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Paywall SEO Strategy

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Audience monetization is a key issue for every digital publisher. While ad revenue remains a reliable strategy for many outlets, some may be better served by implementing a paywall. 

The pandemic demonstrated that reliance on a single stream of revenue can be risky. Ad revenue fell by 3.1% during the pandemic but grew rapidly in the following year by 22.5%.1 This provided an unpredictable landscape for digital publishers that relied solely on advertising for revenue.

These developments underscore the need for digital publications to consider expanding their revenue strategies to include paywall options. Paywalls allow publications to offset any loss of digital advertising revenue by developing a subscriber pipeline. 

Types of Paywalls

Most leading global news organizations such as The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times use paywalls to generate subscription revenue.

Almost 80% of US newspapers with circulations greater than 50,000 have introduced a subscription-based model, according to the American Press Institute.2

The number of online users willing to pay to access news,3 with most of those that have reached their article limit4 wanting to keep reading. 

There are various types of paywalls that a publisher can choose from — each with its own range of benefits, as explored in this webinar hosted by Poool with State of Digital Publishing (SODP) as a guest

Every publisher needs to weigh the merits of each of these types to find the right fit for their own revenue goals.

Freemium Paywall

As its name suggests, this type of paywall offers some freely accessible material but limits premium content to non-paying users.

Freemium paywalls offer a compromise between attracting users to one’s site at no cost, while requiring them to subscribe for high-quality content.5

Metered Paywall

Also known as a soft paywall, this type offers access to a limited number of articles before a subscription is required.

The New York Times uses a metered paywall that is well-known for growing its digital subscription rate. It gained 587,000 new digital subscribers6 within three months in 2020, and now has more than 10 million total subscribers.7

Hard Paywall

This is the strictest type of paywall, since almost all content is gated. By only displaying a headline and the first few sentences of an article, the reader has to subscribe to access the rest of the content. 

The Financial Times initially introduced a metered paywall before transitioning into a hard paywall. After testing the cheap trial subscription8 approach in 2015, the publication announced it had reached 1 million paying digital subscribers9 by early 2022.

Dynamic Paywall

Through machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), publishers can customize a paywall journey for each visitor.

Audiences are segmented according to location, level of engagement, or device used, so publishers can tailor a more relevant subscription package.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) first implemented a dynamic paywall in 2018. Using AI, the publication successfully produced a subscription prediction model based on the reading habits of its users. This approach boosted the news outlet’s subscriber base to 3 million in 2022 in the first three months of 2022.10

How Blocking User Access Affects SEO

Whilst there are different types of paywalls, there are also different ways to block content. 

There are two main methods of blocking: 

  1. Front or user side. This uses CSS or Javascript. 
  2. Back or server side. This can be done with or without SEO. 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to choosing the best method to limit access to content. It depends on the publisher’s desired strategy.

For example, a publication that is dependent on SEO and new to paywalls, could benefit from a user-side blocking method since it has less risks associated with SEO. 

The following table from the aforementioned webinar lists the pros and cons of each type of blocking method. 

Pros Cons
Front blocking – CSS ⇨ Speed of integration
⇨ Better user experience (no lag when unblocking)
⇨ easy coding
⇨ No risk of conflict with other scripts for the <div> article (ad, editorial)
⇨ Low SEO risk (see part 2)
⇨ Easy to bypass
Front blocking – JS ⇨ Speed of integration
⇨ Better user experience (no lag when unblocking)
⇨ Weak tech development
⇨ Low SEO (see part 2)
⇨ Easy to bypass
⇨ Possible conflict with other scripts for the <div> article (ad, editorial)
Server blocking (with SEO optimization) ⇨ Safer than a front blocking method
⇨ Hard to bypass (except a few cases that we’ll expand on later)
⇨ Time and cost of implementing
⇨ Potential lag when unblocking for users
⇨ Requires a good understanding of SEO
Server blocking (without SEO optimization) ⇨ Safest method
⇨ impossible to bypass
⇨ Time and cost of implementing
⇨ Potential lag when unblocking for users
⇨ May impair SEO as only the header is referenced

Effective SEO Strategies for Paywall Content

Publishers that embrace paywalls, but do not take SEO into consideration, may not see their content rank on Google and other search engines. This will negatively impact the content being shown to users in search results. 

Google’s Guidance

Google offers some guidelines for publishers that want to implement paywalls.

The search giant ditched its controversial first click free policy11 in 2017, replacing it with Flexible Sampling12 that was developed in partnership with publishers.

There are two types of sampling that Google advises publishers to use: metering and lead-in. The former gives users a quota of articles before blocking access to content, while the latter limits viewing to a small portion of the entire article.

