How does a paywall impact SEO?

Joe Ball

SEO Director

22nd August 2019

~ 5 min read

Are you curious about how websites with paywalls handle their SEO and monetize their content at the same time?

Like any good SEO, the notion of purposefully hiding your content from both users and search engines should send a shudder down your spine, as it contradicts everything we know about how to achieve success in our industry. And yet, many successful paywalled websites do just that, and still rank for super competitive keywords that drive boatloads of traffic. In this blog post, we're going to look into how that is possible. But first, let's start with the basics...

What are the different types of paywall?

Hard paywall

There's no getting around this one. If you want to read more than the quickly blurred first paragraph, then you'll need to get your wallet out. With a hard paywall, you better be confident that your content is pretty damn good, as there's no way anyone can get a sneak preview to help them get off the fence. Sports media website, The Athletic, is a strong example of a brand using this kind of implementation successfully.

Soft paywall

The soft paywall, also known as 'metering' is the approach which allows a publisher to define how many free articles a reader gets to see over a specified time period. This will then reset at the end of that period, allowing a reader to once again access free content before feeling sad for the remaining 30 days of the month (admittedly my current New York Times routine).

Freemium paywall

The freemium paywall is a combined approach which allows certain areas of content to be permanently accessible for all, while the more premium content remains locked up, just a click away. The Street follows this approach. Reeling you in with financial news, when you know deep down that the juicy stories are going to cost you.

It's important to know the difference between the different paywalls, as each requires a specific form of technical implementation and each, in theory, could impact organic performance. The decision to go with one paywall over another is less likely to be an SEO decision and more likely to be a business decision based on any number of factors. These could be factors such as the industry vertical of the site, the target audience, or more simply, whichever user experience will drive the most subscriptions.

So, which paywall is best for SEO?

The soft (metered) approach is more favored by many, as search engines have easy access to all the content on every page, which in theory, should mean greater performance. It is only when a user visits a certain number of articles that their access will become blocked, meaning search engines are never under the same constraints as a user. A crawler cannot be 'cookied' in the same way as a user is tracked reading multiple articles. All of your site content can be crawled and indexed without a second thought, and without any overly technical configuration of paywall settings.

Freemium offers similar benefits to the metered approach. Although the premium content is mostly hidden for users (perhaps a paragraph or two at the top left available as a preview), the non-premium site content is openly accessible and likely driving engagement and influencing the "should I pay for this?" decision-making process.

So that just leaves hard paywalls. The worst of the bunch, surely? All the content is hidden, access for crawlers theoretically is also at a minimum, engagement metrics like bounce rate and pages per session are probably worse than your average website, so rankings have got to be suffering right? Wrong. Many hard paywall sites perform perfectly well in search engines. The final portion of this blog post will dig into how that is actually possible.

How do hard paywall sites drive organic traffic?

Firstly, a simple test can be as easy as copying and pasting a short sentence from a paywall piece of content, something near the bottom of an article that is not within the free preview section. If Google has crawled and indexed the content, it'll likely match your exact search query to the article, therefore confirming its crawlers have been able to access the paywall content that a reader cannot see.

Let's take The Athletic again as an example. Using a snippet of content from the bottom of this article about Kawhi Leonard moving to the LA Clippers. We can see the article is clearly behind a paywall when visiting the page. But if I copy a piece of paywall text from the bottom of the article, we can see it ranking and the description matching my exact query:

So how is this possible? Ultimately, the explanation is as simple as closely following Google's paywall and subscription guidelines. Paying particular attention to ensuring the criteria required is followed, for example, "if you want Google to crawl and index your entire page, including the paywalled sections, make sure Googlebot, and Googlebot-News if applicable, can access your page".  Through this guideline, The Athletic have control over what Googlebot sees versus what the average user who hasn't yet dipped into their pocket can see.

However, there are other more straightforward guidelines to follow too, such as ensuring the appropriate paywall markup is added to both AMP and non-AMP versions of content, in addition to basic NewsArticle structured data.

Moreover, last but not least, testing the success of the implementation of paywall guidelines are essential. Utilize Google's URL inspection tool within the new Search Console, where you can diagnose issues such as AMP validity, submission and indexation issues, mobile-friendliness and more.

You can even see the HTML of the tested page and compare exactly what Googlebot is able to crawl, versus a screenshot of what a user can see, all within Search Console. This is vital in understanding whether there is a leak in the paywall.

The end result? Well, you should see a combination of AMP and non-AMP pages ranking in the search results!

Although there will still be a debate as to which paywall implementation is the "best", rest assured that there are ways and means to prevent harmful impact on organic performance.

If you're interested in Croud's SEO or Content services, get in touch.

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