Google is planning to highlight content from newspapers with paywalls for users who are paying subscribers, according to a report from Bloomberg on Tuesday, March 14. So when users search for articles on a topic, results from sites they subscribe to will show up higher than results from regular websites. Google also plans to share data with publishers about who is most likely to sign up, Bloomberg said.
Google executives plan to disclose specific details at an event in New York on March 20, according to the people. The moves could help publishers better target potential digital subscribers and keep the ones they’ve already got by highlighting stories from the outlets they’re paying for. The initiative marks the latest olive branch from Silicon Valley in its evolving relationship with media companies.
This is the latest in a series of moves that both Google and Facebook have been making around subscriptions. Facebook has been experimenting with adding paywall support to its mobile-friendly Instant Articles feature, and also recently set up a trial project to try and help local publishers figure out how to get more subscription revenue. The main reason why publishers are being forced to rely on subscriptions, of course, is that Google and Facebook have taken control of most of the world’s digital advertising revenue.
Google also recently changed its policy on search results from sites with subscription models. It used to encourage publishers with paywalls to let searchers read at least three articles free under its “First Click Free” model, and those who didn’t comply were ranked lower in search results. But the company dropped the FCF approach last year, and now subscription-based publishers can choose to provide whatever number of free articles they wish to non-subscribers, including providing none at all.
Meanwhile, YouTube—which has been taking a considerable amount of heat for promoting hoaxes and conspiracy theories in search results—will start highlighting articles from Wikipedia when users are looking for what is clearly fake news about topics such as the moon landing, CEO Susan Wojcicki said at the South by Southwest conference in Austin on Tuesday, March 14.
The Wikipedia links will not appear solely on conspiracy-related videos, but will instead show up on topics and events that have inspired significant debate. A YouTube spokesperson used videos about the moon landing (a historical topic with many conspiracy theories surrounding it) as an example and noted that moon landing videos would appear with Wikipedia links below to provide additional information, regardless of whether the video was a documentary or a video alleging the landing was staged.
As a number of people noted on Twitter following this announcement, it’s a little ironic that a giant company with $100 billion in revenues is relying on a donation-funded volunteer organization to do fact-checking for its videos. YouTube said Wikipedia links are just the first step in solving the problem and that it plans to do more, but it seems a little unfair to take advantage of a free resource when Google itself could be trying harder to flag or identify disinformation.
In part, this is because YouTube—like Facebook—seems to be trying to walk a very fine line with its approach to misinformation. Wojcicki said at the SXSW conference that “if there’s an important news event, we want to be delivering the right information,” but also added: “we are not a news organization.” Those two views seem to be increasingly incompatible, and at some point both of the major web platforms will have to come to grips with what that implies.
Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.