Google has the blogosphere and the media buzzing after a report from Italian daily La Repubblica announced that the company is readying to launch a paid content format to be called "Newspass" by year end.
How it will work
According to the Italian newspaper, Google has approached publishers to "test their willingness to participate in a trial" for a system that would allow micro payments as well as longer-term subscriptions to paid content.
When conducting a search on Google, paid content will feature within the usual SERP and will "be identified with an ad hoc symbol." Users will be logging into their normal Google/Gmail account then provide payment "credentials" (credit cards or Paypal or else? No details were available there) to proceed and buy the content they are interested in.
As La Repubblica underlines, this will mean that Google will be entering into Facebook's realm of stickiness (cf the universal "Like" button) by providing universal access to all sorts of content websites with one single identifier and password. The content will then be accessible "via computer, but also through various platforms like mobile phones, tablet PCs and iPad," the Italian paper added.
A New Business Model
If it is confirmed, this new Google facility will mark the beginning of a new era and business model for the search engine giant, who so far had been aggregating data for free for its users. This will also mean that the online media industry, which has been struggling to find suitable business models - in part precisely because of Google's power -, will somehow regain control of some longed-for revenue streams.
The Italian report went as far as saying that "most of the proceeds will go to content producers," with Google handling authentication, support and billing. I also said that Google will share "traffic data and user profiles" with partners. However, there was no indication of what the cost of using the platform would be for future partners.
The Paywall Trend
Online news publishers have been struggling over the past few years - and still are - to resolve the conundrum of finding a suitable, profitable business model. The paywall format is one option that has recently been adopted by mainstream newspapers for their online version. For instance, the New York Times launched its version at the beginning of the year. NewsCorp CEO Ruppert Murdoch is also stepping up his content policy to gradually bring content through a paywall. Earlier this year, he has barred news aggregators and media research firms like Meltwater from crawling the content of its UK Times and Sun online newspapers.
Ready Or Not?
Google has been hinting at the possibility of making some of its content available to paying users only for over a year now. Nieman Lab had published in September 2009 an RFP from the Search giant to the Newspaper Association of America, requesting paid content approaches. Last week, the search giant also took a step to rebrand and unify its content under one name, the Google Display Network, formerly known as "Google Content Network".
According to ClickZ's Christopher Heine's report, "the brand will umbrella Google's Adsense, Ad Exchange, YouTube, Google Finance, Gmail, Google Maps, and Blogger properties. As has been the case, Google Display Network will offer text, image, rich media, mobile, and video ads."
MediaPost's Laurie Sullivan explained that "Ads will run across the Google Display Network similar to the way they have in the past within the Content Network. Bids are placed through AdWords, or on YouTube and Google Finance with the help of a Google account team."
Retrospectively, the move can be interpreted as yet another hint and does makes even greater sense with the idea of paid content in the background.
The first question that springs to mind is about quality. To what extent will Newspass affect the quality of content readily available for free on the web? Does this mean that good quality will now be only accessible at a premium and lesser-quality productions will remain free? And if not, what will be the point of raising the paywall if there is no quality distinction between freemium and premium? Could it be that recency or real-timing would become criteria for paying content? All those questions still need replying to.
Second, how will the arrival of Google's paywall affect blogs vs newspapers? How is this move going to impact the online landscape and how are blogs and newpapers going to react? Blog content could also be easily be made available through Newspass but how will Google discriminate (or or select, if you prefer) which content it will be willing to carry as paying vs free? And what's the fare for video?
What do you think?
For the record, please note that this post was written based on Google Translate's English version of the original Italian report.