Users who pay between $1 and $3 a month will be able to read some websites that have a thank you message instead of ads. They also won’t be tracked by Google.
Google Contributor is only available as a limited trial. Users have to be invited to sign up. Just six websites are currently participating in the trial, including image platform Imgur, Mashable, The Onion, wikiHow, Urban Dictionary and Science Daily.
Since Google is not the only major web ad platform, readers may still see ads from other networks.
Google has not revealed exactly why it is running a subscription experiment, which is seemingly at odds with its core business model. The company makes approximately 90% of its revenue from online ads.
Asking users to pay small amounts for content is not a new idea, with companies such as Flattr offering a micropayment model to reward publishers and other creators.
Google plans to take a cut of the subscription fee paid by users, but won’t say how much. For the new model to work, the subscription fee would need to match whatever Google would make from that user through ads.
It isn’t clear how or why the system will benefit publishers, who could simply launch their own paywalls and take 100% of the subscription fee as well as continue to display ads.
Darin Brown, EMEA CEO for digital agency Possible, said: "Since the first publishers appeared on the Internet, we have talked about consumer funded models.
"There are some great cases where it does work – Wall Street Journal, Netflix - but most of the internet remains advertising funded.
"I would love to see a model like this work but I am pretty sceptical it will catch on with scale. If anything, it may help to build a better appreciation amongst consumers of the value advertisers bring by underwriting the content that consumers get for free."
Nick Stringer, regulatory affairs spokesman for IAB UK, cited stats suggesting the majority of consumers would expect a chunk of the internet to "disappear" without ads.
He said: "Advertising helps to fund a wide variety of content and services on the internet, as well as driving commerce and enabling greater savings for consumers.
"It also enables so-called ‘freemium’ services and helps subsidise many subscription services - so we’ll be following Google’s US-based ‘Contributor’ model with interest."
A genius idea
But Gartner analyst Andrew Frank described the idea as "genius", stating that the model could lead to valuable insights for marketers and Google.
He pointed out that Google could effectively create a class of users who are "harder to reach" through normal display ads, and could then charge to give marketers access to these individuals.
If it does end up tracking these users, Google could also compare their conversion behaviour on blocked and unblocked websites, then charge marketers for that data.
Contributor could also improve Google’s standing among publishers, with major players concerned by the company’s monopoly over the search market. Separately, EU lawmakers are pushing to break up Google in an effort to end that dominance.
Still, even Frank suspects Contributor will not work as a standalone experiment.
He said: "There’s a better-than-even chance that the program will simply fail to attract a critical mass of users and fade into the vast landscape of forgotten innovations that have tried to change the long-standing equation of free content supported by ads.
"That is still probably a winning scenario for Google as it will stand as a proof point that consumers are willing to tolerate ads even when given a choice to pay directly for content – although those most vehement about ads will simply use ad blockers instead."
(First appeared on MarketingMagazine.co.uk)