Metering

Users can be shown a number of articles for free in a certain time frame before they are asked to subscribe. Cookies keep track of the number of articles a user accesses. When the limit is reached, a request is sent to show the paywall to the user.

Google encourages publishers to provide 10 articles per user each month as a starting point. Publishers are then encouraged to experiment and test against their target market to verify the optimal number of samples that lead to the highest conversion rate.

This option allows for content discovery and is great for publishers looking to implement a subscription strategy. 

Lead In

This option is effectively 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 cause frustration for users and result in a higher bounce rate. This means that users are clicking on the article from search results, but clicking off immediately as they cannot access the full content. This can negatively impact the publisher’s search rankings.

For the lead-in approach to allow for content discovery, an executive summary is recommended to give the user valuable content if they aren’t a subscriber.

By allowing the reader to gain an understanding of the article’s content, the publisher not only increases the chance of converting the visitor into a subscriber but is also able to reduce overall bounce rate. 

Deciding which approach to take depends on publishing strategy and the kind of content that is locked behind a paywall.

Infrequent readers are still able to access this content while viewing ads.

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 such as specialized research, videos or statistics. 

Use Structured Data

Publishers can use structured data to identify content that is paywall protected. If they don’t, they run the risk of being penalized for using a black-hat SEO technique called cloaking.

This means publishers have presented different content to search engine bots than to users, which is a violation of Google’s guidelines.13

Google created an algorithm called Fred to penalize websites that use these black-hat tactics.14 Google then implemented structured data to be used alongside Fred. 

Structured data allows Fred to see content behind a paywall, so that it can be shown to users in SERPs.15

In order to use structured data, Google recommends using the NewsArticle schema.16 If a publisher wants to gate a content with a paywall, a HTML element is marked by a CSS class. 

Additional coding is needed to tell Google that content inside that CSS class can only be accessed with a subscription. 

It’s also recommended to use a noarchive meta tag, which would prevent users from accessing the full version of the article through Google’s cache. A noarchive meta tag limits what the page can do for consumers.

AMP and Fast Loading Paywalls

Google, in collaboration with tech and digital media partners, developed a publishing technology — accelerated mobile pages (AMP) — to speed up the performance of web pages on mobile devices.17

The framework delivers content faster on mobile devices. 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.

Content served on AMP pages can be protected by specifying which sections can be viewed by different types of users.18 This can be done by using a special markup code. 

As an example of unique sections serving different users, anonymous users can see some content but the full article can only be seen by registered users or users with a subscription. This approach gives publishers the control to decide what to show and when.

For publishers that don’t have the internal resources to develop subscription management systems in-house, then third-party SaaS solutions — like Laterpay — have integrated their offerings in AMP.19 This makes it easier for small publishers to implement and manage their subscriptions in AMP pages.

Similarly, a cached link from your website may also be beneficial in speeding up the load time of the site’s material. Publishers must ensure that authorization endpoint grants access to the content to Google and other appropriate internet bots.

Microsoft’s Advice

While Google is pushing Flexible Sampling as a means of market research, Microsoft has shown little interest in this approach. Instead, Microsoft’s search engine Bing announced in May 2022 a set of SEO best practices that would benefit both itself and publishers.20

It advocates that publishers should allow Bing full access to content behind a paywall, while at the same time preventing gated content from being leaked by using either of the following:

  • a robots meta tag in the head section of the web page including either of the following:
    • <meta name=”robots” content=”noarchive”>
    • <meta name=”robots” content=”nocache”>
  • an X-Robots-Tag, a custom HTTP response header, is functionally the same as a robots meta tag but also avoids caching PDF and other Microsoft Office files. It should contain either of the following:
    • X-Robots-Tag: noarchive
    • X-Robots-Tag: nocache

The above approach — limiting the content users can see while giving full access to crawlers — runs contrary to Google’s advice to use structured data to avoid being flagged for cloaking.

Responding to the different stances on cloaking, Fabrice Canel, Bing’s principal program manager, said simply that while using structured data could help, it was not a “strong requirement for me”.21

SEO Content Strategy for Premium Content

While digital publishers may consider a paywall as they seek to find the right balance between bounce rates and traffic revenue, they do need to consider several elements before jumping in.

Content Discovery

Users need to be able to access parts of the content in order to evaluate it’s worth before they are asked to purchase, as they will only engage with content they know exists. Crafting a strategy in order to address a search engine’s role in content discovery is important to increasing traffic to a site. 

Google Search Console is a tool that publishers can use to determine and fix any SEO performance issues to ensure your content is visible to search engine results. 

