The Times paid-only subscription goes live

By Matt Cornock

I’ve mentioned the (questionable) usability of The Times website (thetimes.co.uk / thetimes.co.uk) subscription service in a previous blog post, however now the ‘free trial’ is over. The email I received from them stated: ‘The preview’s over, but it’s just the start for our new websites’ – followed by a prompt to cough up some money for continued access.

What I, and everyone else in the web and media industry, is looking at is the effect of this subscription service on traffic to the site and whether previous Times users will just flock to the free alternatives (BBC, Guardian, etc).

One way we could perhaps judge this is through the web monitoring service Alexa: Times vs New Times. Already, whilst the free trial was active, The Times have a 37% drop in reach. However, Alexa are keen to point out the processes of their monitoring aren’t always 100%. So, what else can we rely on to guide us? Certainly not the spin that Murdoch et al will generate about the site’s ‘success’.

One thing that may let The Times down is its new inability to generate new links from external sites. When a news story is popular, it is linked to in blogs, as citations in other sites, and through social networks like Facebook and Twitter. However, with a locked-down, subscription only site, these links now are only relevant for subscribers. This is both detrimental to the linking website and their users. E.g. if a website ‘News R Us’ was to frequently link to The Times website, News R Us users would be annoyed because effectively the link goes nowhere (unless the user is also a subscriber to The Times).

The same principle applies to search engines: who will use a search engine where the search results link to unobtainable resources? This is why Google takes into consideration the number of links a resource has from other sites, the HTTP return code and more recently more technical aspects such as page loading time. As such, The Times should in theory drop down the news rankings and off social networks. The Times though has another problem. If their reach declines, which journalists are going to stay around to create the ‘exclusive’ content that the online Times website is supposed to pride itself upon?

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