Audience monetization is a key strategic issue for every digital publisher. Advertising may still be the key revenue stream for many publications, but we’re in a context where:
- Ad-blocking features are embedded in major browsers. According to eMarketer, 25% of US internet users are using ad-blocking tools. That number reaches 32% in Germany.
- Ad revenue is dwindling because of the competition by behemoths like Google or Facebook, which control 38% and 22% of the online advertising market.
- Ad effectiveness is reduced by the saturation of online advertisements online.
This is fueling an existing trend in digital publications of implementing a paywall, which prompts users to subscribe in order to access the content. The idea is to offset the loss of advertising revenue in print and digital with subscriber revenue. This strategy is often characterized as more sustainable in the long term.
Types of paywalls
There are three main types of paywalls:
- Hard paywalls: the reader is only able to see the headline and maybe one or two paragraphs. The rest of the content is blocked and the reader is presented with a prompt to subscribe. This is the approach taken by the Financial Times.
- Metered paywall: the reader can access a limited number of articles for free before being asked to subscribe. The publisher has to determine how many articles can a user read before they have to subscribe, balancing discovery and conversion. This type of paywall offers the benefit of focusing the conversion opportunities on the most engaged users, those who frequently access the publisher’s site. The New York Times has a dynamic metered paywall that adjusts the number of free articles on a reader-by-reader basis. This flexible pricing strategy has helped them increase their conversion rates substantially.
- Freemium content model or reverse paywall: In this case, there is a hard separation between free content and subscription content. This model is mostly used by smaller or niche publishers that balance free content for visibility with a subscription for in-depth or exclusive content to generate revenue. Access to premium content can be managed through either a hard or a metered paywall.
According to research in 2019 by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, most of the publications analyzed used either a metered paywall or a freemium content model, finding that hard paywalls were “extremely rare”.
The study from the Reuters Institute analyzed 212 online news publishers in the US and the European Union and found that only 27% of the biggest regional publishers in the US and Europe offered their content for free, down from 36% in 2017.
Overall, 48% of the US news outlets have adopted a paywall. In the European Union, the percentage is similar. 46% of news publishers in the EU have implemented a digital subscription model.
When looking specifically at newspapers the numbers are even higher. In 2016, 78% of U.S. newspapers with circulations over 50,000 had implemented a paywall. Most of them have been implemented since 2011.
In Latin America, major newspapers in Mexico, Argentina or Brazil have implemented a paywall, even though only 12% of the revenue of media companies in the region come from digital sources.
How readers react to paywalls
An online survey from 2015 found that 75% of respondents found it frustrating to find a paywall when accessing a news article online. This statistic is hardly surprising. The expectation of the user is being able to access the information for free. Finding the content able to answer their question or their informational needs behind a paywall is understandably frustrating.
At least at first. Because another survey from Meclabs found that 41% of US readers are willing to purchase a digital subscription if they would be able to access exclusive content, like local news, not found elsewhere.
How to develop an effective SEO strategy for paywalled content
Having a part or most of your content behind a paywall can have a negative impact on your organic search presence if it’s not implemented correctly. A paywall implementation that does not take SEO into account may imply that Google and other bots are not able to access, crawl and index your content, making it invisible for search engines.
Google’s technical SEO guidelines for paywalled content
Google offers some guidelines for publishers that want to implement paywalls. In particular, they require that you offer some sort of free sampling of content to users. This benefits Google, as they are able to serve quality content to users of their search engine. But it also benefits publishers as sampling makes it more likely that a reader will subscribe if they are able to learn the value of the content they will get.
This policy was implemented by Google in 2008 as First Click Free. This approach meant that all content accessed through Google search result pages had to be provided for free to the user without prompting them to subscribe. It was only when they navigated away to other parts of the site that they could be asked to subscribe. As First Click Free was a requirement for websites using paywalls, in effect, it dictated the approach to paywalls to content publishers that wanted a presence in their search engine.
The First Click Free policy was discontinued in 2017. Today’s implementation offers much more flexibility to publishers.
Although Google still requires sampling, publishers have now the option to choose between two options:
- Metered sampling. The way it works is the same as the metered paywall. Users can be shown a number of articles for free each month before they are asked to subscribe. Google recommends 10 articles per user per month, but publishers need to experiment, test and verify to see what’s the optimal number of free samples that has the highest conversion rate.
- Lead in: This option is compatible with a hard paywall. The user can see the headline and the first paragraph or the first 100 words of an article. This approach is a compromise that allows the user to evaluate the quality of the content without giving it away entirely. Even though this option is compliant with Google’s guidelines, it can be a frustrating user experience for news sites, which would result in a higher bounce rate. This user behaviour can negatively impact the publisher’s search rankings and Google may choose to present the user with other options that may be more useful to the end-user.
Deciding which approach to take depends on your publishing strategy and the kind of content you are protecting behind a paywall. Metered sampling works best for news publications. Infrequent users are still able to access your content and be exposed to ads and other monetization options. More frequent readers are able to get a good idea of the content quality before being asked to subscribe. Lead in is more often used by sites with premium, evergreen content like specialized research, videos, or statistics.
