paywallsI wondered why the “Google the headline” trick didn’t work to pull up the Wall Street Journal article about Amazon’s alleged bookstore expansion plans. It turns out that the Wall Street Journal is experimenting with closing the Google-the-headline loophole to figure out whether that would cause people to pay up to read the stories. The Journal didn’t say how long the experiment would go on, or what it plans to do based on the results.

The reason that loophole exists is to give people who happen across news stories via search engines a free sample of WSJ journalism, in the hope that it would lure them into subscribing for more. However, the practical effect has been to cause brief annoyance for people who see the story shared elsewhere, such as social media, before they simply copy and paste the headline into their address bar to pull it up via Google. DigiDay notes that search engine hits account for 35% of the Journal’s referral traffic.

It’s really hard for me to imagine that most of these people would be willing or able to pony up $200 a year for a news site they don’t even visit regularly. The more likely outcome is that the Wall Street Journal will see its traffic go way down as people who had formerly read the stories from Google simply shrug, close the window, and look elsewhere. After all, since facts can’t be copyrighted, any number of news sources can simply rewrite the Journal’s take for themselves—so anyone who wants to know more about the story can simply click on one of the other sites that comes up in the headline Google search.

The decrease in traffic could, in turn, lead to the paper having to lower the rates it charges to advertisers, and that could lead to more trouble. After all, advertisers don’t really care whether the paper’s readers pay or not—they just care about the number of eyeballs they can put their ad in front of. But then, with the advent of ad-blocking, it’s not as if that’s a really fool-proof metric anymore, either.

But I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.


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