All in the <head> – Ponderings and code by Drew McLellan –

It's Not the Pay, It's the Wall

Today’s exciting brouhaha is that The Times have announce that they plan to start charging for access to their online content from June of this year. Apparently, their web elves have been hard at work at a nice new website, which they’re going to let everyone play with for a while and then tuck it up safely behind a £1-per-day paywall.

The public reaction seems to be split between horror and ridicule, but the majority of the discussion has focussed on the debate over weather or not content on the web should be free. Personally, I have no problem at all with websites that operate under a payed subscription model. I don’t expect Flickr to host all my photos for free, and I already pay for my online news consumption via the BBC license fee. (And actually, I’d pay for that twice over to have access to BBC News.)

But that’s not the issue. Well, it’s an issue, but the issue I’m interested in is whether it’s possible for a news site to exist behind a wall of any sort. Anyone who runs a relatively well-trafficked website will be able to tell you that it’s typical for the majority of traffic to be fly-by visitors from search engines and organic website referrals. A relatively smaller percentage of visitors arrive at your site by purposefully navigating directly to it (keying the URL, hitting a bookmark etc).

For a news site, you could say that it’s likely more people will directly navigate to the site each day to check the news – but by the same measure a news site has masses of content on varied topics and so is also going to have a lot of search engine traffic too. The way you grow a site is by converting those fly-by visitors into regular users. You want to make sure that visitors frequently end up on your site and are impressed with the content when they get there. If that happens enough, they’ll start visiting you directly and become a regular user.

So what happens when we put a wall into the mix? This isn’t unprecedented for a news site. The New York Times hides their content behind an account sign up screen. The upshot of which? I just had to Google for their name, because I couldn’t remember who they were, I’ve never read a New York Times article, and guess what, everyone stopped linking to their content. If you put a wall in front of your content, you’ve basically got to say goodbye to all that fly-by traffic. The majority of your traffic.

I can see newspaper bosses being okay with that, thinking that all that traffic is only costing them money, and it’s the regular visitors that they care about. And if they could just get those visitors to pay like they do for the printed version, they’ll be laughing. But to keep going they have to not only maintain that paying audience, but grow it too. Publicly traded companies (like The Times’ owners News Corporation) need to see the value of their businesses increase, not just hold steady. So how do you grow a website’s audience? By converting those fly-by visitors to subscribers. Those fly-by visitors you no longer have.

I’m glad this isn’t happening to a news organisation I care about.