Using structured data to identify subscription content to Google
The code on the publisher’s site has to identify content that is protected by a paywall using structured data. Otherwise, the site risks being penalized for using a black-hat SEO technique called cloaking. Cloaking is the practice of presenting different content to search engine bots and users. If Googlebot is able to crawl and index the article, but the user hits the paywall and is presented with a subscription request instead, that could be interpreted by Google as cloaking. Using structured data to identify subscription content avoids this risk.
In order to use structured data, Google recommends using the NewsArticle schema. You mark each section of your page protected by a paywall by adding a CSS class of your choice to each HTML element you want to protect. Some extra code is needed to tell Google that content inside that CSS class can only be accessed with a subscription. Is important to note that content sections can’t be nested.
It’s also recommended to use the noarchive meta tag. This would prevent users from accessing the full version of the article through Google’s cache.
AMP and paywalls
AMP stands for Accelerated Mobile Pages. It’s a publishing technology developed by Google that has the objective of delivering content faster on mobile. In practice, implementing AMP in an article means creating a second version of the page which is then presented to the user when accessed from Google on mobile.
Publishers can protect content served on AMP pages by specifying, using special markup code, which sections can be served to different types of users. For example, anonymous users can see some content, but the full article can only be seen by registered users or users with a subscription. This is the same flexible approach that gives publishers the control to decide what to show when.
For publishers that don’t have the internal resources to develop subscription management technology in-house, third-party SaaS solutions like Laterpay have integrated their offerings in AMP, making much easier for small publishers to implement and manage their subscriptions in AMP pages.
SEO content strategy for premium content
How to balance free and premium content
When a publisher takes the strategic decision to implement a digital subscription model, is necessary to take measures to balance several elements that come into play:
- Content discovery: Users need to be able to access parts of the content or a limited number of articles to be able to evaluate the quality of the content before being asked to make a purchase decision. Search engines play a big role in content discovery and it would be smart to craft a specific strategy to address this segment of visitors.
- User experience: Encountering a paywall is always a frustrating experience for the user. Publishers can manage that frustration by signalling clearly to the user how many articles can they access in a given period of time, how many they have left and what actions they can take in order to access more of your content. Depending on your business model, you could increase the metering limits if the user is registered instead of anonymous. User experience is always worse for sites using a hard paywall where the content is blocked fully or partially, as publishers have fewer options to manage user’s frustration.
- Conversion: Constant experimentation and testing are needed In order to discover what’s the right amount of content a publisher can give for free. This is part of what is called conversion rate optimisation. For bigger publishers, with a sizable audience, this limit may be different for each audience segment.
The balance of these three competing elements is, in the end, a strategic decision that will be different for every publisher. A website may want, for example, to increase their global audience and drop their paywall entirely outside their home country or region.
When presenting a search results page to the user, Google takes into consideration the search intent behind the keywords used in the search. Ranking higher for a specific search depends less having those keywords in your content than fulfilling the searcher’s intent when using those keywords.
Content protected by a paywall tends to fulfill an informational intent. If a publisher is using a premium content or hard paywall approach, is probably because they have specialized or exclusive content that would be difficult to get anywhere else. In this case, the intent they answer is probably more in-depth research than just informational.
Take the search intent you are most likely to answer into consideration when determining which keywords you are optimizing your content for. For example, the keywords “SEO strategy” return a series of articles covering the basics of SEO. It would be very difficult to compete for that keyword with an article protected behind a paywall.
Publishers implementing the lead in option to show partial content to visitors from search engines must pay particular attention to the content they show the user. The objective is to manage the user disappointment in encountering a paywall and providing them with the information needed to evaluate if your content meets their needs.
Instead of showing the user simply the first few paragraphs of the article, the best approach is to craft an executive summary. This way the user will have a more complete picture of the information contained in the article and will be able to make a better-informed purchase decision if they decide to subscribe. What you’re doing is explaining the problem or need you will then solve or explain in the full article. Implementing structured data in this executive summary can help that content to appear in a rich snippet, incrementing its visibility in the search results page.
For a lead in content the recommendation is to include:
- A descriptive headline that contains the main keyword you are targeting with the article.
- A short paragraph summarizing the content of the article, providing an accurate description and the main topics of the content of the article.
- A short list of key facts, statistics or questions answered by the article with a brief answer.
- Information of what’s behind the paywall: a video, a pdf, in-depth research.
This approach takes the user needs into consideration. The behaviour that flows from a positive user experience will support other ranking signals.
Approaching a paywall from an SEO perspective has three main objectives:
First, to make sure that the technical implementation of the paywall is aligned with search engine recommendations so that your content is visible in search engines and supports your content discovery strategy.
Second, to manage the expectations of the user when arriving at content that may be protected by the paywall. Taking the search intent into consideration and building a good user experience will help signal Google that the content is still useful and will help in maintaining good rankings. This is especially important when implementing lead in sampling in your paywall.
And third, to balance these requirements with the need to optimize the conversion rate to maintain sustainable growth in your digital subscription revenue stream.