A paywall is a payment barrier that is used to make certain online offers only accessible with a fee or a subscription. With regard to a comprehensive SEO strategy, the question arises for us at the search heroes whether you can really be successful with paywalled content on such a subscription website in the organic search.
We will get to the bottom of this topic below and see how to balance free and paywalled content.
WITH OR WITHOUT PAYWALLED CONTENT – WHY IS A SUCCESSFUL SEO STRATEGY IMPORTANT?
An SEO strategy offers endless potential for discussion. Some think they’ve found the holy grail until Google undoes them all with its next opaque algorithm and infamous updates. Ultimately, however, most SEO professionals agree that some of the most important elements in search engine optimization are quality content, solid website architecture, and strong backlinks.
How this actually affects the website and how it is weighted varies greatly due to the constant surprises on the part of the search engine.
Taking the most basic purpose of SEO, at its core, it is about using organic search results to rank a web page as high as possible for selected search terms. The aim is to make the site and of course the content as visible as possible for relevant users.
In the best case, the increased traffic increases the conversion, i.e. the direct interaction with products and services. By clicking on the page, the user is used to calling up the content freely accessible. With the paywall, however, it is different. Suddenly the user has to pay for the content. How does this affect the user experience?
WHAT HAPPENS WITH PAYWALLED CONTENT?
When a user comes to a page with paywalled content, there is an obstacle between them and the content in the form of a fee or subscription. At first glance, it doesn’t seem user-friendly at all and runs counter to the numerous findings regarding the user experience and customer journey. But what does a second look at the paywalled content reveal?
The advantages of paywalled content:
- More information about the users can be obtained.
- Paywalled content appears more useful, trustworthy and valuable behind a payment wall.
- It is easier to generate long-term customers from paywalled content users.
Of course, there are also disadvantages to paywalled content that need to be considered:
- A smaller target group is addressed that is really willing to pay for paywalled content.
- Link building can be more difficult.
- Because users are used to being able to access content free of charge under typical freebie behaviour, paywalled content can cause negative reactions.
HOW DOES GOOGLE VIEW PAYWALLED CONTENT?
In general, whether with or without paywalled content, it can be said that Google’s guidelines must always be observed. In addition, however, website owners with paywalled content face the great challenge of how to make their premium content visible in search if the content is not freely accessible.
For this purpose, the search engine first introduced the First-Click-Free (FCF) model. With this, publishers of paywalled content should make some of the content available for free so that users can access it via Google search.
This was met with opposition from many of the publishers, leading to the scrapping of the “ancient” 2017 model. It was replaced by “flexible sampling” at the same time. For example, flexible sampling only shows the user part of the paywalled content. The advantage: The search engine, on the other hand, can use it to call up the entire content.
One of three options can be used with a flexible sampling of the paywalled content, which increases the scope for how the content is to be provided.
Here, the website visitors of paywalled content only see the excerpt or a snippet just mentioned. The rest remains hidden and can only be viewed after the payment process.
These models often use well-known newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal or regional dailies.
Limited free content
With this model, interested users can call up a limited number of articles from the usual paywalled content free of charge. In most cases, this possibility is limited to three. If the maximum number is reached, you will be asked to pay a fee or take out a subscription.
There is also the option to completely restrict the paywalled content. This has the disadvantage that the content is no longer crawled by search engines and is therefore not placed in the search results.
WHICH METHOD IS THE BEST FOR PAYWALLED CONTENT?
Now it means you are spoiled for choice. Ultimately, it largely depends on the purpose of the content. Many news platforms have had good experiences with the limited free content in paywalled content. It shows that visitors can get a comprehensive impression of the quality of the content. Of course, this is easier with whole texts than with just a teaser.
Using this model, the NY Times, for example, has reportedly gained around 2.5 million digital news subscribers after seven and a half years.
However, if the paywalled content is primarily concerned with industry studies, charts, statistics and data in general, a snippet may be the way to go and show itself to be more efficient. With the snippets of the paywalled content, problems can usually be presented well, which encourages the reader to read on. After all, the solution seems within reach.
However, one thing is very clear: hard paywalls and SEO do not go together.
THE BALANCE BETWEEN FREE CONTENT AND PAYWALLED CONTENT
Certainly, free content still has an advantage over paywalled content. Classically, this can be seen in terms of volume, where free content is clearly better positioned in organic search. That doesn’t mean, however, that paywalled content doesn’t have a chance of getting rankings that are just as good.
A logical conclusion would be that SEO is even more important for paywalled content than for free content since the hurdle of the paywall has to be overcome here.
There are two good options for this.
Either you try to find a balance between free and paywalled content. Like the New York Times does, for example.
Another possibility is to create content that users cannot find and consume anywhere else. This means that the paywalled content must be exclusive.
For example, if you type “how do I optimize a website for search engines”, Google offers thousands of free accessible articles. This means that there is no reason for the user to resort to paywalled content and pay for it.
However, if publishers don’t shy away from the effort of designing a solution in the form of a white paper, an e-book or a detailed article, this can be a legitimate reason why paywalled content is used. Ideally, the content even comes from well-known experts.
Anyone who now has to decide whether it makes sense to offer their content as paywalled content can ask themselves three methodological questions:
What is the goal of the content?
Is it about generating leads or actually gaining subscribers? Then the paywalled content may be the right form. However, if the goal is only to increase traffic and set links, paywalled content is even counterproductive.
Is the content worth paying for?
A good way to answer this question is to put yourself in the shoes of the user. Would you be willing to spend money on paywalled content yourself? But be careful when answering this question. As an author, one tends not to evaluate one’s own works impartially. In this case, the help of friends or acquaintances can also be used.
Is it worth disclosing your own data?
Finally, another consideration may be whether users are willing to provide paywalled content with personal information in order to access protected content.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PREMIUM AND COVERT CONTENT
Years ago, Google introduced the Fred algorithm update. Here, the search engine’s intention was to reward websites that offer a positive user experience while penalizing websites with poor quality content and lots of advertising. Now in 2022 as of writing this article, this is still the case.
However, the update also had an unforeseen impact on paywalled content and many of the paywalled websites were demoted.
What did this lead to for SEO-technical considerations in relation to paywalled content?
The problem with Fred was that the update wasn’t able to distinguish between paid and hidden, i.e. camouflaged, content. Google’s solution came in the form of structured data.
In order to rank for Google search results, paywalled content must be structured and follow technical guidelines.
JSON-LD and Microdata formats are accepted methods of specifying structured data for paywalled content.
Another important point to note: Some smart users have learned that you can bypass paywalls by going into the Google cache. The content can be read for free. Therefore it is necessary to use the no-archive robots meta tag. This prevents Google from displaying the cached link to this page.
CONCLUSION ON PAYWALLED CONTENT
Is paywalled content useful or not? There is no one-size-fits-all answer because, as has become clear, there are many factors to consider when making a decision.
Probably the most important is whether paywalled content offers added value, encourages the user to pay and also justifies the payment, or whether there is content in the same way on the Internet that is accessible free of charge.
Only when premium content is truly unique and not available anywhere else online is paywalled content a good idea.
It should also always be considered that only a small target group is addressed with paywalled content. Nevertheless, the advantage is that subscribers are often more loyal and willing to disclose data.