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Google Helps Publishers Erect Pay Walls

Continuing its stormy courtship of online news publishers, Google is offering news sites more control over how their content can be accessed.

In conjunction with a Federal Trade Commission workshop exploring how journalism will survive in the Internet age, Google has decided to make it easier for publishers to erect "pay walls" that limit full-article viewing to paying subscribers.

Publishers that allow content to show up in Google Search results but then limited access to visitors could be said to be engaged in "cloaking," a form of bait-and-switch that Google disallows to protect searchers.

Google's Webmaster Guidelines state: "Don't deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as 'cloaking.'"

To get around this, Google offers a program called First Click Free, which allows publishers to grant Google-referred searchers access to up to five pages per day before requiring a registration or subscription.

"The user's first click to the content is free, but when a user clicks on additional links on the site, the publisher can show a payment or registration request," said Josh Cohen, senior business product manager at Google, in a blog post on Monday. "First Click Free is a great way for publishers to promote their content and for users to check out a news source before deciding whether to pay."

To avoid the perception that such links are deceptive, Google will label them "subscription," so that users know they may not be allowed to view protected stories.

Google, however, warns that pay walls may limit reader interest.

"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," said Cohen. "It's simply based on the popularity of the content with users and other sites that link to it."

In a further step to help news publishers keep their content out of Google News but still discoverable through Google Search, Google on Tuesday announced a new Googlebot-News user agent, a way to automatically keep Google from including news content in Google News.

Google previously allowed publishers to request Google News exclusion through an online form.

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