Free Access to Pay Websites

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WA Business News, which is a dead-tree and online newspaper aimed at the Western Australian business sector, is offering an 8 week trial subscription. This is a very common marketing technique and can be quite an effective for increasing circulation (currently approx 11,000). However, I have to wonder. Why would you pay for it when you can access the online version for free?


There is a curious contradiction faced by websites that wish to monopolise their intellectual property. On the one hand forcing users to pay for their content generates a significant revenue stream – especially if partnered with the dead-tree version. Two-for-the-price-of-one. All very decent. However, completely undermined by the simple fact that in order to generate any search engine traffic to your stories you must give google (and a host of other search engines) access to your data. The usual way to do this is looking for the user agent that all browsers and search engine spiders provide to websites when you use them. If it’s a spider like googlebot then it gets free access to the content. If it’s a normal browser like Firefox or IE or Safari then it gets restricted access – requiring a username and password. Now, you may be wondering: can I get my normal browser to pretend to be googlebot? Well, if you’re using Firefox yes you can.

Chris Pederick has written an addon called User Agent Switcher. With it you can make your Firefox appear to be IE, Safari and even Googlebot. At least to the websites you visit. So before you visit your favourite paysite newspaper, just change the user agent of your browser to Googlebot and you can usually access it for free.

So what does this mean for paysites? Well it means they’re in a world of hurt if they’re relying on monopolising their online content. WA Business News is probably fine here because by providing an online version they’re really just attempting to add value to their dead tree version (that may change in the coming years however as online papers become more popular). Other sites however really need to make a decision about what they want to offer and how to generate the best revenue.

Can they generate enough from advertising to offset removing the subscription fee? Can they afford to lock out google? Is there a technical solution that will give them both a viable subscription model and still be indexed by the search engines? Or do they need to offer some of their articles for free and thereby making them indexable, while keeping the subscriber only articles safely locked away even from the search engines?

The current model is really only workable as long as the vast majority of your readers are unaware of the security loophole. Security through obscurity is never a wise course. With the speed of information transference through social media networks that model is unlikely to remain viable for much longer.

Attribution: Slider image by Matt Callow

About the Author: skribe

Based in Perth, Australia, Antonio Barimen (aka skribe) is a writer, digital media consultant and social media producer.

He is available to help you develop social marketing and digital media strategies, improving communication between staff, partners and suppliers or just increasing the number of fans on Facebook. He has developed successful digital and social media projects for clients including CBS, Evian, Procter & Gamble, Discovery Networks, Pernod Ricard and American Express.

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Post Under Advice, Marketing February 27, 2009
  • Wolfie Rankin

    My eyebrows rise a bit when I hear of a concept like this, what makes an online newspaper better, and so much better than others, that would make you pay to read it when there’s so much free information out there on exactly the same stories? I am bemused also at people who buy mp3s online, I find it quite strange. you’re paying for low-grade audio which you can get free elsewhere anyway, and the record company is still getting the artists profits… and yet, some people actually buy the darn things.

    Wolfie!

  • http://www.skribeproductions.com/ skribe

    There are all sorts of benefits to online newspapers. They can be constantly updated, they can include video and other multimedia and they can be accessed anywhere there is a net connection. And there is a prevailing mentality amongst control media types that the news is theres and if you want it you have to pay for it. They even want google to pay for the privilege of driving readers to their site. So yeah, it’s out there and not exactly uncommon. Whether it will be swept away in a tsunami of free alternatives is yet to be seen. I think a lot will depend on what legislation gets past and what alternative revenue models are unveiled.

    As for downloadable music, when you say free do you mean pirated or ripped from CD? Downloadable music has one great advantage over CDs in that you can just buy one song rather than an entire album and not all CDs will play in computer CD players because of DRM. Some even infect computers with viruses. Yes, I’m looking at you Sony.