From the start, Google’s rules have been easy to understand and quite clear: the Google crawler needs to see the exact same content that a regular user would. If that does not happen, then you have a case of cloaking – a technique that Google considers to be in violation of their webmaster guidelines and which they will enforce with ranking penalties.
Now, it is no secret that publishers already figured out a few years ago that online advertisements do not make for the same royal income that print advertisements used to provide. Additionally, the amount of advertising space available online is noticeably larger than in the offline word. In short: they needed new sources of income. Adding paywalls that restrict who can access your content are an obvious next step. But that left the question of how to bypass the problem that content, which only gets shown to paying customers, would stop ranking in Google?
“First Click Free” used to be the way in which Google would bridge that gap for publishers, so that they could still have their content in the Google SERPs, even with their paywalls. If the first click on a paywalled piece from Google’s result pages would stay free for users, then Google would index this usually hidden piece of content and thereby keep sending free visitors to the site.
It seems that publishers felt this special treatment was not enough. The Wall Street Journal (here the qasi First Click Free version of the article) just announced that, in the future, Google will stop insisting on the first click being free. Content many then stay fenced-in entirely by paywalls while Google would still index it in full.
Google would thereby officially allow cloaking of content for publishers. I am keen to see how many new “publishers” will pop up after his announcement and how Google will come up with reasonable limitations.