Murdoch’s Times unblocks search engines to seek new subscribers

Rupert Murdoch

In May 2010, News Corp.’s The Times newspaper said it would block search engines from indexing its stories, believing it must remove all possibility of free access as it introduced digital payments.

Two years later, that philosophy is being up-ended. In the next few weeks, paidContent understands The Times’ website will begin showing articles’ first two sentences to search engines, in a marketing exercise designed to attract new subscribers.

The limited free preview does not alter News International’s belief that it should continue charging for The Times (visitors will be invited to subscribe to read full articles). But it does suggest that, having signed up 130,751 digital subscribers since mid-2010, the publisher is having to look in new places to maintain customer acquisition momentum.

Search is an obvious place. Before requiring payments, Times editor James Harding said: “About 30 to 40 percent of our traffic comes from search.”

That traffic was a significant chunk to lose (in fact, The Times‘ website lost far more than that). But it was entirely consistent with a strategy to kick out the serendipitous, drive-by traffic that was considered hard to monetise and instead focus on attracting loyal readers.

Now The Times is acknowledging that Google, Bing and their peers do, indeed, have value – but that this value is in bringing prospective-customer leads, not in bringing real readers.

Websites can easily block certain access using a robots.txt file. Section index pages of The Times’ website had remained visible to search.

The shift, first reported by The Telegraph, will could bump up page views — something News International can show to advertisers. But is two sentences enough to convert any of the new influx of readers, who likely are only coming for a specific article, to pay around £4 per week for an ongoing relationship with The Times?

FT.com has given a limited number of free articles to non-subscribed searchers since 2007, while NYTimes.com‘s metered model began giving 20 free articles to searchers, later turned down to 10.

A few months ago, FT.com also introduced a daily “read for free” article, accessible to users from various social networks. News International had also been due to consider letting some of its content become visible through social media referrals. It is unclear whether that plan is still under development.

News International’s The Sun site had remained visible through search, together with News Corp. siblings The New York Post and The Australian. WSJ.com regularly lets a few articles go free, and even occasionally drops fees entirely, as a marketing exercise.

The Times website recently speeded up the login process for subscribed readers. It continues to block the commercial news aggregators NewsNow and Meltwater.

When asked about blocking search in May 2010, assistant editor Tom Whitwell told paidContent: “The clarity is something that was very important. If you’re asking someone to pay for something, it has to be very clear what they’re paying for.” Executive editor Danny Finkelstein said: “When we showed it to people, that was the model they preferred. We’re completely unashamed about this.”

Data has showed UK newspaper websites get 45 percent of their traffic from Google, just 31 percent direct.

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