Micropayment Systems Are Like Buses...


...you wait for ages, and then several come along at once. Only a couple of days ago, I was writing about the new 1p2U.com micropayment system, and now here we have another, with the added twist that it comes from Google.

That's obviously rather important, since if anyone can make the hitherto unloved micropayment idea fly, the search giant can: it has the expertise, clout and infrastructure.

Details are still rather thin; indeed, the emphasis at the moment seems more on softening us up for the idea in the context of paid content by explaining why a micropayment system is a natural addition to the company's portfolio of services [.pdf]:

When it comes to a paid content model, there are two main challenges. First, the content must offer value to users. Only content creators can address this. The second is to create a simple payment model that is painless for users. Google has experience not only with our e-commerce products; we have successfully built consumer products used by millions around the world. We can use this expertise to help create a successful e-commerce platform for publishers.

Beyond the mechanics of any payment system, users must know the product exists. Discovery and distribution are just as, if not more, important to premium content as they are to free content given the smaller audience of potential subscribers. Google is uniquely positioned to help publishers create a scalable e-commerce system via our Checkout product and also enable users to find this content via search -- even if it's behind a paywall. Our vision of a premium content ecosystem includes the following features:

Single sign-on capability for users to access content and manage subscriptions

Ability for publishers to combine subscriptions from different titles together for one price

Ability for publishers to create multiple payment options and easily include/exclude content behind a paywall

Multiple tiers of access to search including 1) snippets only with "subscription" label, 2) access to preview pages and 3) "first click free" access

Advertising systems that offer highly relevant ads for users, such as interest-based advertising

Google already works with a number of premium content providers in a manner similar to the vision above. Combining our e-commerce system with our search capability and advertising platform will allow for even more flexibility for publishers and users alike.

In terms of how the system will work, this is what Google has to say:

While currently in the early planning stages, micropayments will be a payment vehicle available to both Google and non-Google properties within the next year. The idea is to allow viable payments of a penny to several dollars by aggregating purchases across merchants and over time.

Google will mitigate the risk of non-payment by assigning credit limits based on past purchasing behavior and having credit card instruments on file for those with higher credit limits and using our proprietary risk engines to track abuse or fraud. Merchant integration will be extremely simple.

Google naturally makes much of the issue of discoverability:

It is critical that all content be indexed and accessible via search engines – both free content as well as any content behind the pay wall. If users cannot find this content via search, it will ultimately get far less viewership/readership. There are a number of ways to ensure discoverability:

Search engines should know what content a user has access to, and assuming the user has access rights, the full content should be available and exposed within 1 click from the search results page.

Assuming a user does not have an existing subscription, users should have access to a preview of the content (enough to determine that this is the article they are seeking), and will be notified on the search results page that this content is available only by subscription or a 1-time payment of $X.XX. Premium/paid content could be included in the default list of search results, or presented in a separate paid-only area.

This is actually an extremely important aspect. If this micropayments service takes off, it means that Google will become one of the main gatekeepers to content, both free *and* paid. In fact, it will become the enforcer of the difference, blocking your access to stuff that you haven't paid for. It's not hard to imagine that present links to free, unauthorised versions of that stuff might start disappearing from Google's index.

Coupled with the Google Book Settlement, which effectively gives the company a monopoly on access to out-of-print copyright works, this micropayment scheme has the potential to give Google control over even greater swathes of knowledge online – not a very pleasant prospect, even assuming it tries to stick to its “Don't be evil” line.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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