User Experience

Encountering a paywall may be a frustrating experience for users. Publishers can manage that frustration by clearly signaling to the user how many articles they can access in a given period of time, how many they have left to view and how they can gain access to more content. Metering limits could be increased if the user has registered to the publication instead of remaining anonymous.

User experience is trickier for sites using a hard paywall where the content is partially or fully blocked as publishers have fewer options to manage the user’s frustration.

Conversion

Experimentation is needed in order to discover the right amount of content a publisher can give for free. This is part of what is called conversion rate optimization (CRO). CRO means increasing the amount of conversions from a site or a mobile app. 

For bigger publishers, with a sizable audience, this limit may be different for each audience segment.

The approach taken 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.

In 2016, American sports company The Athletic implemented a paywall, believing that they had found a “newsworthy” angle on sports journalism.22

In 2020, before the beginning of the pandemic, online consumerism to the site was thriving.

However, despite the original success of the company, the paywall has eventually resulted in cash loss for the company between 2020 and 2022 — even though subscription only costs $1 a month.

During the height of the pandemic, sports were put on hold. This meant The Athletic lost content opportunities and hurt the business model, all without any paywall subscription money going back into the organization.

This is an example of the need for online publications to diversify their revenue streams and not only rely on one method to make money, such as only using paywalls like The Athletic did. 

Online publications need to minimize the risk profile of their business and put into place multiple revenue streams such as advertising, subscriptions and eCommerce to maintain their revenue.

Keyword Strategy

When presenting a search results page to a user, Google takes into consideration the search intent behind the keywords used. Ranking higher for a specific search depends less on having the words 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, it 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.

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.

Content Recommendations

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 a user’s disappointment in encountering a paywall and provide them with the required information to evaluate if the 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.

Explain the problem that will be solved 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 lead-in content the recommendation is to include:

  • A descriptive headline that contains the main keyword that is targeted within the article.
  • A short paragraph summarizing the content of the article, providing an accurate description and the main arguments/topics.
  • 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’s needs into consideration. The behavior that flows from a positive user experience will support other ranking signals.

Final Thoughts

Monetizing content for publishers is vital. Every publisher needs to be taking each circumstance into consideration, as there is no ‘one size fits all’ paywall approach or solution available. 

Although experimentation and testing needs to be taken in order to achieve the publisher’s desired outcomes, overall, there are three main objectives in approaching a paywall from an SEO perspective: 

  1. 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 site’s content discovery.
  2. 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 helps in maintaining good rankings. This is especially important when implementing a lead in your paywall.
  3. Balance these requirements with the need to optimize the conversion rate to maintain sustainable growth in your digital subscription revenue stream.

In a digital world where the revenue of online advertising continues to decrease, publishers can no longer only rely on selling ad spaces as their only form of income. This is why the implementation of paywalls is rightfully becoming an increasingly common digital practice.

  1. Global advertising spending 2021 | Statista
  2. Paying for Digital News: The rapid adoption and current landscape of digital subscriptions at US newspapers
  3. Newspaper paywalls slowly increasing, but online news is still mostly free | Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
  4. 9 paths to subscription: Digital Paywall Converters
  5. Online news gradually shifts away from free content and towards pay models
  6. The New York Times’ success with digital subscriptions is accelerating, not slowing down | Nieman Journalism Lab
  7. NYT Hits Goal of 10 Million Subscriptions, Closes on The Athletic – The New York Times
  8. The Financial Times and the Future of Journalism | The New Yorker
  9. Financial Times reaches one million digital subscribers
  10. News Corp Revenue Boosted by Gains in Dow Jones and Real Estate Units | Barron’s
  11.  Google to ditch controversial ‘first click free’ policy
  12. Flexible Sampling Guidelines | Google Search Central | Documentation
  13. Webmaster guidelines
  14. How To Bounce Back From The Google Fred Algorithm — And Prepare For Future Updates
  15. General Structured Data Guidelines | Google Search Central
  16. Subscription and Paywalled Content | Google Search Central | Documentation
  17. AMP on Google
  18. AMP: Supporting Paywalls and Subscriptions
  19. https://blog.amp.dev/2017/11/28/an-amp-paywall-and-subscription-model-for-all-publishers/
  20. SEO best practice for subscription-based and paywall content | Webmaster Blog
  21. Jon Henshaw / Bing’s published a post on best practice for paywall content. / Twitter 
  22. The Athletic UK
Vahe Arabian

Vahe Arabian

Founder and Editor in Chief of State of Digital Publishing. My vision is to provide digital publishing and media professionals a platform to collaborate and promote their efforts, my passion is to uncover talent and the latest trends for all to benefit.

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