Thanks to Google, the Micropayment Era Is Closer

Last Updated Sep 9, 2009 10:36 PM EDT

In the long and torturous online content debate over free vs. paid, one of the more attractive, if theoretical visions involves the emergence of a micro-payment platform that would allow content sites to collect small fees from users in return for access to premium content.

This elusive vision appears one giant step closer to reality tonight with the news that Google is developing just such a platform and that it expects to launch it -- inside Google and out -- within a year.

In a response to an RFP by the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), the search giant describes its plan "to create a simple payment model that is painless for users....(and)...a successful e-commerce platform for publishers."

The company provides a flow chart (reprinted here) and goes on to describe a "premium content ecosytem with a number of 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.

The key part of the eight-page document as it pertains to micro-payments is this one:

"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."

For a more detailed analysis of this development, I'd recommend a visit to Zachary M. Seward's excellent post at the Nieman Journalism Lab site.

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital,, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.