Whether you like it or not, ads are the primary funding source for much of the Internet. But what if they could disappear in exchange for a small monthly fee? That’s the question Google is trying to tackle with its new initiative, Contributor, which lets users visit websites ad-free in exchange for $1 to $3 per month.
As users visit their favorite website, a portion of that monthly amount is allocated to it. And in place of where an ad would usually appear, users instead see a thank you message displayed on a pixel pattern, according to Google’s Contributor page. But, don’t be so quick to whip out your wallet: The program currently has a waitlist and only has a handful of partners at the moment, including slang glossary Urban Dictionary, the Onion, Mashable and image hosting site Imgur.
“It seems like an experiment,” Brian Wieser, a senior analyst at Pivotal Research Group, said. “I think the question is if there’s any meaningful scale for this, given the target publishers.”
It’s the latest of many attempts to fund websites in lieu of ads, including Reddit Gold and Imgur Pro, which offer a couple more features on their respective websites in exchange for a few dollars per month. But unlike those premium subscription options, Contributor provides a centralized place for users to support their most frequently visited websites, while taking a small portion of the proceeds.
Other subscription models are also being tried as well, such as the Good Web Bundle, founded by Internet entrepreneur Anil Dash, which offers discounted paid subscriptions to five websites: MetaFilter, MlkShk, NewsBlur, The Toast and ThinkUp. But unlike Google’s approach, the Good Web Bundle also includes the premium benefits of those sites’ subscription offerings.
Contributor is an antithesis to Google’s business model, considering that the company derives the bulk of its revenue from advertising ($32.6 billion, or 68.2 percent of total revenue as of its September quarter, according to a regulatory filing). But with a small-scale approach of about 10 participating sites, it’s mainly an experiment at this point in time.
Wieser has his doubts that Contributor will have an appeal to a wide scale number of users. But he notes that it could succeed for niche websites such as some of the sites in the program. Participating sites share a similar view toward Contributor in that its experimental nature could allow their users to directly fund their favorite websites, without necessarily requiring them to sign up for a premium incentive program or service.
“I think the benefit is that Google is experimenting with new ways to monetize both for themselves and for publishers,” Elizabeth Douglas, WikiHow president and COO, said. “They’re continuing to push the needle in that world.”
Image hosting and community site Imgur, another participant in the Contributor experiment, is also looking at the pilot program to determine whether it can be successful when dealing with a larger audience, such as its 150 million unique visitors to the site every month.
“From our point of view, it’s another way of accessing an audience and making it possible for them to pay affirmatively rather than us monetizing through ads,” Tim Hwang, Imgur director of marketing, said. “As Imgur becomes a destination site, stuff like Contributor will factor into how we think about our business.”