How Google Killed Web Subscriptions

Everybody knows that Google has won the search-engine war. But what’s much

more important is that Google has won the search war – and the

latest casualty is TimesSelect. The subscriber firewalls at the WSJ and

the FT will be the next to go.

Until Google came along, most content-based websites had a similar business

model: users would come to the site’s home page, search for what they were looking

for, and then find it. So if you wanted a NYT story, you’d first go to,

and then search. If you wanted a Wikipedia article, you’d first go to,

and then search.

No longer.

When I want to find one of my old blog entries on, I just type

the search terms into the Google window in my browser. When I want to find a

Wikipedia entry, I do the same thing, in the knowledge that Wikipedia’s PageRank

will guarantee that entry a top-two spot. Google’s even very good at finding

books on Amazon.

But Google is very bad at pointing people to anything behind a subscriber

firewall – and rightfully so.

What changed, The Times said, was that many more readers started coming to

the site from search engines and links on other sites instead of coming directly


“What wasn’t anticipated was the explosion in how much of our

traffic would be generated by Google, by Yahoo and some others,” Ms.

Schiller said.

When was the last time you saw a WSJ or FT article on a web search? As people

increasingly get their information from Google and not from home pages, the

WSJ and FT websites have a choice: go free, or become irrelevant. The WSJ certainly

can’t be happy that Nick Denton, with his shoestring operation, gets more traffic,

and more visitors, than

they do.

As Jeff Jarvis says

today, the really valuable thing that the WSJ and the FT provide is not

their news, but their relationship with their readers.

Having worked in the magazine business, I saw this even at the dawn of the

internet: a magazine has to pay up to $30-40 in marketing costs to acquire

subscribers; it can pay up to $5-7 to print and distribute a copy of a glossy

magazine; it has high editorial costs. Add that up, and a magazine can find

itself in the hole $60 or more per subscriber in the first year of a subscription.

And they get as little as $1 per issue in subscription revenue. Yet clearly,

a magazine can make money because that subscriber’s value to advertisers

is much greater.

It’s the relationship that is valuable. It’s the relationship

that is profitable, not the control of the content or the distribution. That

is the essential media moral of the internet story. It has taken 13 years

of internet history for media companies to learn that.

Well, most media companies, anyway. We’ll see how long it takes for

the WSJ and the FT to see the light. All that traffic from Google doesn’t weaken

the strength of the relationship between media companies and readers, it just

changes the way that readers find their trusted content. If a WSJ story comes

up top of a Google search, people will click on it because they trust the WSJ.

And because people trust the WSJ, WSJ stories will come up top of a Google search.

It’s win-win for all concerned, and, yes, Rupert Murdoch knows it.

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