked as to how sustainable loss-making titles will be once divorced from the revenues raised by the company’s entertainment businesses.
The new arrangement wouldn’t see The Times completely relax its stance on content restriction. Only the first two sentences of an article would be made visible, but even this limited view would increase the site’s views per page statistics and potentially encourage a greater number of subscriptions.
Today’s rumours, if proven to be true, will likely be seen as an embarrassing climb-down for the company. News International had hoped that other papers would follow their lead both in blocking Google and introducing paying subscriptions at quality titles. Its partial u-turn will raise questions over the efficacy of inflexible paywalls and closely guarded content. The New York Times and Financial Times, with their metered systems, have proven that the paid-content model is lucrative in certain forms, but the obstacles faced by News International add weight to the argument that in the age of digital there is little profit to be made from fencing-off content.