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Google tests subscription service for ad-free websites

The test for Google's Contributor program enables you to see a thank-you note instead of an advertisement on participating websites. The cost: $1 to $3 per month.

Google Contributor lets people pay $1 to $3 per month to avoid seeing ads on some Web sites.
Google Contributor lets people pay $1 to $3 per month to avoid seeing ads on a handful of websites. Google

Sick and tired of all those ads? Google is testing a program called Contributor that lets you subscribe to the Web.

Well, not to the whole Web -- just to 10 Web publishers that are participating in the Contributor experiment. Under it, people pay $1 to $3 per month and see a thank-you note on websites instead of an advertisement.

"When you visit a participating website, part of your contribution goes to the creators of that site," the Google Contributor site said. "The more you contribute, the more you support the websites you visit."

The thank-you note appears in place of an ad that Google otherwise would have supplied, spokeswoman Andrea Faville said. The 10 publishers participating in the experiment include photo-sharing site Imgur, news satire site The Onion, tech news site Mashable and slang-explanation site Urban Dictionary.

Google Contributor is an interesting idea for a company that's funded by ad revenue, but so far, it is only an experiment. Google offered a waiting-list form to let people sign up.

Free, ad-supported content has proven a popular way to quickly launch Internet-based services, and advertising is the financial lifeblood behind services such as Facebook's social networking, Twitter's information feed and Google's search.

But in some eyes, advertising has a dark side, too: ads work better if they're targeted at people who are likely to find them interesting, and that means those who operate websites have an incentive to track personal information. The common expression of this complaint is that people's personal data becomes the product website operators sell to advertisers.

Spending on digital ads will reach $141 billion in 2014, eMarketer projects. Nearly a third of that will go to Google.
Spending on digital ads will reach $141 billion in 2014, eMarketer projects. Nearly a third of that will go to Google. eMarketer

Google indicated that a Google Contributor subscription would, in effect, mean that a person was paying for privacy as well as an ad-free experience.

"Use of this service will not be used to target ads," Faville said.

Advertisers are expected to spend $141 billion on online ads this year, and that number should increase annually more than 15 percent in 2016, according to eMarketer. Google is the top beneficiary by far this year, receiving an estimated 32.4 percent of that total. Facebook is next at 8 percent, followed by Microsoft at 2.9 percent and Yahoo at 2.4 percent.

In the news media, sites like the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Financial Times keep some of their content behind subscription paywalls, but that can significantly reduce readership compared to free, advertising-supported content. Some critics, however, believe that ad-driven news sites have too strong a financial incentive for producing sensational articles that will mean lots of page views.

It's also not clear exactly how Google will split the subscription revenue with the publishers -- though that's no change from the existing situation showing Google ads. "The amount we keep is the same we charge advertisers to show their ads," Faville said.

The more a person pays, the more they'll see ad-free sites, and websites shouldn't see a difference in revenue, Google said. "In terms of the rates, the amount that goes to the publishers is essentially the market rate for ad space on their site (in the ad auction). So the amounts going to publishers wouldn't really be affected, although the higher the amount in a person's Contributor account, the more times they would see the thank-you messages versus ads," Faville said.

The vast majority of Google's revenue comes from advertising. In the third quarter, Google raked in $16.52 billion. Of that, Google returned $3.35 billion to sites that carried its ads or that referred search traffic that led to search ads.

Some of that revenue comes from search ads that show up next to search results, but it also shows more graphical "display" ads on sites that choose to use its DoubleClick service. DoubleClick is used for direct and indirect advertising. For example, you may see a DoubleClick-supplied ad on a Google property like YouTube, a privilege for which an advertiser, of course, pays. But you can also see a DoubleClick-supplied ad on a news site, in which case the advertiser's payment is split between Google and the news site publisher.