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Google shrinks its door to free WSJ stories, slightly

Small, possibly meaningless concession to Murdoch?

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In a possibly meaningless response to Rupert Murdoch's War on Free, Google is to allow publishers to limit the number of free pages users of Google News can read on their sites.

Up to now Google News has provided a mechanism for users to get access to content that is otherwise subscription-only (in, say, the Wall Street Journal), but now Google proposes to let publishers limit users to no more than five free pages a day before they can be served a registration page.

Murdoch and his executives - notably WSJ managing editor Robert Thomson - have lambasted search engines and news aggregators in colourful terms (parasites, content kleptomaniacs, vampires, tech tapeworms), while threatening to remove News Corp publications from Google. And along with a number of other publishers, they've also been in talks with Microsoft, possibly with a view to taking Microsoft money to dump Google, but more likely over some form of revenue development and sharing deal.

Google's latest move, which was announced by senior business product manager Josh Cohen in a blog post yesterday, might be aimed at taking some of the heat out of the argument, but it's doubtful that it will have a major impact on Murdoch's thinking.

The programme that Google is modifying, First Click Free, was itself an attempt to deal with the problem of indexing content on subscription sites. In order to have their stories appear in Google, publishers needed to make them freely available via Google News. The theory here is that once readers have discovered their excellent content via Google, a percentage of them will want to read more, and thus take out a subscription.

One presumes from recent remarks from Murdoch and Thomson that this isn't happening as much as they would like, or possibly at all. The cheaper class of reader is able to read the whole of the WSJ simply by accessing it one story at a time from Google News. The cheaper class of reader (hello, Silicon Alley Insider) probably isn't worth that much to WSJ advertisers anyway.

But more likely, people using Google News as a news homepage will access several WSJ a day, along with several apiece from Bloomberg, Reuters AP et al. A whole lot of them won't be reading a single publication intensively enough to feel the need to pay them subs, and these don't have a great deal of value to News Corp.

But under the new regime, a whole lot of these people still won't have a great deal of value to News Corp, if they're not reading more than five pieces from the WSJ a day. So the 'concession' is meaningless?

Probably. But there's something interesting in Google's FAQ on the changes:

Q: What is the preferred way to count a user's accesses? A: Since there are many different site architectures, we believe it's best to leave this up to the publisher to decide.

Google is letting the publishers decide how many clicks make five? What if they cheat, what happens? Does that maybe depend on who cheats, and does that maybe mean there's wiggle-room? ®

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