In line with its YouTube MusicKey initiative we discussed recently, Google has now launched Google Contributor, another experiment in web payment services. It’s a system that allows users to contribute between one and three dollars a month that would be shared out between the sites taking part in the initiative, which in return would substitute their advertisements for pixelated square or a thank you note. Some are seeing this as a kind of crowdfunding for websites that could serve as a way to explore ways to develop alternative payment methods to segmented advertising, while others say that it will simply prove, once again, that there is no way people will ever pay for content online.
The idea reminds me somewhat of Flattr, designed by the brilliant Peter Sunde, whereby users can set aside an amount of money to be shared among the sites they use. This converted news reading into something that could be gauged as good, interesting, entertaining, or satisfactory at a simple click, allowing the reader a certain feeling of reward along the lines of: “I liked what you wrote, and here’s my click to show it.”
Until now, the alternative for those who don’t want to see online advertising, especially the invasive, intrusive type, was simply to block it out. Some pages with more sophisticated audiences have seen a significant increase in the use of ad-blockers — up to around a third of users — which were initially invented to pressure advertisers into coming up with better, more imaginative, less bothersome, formats, but that have now become the way to avoid advertising completely.
Recent initiatives such as AdBlock Plus Acceptable Advertising could become more influential as their use extends, but in general, the feeling up until now has been that blocking advertising, although nice for users, is pretty much a dead end for sites themselves.
Given that it’s possible to block out all advertising, how successful is an initiative that instead asks users to pay for not seeing publicity likely to be? The immediate answer is “yes, if we can prevent it from working.” Every website administrator has the possibility of detecting if the reader is using an adblocker: all that is required is to check that the page request is not accompanied by the corresponding visualization from the ad-server. On the other hand, if Google — or any other search engine — were to block access to people who used such tools, it would probably be interpreted as an aggression, and experience a sharp drop in popularity.
The answer, particularly in the case of news or analysis sites, would be to get users to realize the potential influence these types of payment have over the independence of the page they are viewing. In my case, I am lucky in that my main financing comes from activities that do no in any way condition what I write. Occasionally, there are misunderstandings, and because somebody was going to pay me for whatever activity it has to be cancelled. But IE Business School, my employer, gives its teaching staff absolute freedom to choose what they write about. IE Business School has never once pressured me regarding what I write: on the contrary, it has always defended to the hilt my freedom to write about and discuss what I deem opportune, even when others have pressured me. But in the case of many web sites, depending entirely on advertising can often influence the extent to which they are able to write freely about products and services. This is something that most readers would prefer not to be the case, and one way to avoid this might be through micropayments.
In principle, Google Contributor seems like a good idea. The problem with Flattr, which is also a good idea, was that not enough people knew about it, so it never generated the critical mass required for it to become a valid payment system. If anybody can get past that hurdle, it’s going to be Google. And if people like the idea, we’ll soon see it reaching news and analysis sites throughout the web.
Should the initiative does take off, it will put Google in an interesting situation: instead of depending on advertising for more than 70 percent of its revenue, it would become a kind of publisher sharing out users’ payments through a system whose efficacy had been established.
But like so many good ideas, it has yet to be shown that people really are prepared to take up an alternative to either just putting up with advertising or using adblockers, and instead make a tiny donation that could change the web for the better. Would you be prepared to set aside a little cash to be shared out among sites prepared to remove advertising and instead survive on contributions? Do you think that experiments like Google Contributor could become indicators of a trend, and that in the future, paying for content will become the norm? Are we beginning to see the first moves toward purging what Ethan Zuckerman has called “the internet’s original sin”?
(En español, aquí)