Services & Software

Google poised to let users buy Web content with Google Wallet

Looking to profit where others have failed, Google is planning to enable micropayments for individual articles and other content.

Google Wallet for web content lets publishers charge for access to individual articles.
Screenshot by Casey Newton/CNET

Micropayments, a long-discussed way of supporting content on the Web that has yet to catch fire with users, is about to get a big boost from Google.

The company confirmed today that users will soon be able to pay for Web content using Google Wallet, buying individual articles for an average of $0.25 to $0.99 each. Once users buy the page, they will own it forever, Google said. The project is expected to launch later today or tomorrow.

A draft post announcing the new project appeared briefly in the RSS feed for the Google Commerce blog, where CNET found it. The company later confirmed details of the launch and unveiled a web page for the product.

"Users love free content, and so we expect that advertising will remain the most effective monetization model for most content on the Web," the company said in the 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."

Google calls the project an experiment -- one "designed to help content creators bring more of this high-quality content to the Web."

If it works, it will mark the first significant success in a space that has seen countless efforts come and go. As Walter Isaacson wrote in Time in 2009: " If you remember Flooz, Beenz, CyberCash, Bitpass, Peppercoin and DigiCash, it's probably because you lost money investing in them."

Theories for why micropayments have failed to date run the gamut. In the past, they have required users to install new software, hand over sensitive credit card information, navigate complicated interfaces, and make uncomfortable bets on whether a given article will be worth the dollar they have been asked to pay for it. There's also the fact that in a world where the vast majority of content is free, getting users to pay is difficult.

Compared to its predecessors, at least, Google starts from a position of strength. Google Wallet already has thousands of users, and offers a suite of services that could lure millions over time. (Although it has been slow going to date, as Bloomberg noted earlier this year.) Paying for Web content gives users one more reason to sign up their credit card with Google Wallet -- and gives existing users a new way to use the product.

To encourage readers to shop, Google built an "instant refund" into the product. Users who aren't happy with the articles they purchase can get a refund within 30 minutes of their purchase. The company said they would guard against individual users seeking excessive refunds.

Publishers can create long previews of their articles, with the remainder made opaque so as to still give readers a sense of what they will get with their purchase. They can also continue to run ads with the content, so they get credit for ad impressions even if users don't purchase the article.

For publishers, enabling Wallet payments requires installing some code on their servers. Readers with Google Wallet accounts can purchase articles by clicking the Wallet button on the page.

For starters, Google is hand-picking the partners it is working with on micropayments. In time it expects to open it up to many more publishers, and release plug-ins for popular content management systems. Publishers who are interested in participating can visit this page.

Partners announced for the launch include book publisher Pearson and Oxford University Press, which will post 80,000 reference articles available for purchase. Web sites GigaOm and Motley Fool also plan to sell content using Wallet, the post said.

Presumably, Google is taking a cut of these payments, but the company wouldn't disclose what their fee is.

Update, 1:11 p.m: Added screenshots and links to the product page, which is now live.