Nick Carr has a post on his Rough Type blog in which he whips up a typical sort of doomsday scenario about Google’s use of a policy called “First Click Free.” In a nutshell, this allows publishers to serve up different content to people who arrive through a Google search than they would get if they just arrived the regular way. This is bad, Nick says, because it “strengthens the advantage that [Google's] dominance of search provides,” and thereby contributes to what he calls the “centripetal force” that Google exerts on the Web, pulling content into itself like a black hole.
To be fair to Nick, the bulk of his argument actually comes from Phillip Lenssen of Google Blogoscoped, who wrote about the First Click Free policy earlier today. Among other things, Phil said that this policy — which, as Google blogger Matt Cutts notes in a comment on Nick’s post, has actually been around for several months now — could result in more sites putting their content behind pay walls (since they could then show Google users the paid content using the First Click Free policy). As a result, he says, it could help cement Google’s dominance because it would give users of the search engine access that others wouldn’t have.
I must admit that when I first read Phil’s post, I agreed with him that Google’s new approach was potentially not a good thing. After all, it’s exactly the same approach that the search engine has repeatedly penalized sites for in the past, i.e. serving up one page to the Google-bot and another to regular surfers. But the more I thought about it, the more I started to reconsider. And the first thing I thought of was how well the First Click Free approach works for Google News, which has had the same policy for over a year now. At globeandmail.com, for example, you get free access if you come through a Google News link, whereas you might otherwise hit a pay wall.
As Matt Cutts notes in his comment, there’s nothing preventing publishers and websites from providing exactly the same service to anyone who comes in via search, whether it’s through Google or not. There’s nothing proprietary about it, nothing restrictive or exclusive. In fact, publishers would be dumb not to extend the same policy to anyone who arrives from a search engine. It’s an easy way to give someone a sample of what you’re offering to entice them to pay. I think Nick was just looking for a nice, fat stick to beat Google with, and First Click Free seemed to fit the bill.