The New Online Barrier: Google Customer Surveys

Many consumers of online news would agree that there is nothing quite as annoying as running into a pay wall while perusing a news site. The annoyance is often two-fold; the pop-up screen not only interrupts your reading but it also unabashedly asks for money – your money - a resource that we’re often reluctant to part with in exchange for online content.

Would we, however, be more willing to offer responses to random questions to access online content?

Google seems to think so. And the Internet search giant demonstrated this when it launched its new online revenue option, Google Customer Surveys, a few days ago. In an article in Adweek, Google’s product manager Paul McDonald described the product as “a new way to monetize digital content without a pay wall”.

The surveys essentially operate in the way pay walls do: on sites that choose this new revenue option, readers will be asked to answer a question or “a micro survey” in order to continue reading certain articles. The money gets around as follows: advertisers will pay Google in order to use the surveys for market research and Google, in turn, will pay the host sites 5 cents for every question answered. Everyone wins, right?

Not really. While it is clear that Google, advertisers and the sites willing to buy into the initiative will gain financially from it, there are few (if any) benefits for readers. While we’re assured that all the responses will be anonymous, we're also told that the questions will have nothing to do with the content of the sites they are found on. This means that you could get queried about how many times you visit the gym in a week while reading about the new iPad on a tech website. Furthermore, in order to prevent readers from becoming blind to surveys or from just selecting the first answer to every question, the program will “force readers to answer new questions”. All of this seems mighty bothersome if you ask me.

But, as mentioned earlier, the same is true for pay walls and it is pretty clear that these are not going anywhere any time soon; many news companies have found the revenue from subscriptions invaluable as it serves to supplement the often-inconsistent flow of ad revenue from their actual sites. News giants like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have managed to achieve a successful balance with the pay wall model; they keep enough content outside their walls to keep casual visitors happy while keeping niche interest pieces behind the barrier to cater to their more loyal readers.

Smaller and more general interest news sites might find Google’s survey alternative more appealing because it does not ask readers for payment directly - which might prompt them to look elsewhere for free content. The New York Times and the Wall street Journal are also already in talks with Google about the product. Soon, it could be everywhere.

In the long run, I think that the Google customer surveys will have interesting implications for the content that news outlets choose to publish. For example, in order to better engage readers, they might eventually decide to streamline their digital news content with Google’s surveys such that the questions asked would match the themes of the articles on each page. This would be an interesting development in the online reading experience at the very least.

To me, the emergence of this Google product in particular, goes to reaffirm that if there is one clear effect of new media on journalism, it is that advertising and other revenue generating schemes continue to interfere with the way in which we interact with online journalistic content. The verdict is still out on whether this is an entirely good or bad development.

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3 Responses to The New Online Barrier: Google Customer Surveys

  1. Julia Averbuck says:

    I agree with Devin that I'd rather answer a survey than pay... And I honestly don't have any problems with the idea of having to answer a survey. Devin is right that we grew up in a "free information" age, but that's bound to change fast and I'd much rather answer questions than pay. The question to me is, how long will advertisers actually use this? I'm under the impression that while surveys are helpful, they are something advertisers can perhaps buy more cheaply by conducting them in other ways. They are also something advertisers only need every certain period of time, unlike ads themselves which are up constantly. Therefore, while this is a step in the right (read cheap) direction I'm not sure I believe it'll work to replace paywalls.

  2. Devin says:

    This is really interesting! Google would profit greatly if they are able to see all of the survey data that they facilitate between the host sites and corporate surveyors. Google would then be able to know even more about its users which would result in more effective micro-targeting as well as web filtering. Seeing that this is a class with a political slant, could politicians pay Google to put their surveys up? I'm sure Obama's people as well as Romney's would love to be able to corner online users with their surveys and require people to respond in order to further access the content they want. I'm beginning to think that the first decade or so that we've really been able to use the internet has spoiled our generation. I feel that "free information" is going to become less and less so. From my perspective though (read: college student without a job), I'd much rather answer a survey than pay...

  3. Anna says:

    This is very interesting, Sybil. I don't think this is necessarily a bad development. Information is valuable. Amazon Mechanical Turk has been highly successful at generating revenue by paying people to respond to surveys like this in the past. It may be annoying to see a survey question, but how different is this really from a pop-up video ad? I don't think it undermines the autonomy of the reader in any unique way. You don't have to answer the question you're asked if you don't want, you can lie if you choose to, and my guess is that the privacy rules on these questions will be stringent. And, unlike other forms of online data collection, you know exactly what information is being studied.
    These surveys could help democratize information online. Anyone can respond to a survey question, but not everyone can pay for digital subscriptions. It also could increase the likelihood people will gather information from multiple sources. If you really want to read a specific article on the WSJ and you usually don't read the WSJ, it's not worth having a subscription but it is worth the inconvenience of a small survey to read the article.

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