Google Wallet for content: Google's latest plan to nickel-and-dime us on the Web

Google is trying to figure out what’s keeping people from paying for premium Web content. Is it because micropayments are, at the moment, not very convenient or secure, or is it because people just don’t want to pay for online content?

The search engine giant is experimenting with a new business initiative called Google Wallet for content. Google Wallet for content will let people pay for premium content—that is, pay for access to web articles—using the Google Wallet mobile payment system.

Google Wallet is primarily a smartphone app that uses NFC (near-field communication) technology to let users turn their smartphones into credit cards. NFC-enabled phones allow users to tap their phones on NFC-enabled card readers in order to pay for a purchase. Google Wallet lets users store credit cards, debit cards, loyalty cards, and gift cards on their phone or in their Google account. But it’s not just an NFC smartphone app—if you’ve ever purchased anything from Google Play (the Android app store), then you also have a Google Wallet account.

Google says the service is an “experiment” to see whether people are willing to pay for individual articles and webpages “if the buying process is sufficiently easy.” In other words, Google suspects that the reason people are wary of paying for online content is because it’s not very easy—after all, nobody wants to sign up for a new service and hand over their credit card number for a $1 (or less) article.

Thousands of users with NFC-enabled phones already have their information stored in Google Wallet, which means that they won’t have to sign up for a new service to purchase Google Wallet for content articles.

“Users love free content, and so we expect that advertising will remain the most effective monetization model for most content on the Web,” Google said in a blog post. “However we know that there is more great content that creators could bring to the Web if they had an effective way to sell individual articles that users can find with search.”

Here’s how the new service works: Businesses that want to sell premium content through Google Wallet for content will have to sign up via a webpage. They’ll then be able to sell individual articles and webpages to users.

Users will see a long preview of the article, usually the first several paragraphs (although it sounds like businesses will be allowed to determine how much of the content they want to display). The rest of the text in the article/webpage will be grayed out, so people will still be able to see, roughly, how much content they’re paying for.

People can purchase individual articles and webpages for between $0.25 and $0.99 each. (I’m sure Google will get a portion of that payment but the company hasn’t disclosed its fee.) Once an article/webpage is purchased, the user will have access to the content forever because even if the page is taken down, Google will offer an archived version. Google also offers an “Instant Refund,” whereby users will be able to get a refund within 30 minutes if they regret the purchase. Google will monitor refund requests to ensure users aren’t abusing the system to get free content.

Google says several top content creators have already signed on with the project, including Pearson-owned tech publisher Peachpit, illustrated reference book publisher DK Publishing, and Oxford University Press. Google says websites GigaOm and Motley Fool also plan to sell content using Google Wallet for content. Businesses using Google Wallet will be able to place ads on their protected pages, so they’ll still make money off of impressions even if people decide not to purchase the articles.

Will people pay for premium content?

Paying for Google Wallet content is a quick process, which is exactly what Google wants to ensure a seamless web-viewing experience. If your Google Wallet account is properly set up (that is, if you have a saved credit card and if you’ve agreed to their updated Terms of Service), it’s a one-click thing—there isn’t even a confirmation screen when you click to purchase an article. So basically, Google has made this just about as easy as can be.

But the question remains: Are people willing to pay for premium content, especially when they’re used to getting online content for free?

My gut feeling is that no, people don’t really want to pay for content, premium or not, on the Internet. However, some articles—such as this in-depth Oxford Reference article on Arctic Sea-Ice —might just be obscure enough that desperate thesis writers will be willing to shell out a dollar or two.

Plus, it’s important to remember that this is premium content, which means that, without Google Wallet, it would likely be hidden behind a paywall anyway. A subscription to Oxford Reference, which houses that $0.99 Arctic Sea-Ice article, costs $125 per year or $15 per month. Of course, you presumably get access to much more than 125 articles per year (or 15 articles per month), so depending on the situation you may just want to subscribe instead of purchasing articles à la carte.

I’m not going to lie; I don’t really see this new Google Wallet endeavor working out in any real way. Certainly there will be people who desperately want to read one or two articles—enough to pay for them—but for the most part I think people will fall into one of two categories: people who want to read multiple articles from one source, and who will ultimately end up purchasing a subscription; and people who sort of wanted to read an article, but who are perfectly willing to go elsewhere in search of free content.

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