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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

How Google is quietly experimenting in new ways for readers to access publishers’ content

The company is partnering with a number of publishers to use market surveys as a way for readers to reach the news.

Google appears to be experimenting with a new paywall-esque content roadblock for publishers, and it’s not One Pass. For lack of a better name, let’s call it a “survey wall,” because instead of dollars the system asks readers a question before they can move on to continue reading what they like.

We stumbled on the survey wall while trying to access parts of the government employee salary database on the Texas Tribune. A first-timer accessing the site through Google (let’s say you search for “english teacher salary Brownsville ISD”) will be prompted to sign-up for Tribune email alerts (as well as sign in to the site), or answer a simple question like the one above. Other questions whether you’ve heard of Google Docs, what kinds of electronic equipment you have in your home, how many credit cards you own, or the holiday-appropriate “For Halloween, do you prefer to receive a trick or a treat when you knock on someone’s door?” A simple click on one of the provided answers and you’re through the gate; it’s market-research-as-paywall.

How do we know it’s the work of Google? A Tribune staffer redirected me to a Google spokesperson, who offered no further information but said in a statement: “Google regularly experiments, together with a variety of publisher partners, with new engagement and content presentation technologies. This is just one such experiment we’re running.”

We know Google is nothing if not persistent in making overtures to the news industry, from the “standout” tag in search, editor’s picks on Google News, and obviously One Pass. But at the moment there’s no indication how many sites are participating in the experiment or whether it’s part of any larger Google product.

Luckily, we do have some minor clues. Clicking on the “Learn more” link leads to a note saying data is collected and used under the terms of Google’s privacy policy. And here’s the closest thing to an explainer of what Google’s thinking of:

Answering the quick question here gives you near instant access to the page you want for free. You don’t have to pull out your wallet or sign in, companies gain insight into what people think and the publisher earns money as site visitors provide answers. Everyone wins.

It’s all part of a new product under development to make market research faster, more accurate and more affordable. If you’re interested in running questions of your own, contact us about becoming a trial partner.

It’s worth noting that one of the selling points of One Pass — as opposed to Apple’s in-app subscription model — is that Google gives publishers the right to collect and share user information for further marketing purposes. That model lets publishers use data about their users directly for marketing and advertising; this new approach seems to aim at compensating publishers directly for the data and shipping its value to others.

As news companies try to dive deeper into the world of paid content, they face the reality that the vast majority of their users online aren’t willing to pay one thin dime for their content. Advertising has long been a way to monetize their attention without a direct user payment; maybe market research will be its new peer. (You may remember Spot.Us launching an experiment in getting stories funded through user surveys rather than credit cards last year.)

Whether this is part of One Pass or some other product, publishers will likely welcome a way other than chasing CPM dollars to generate revenue from non-paying readers. Imagine a news site that offered both a full-blown digital subscription or a “free with surveys” option where readers use their time and data to ply access to the news. It would be the news equivalent of the Kindle With Special Offers.

                                   
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Caroline O'Donovan    Aug. 20, 2014
Andrew Golis wanted to build a network for sharing stories that would provide relief from our contemporary content cascade.
  • http://www.digitalcontentarchitects.com Michelle Ferrier

    With every survey question, readers would be giving away more and more of their identity to marketers and advertisers who will use this data to build robust digital identities of online participants and bombard them with more targeted advertising. No thanks, I’ll pull out my wallet.

  • Abhi Barua

    Such survey locks are already in place for a number of online movie streaming sites which ask you to complete a survey in order to be able to access content.

  • http://mattrhysdavies.com Matt Rhys-Davies

    I heartily dislike all the surveys I encounter on the web. I wouldn’t mind so much if they were completely anonymous, but am fairly sure Google will link everything you enter on a site back to your user profile.

    No thanks. Though nice to see new initiatives trialled.