How do paywalls impact SEO?

02 August 2021
by Archie Williamson
4 mins
How do paywalls impact SEO?

A content paywall can be detrimental to SEO when content is gated entirely, but it is still possible to drive organic traffic to web pages by striking a balance between free and premium content on a website.

The use of paywalls appears to be contrary to the benefits of a high-quality SEO strategy. When you are doing everything you can to increase the visibility of your content and get more clicks to your pages, a paywall can stop clients and customers in their tracks.

Why do publishers use paywalls? Because they can generate digital revenue for specialised or niche content that people are willing to support with their money. These barriers can make content appear more legitimate, and create the fear of missing out for visitors who are considering accessing it.

The downsides are that paywalls can prevent content from having mass appeal and make it less likely to be shared on social media and linked to by other publishers. The audiences that actually read the content will also be smaller, and sustaining revenue month-by-month can be difficult.

While you may think paywalls lead to content being omitted from search engine results, this is not actually the case. Many paywalled websites are still able to rank for target keywords and feature on the first page of Google. Why is this?

Flexible sampling

Google introduced a system called ‘Flexible Sampling’ in response to the rise in subscription models and paywalled content. This model allows publishers to decide how much content on their site is free and how to present it.

Google notes that in its own experiments with publishing partners, changing the sampling level can harm the user experience and the ranking position of an article in Google. With the user experience now taking on greater precedence in the search algorithm, this is something you should consider carefully when using paywalls.

Google recommends using a ‘metering’ approach, where visitors can access a limited number of sample articles a month before they are blocked from content. Using this method, you can provide some free content to visitors who can see the value of it before paying, and thus encourage your most engaged users to subscribe.

A starting point of 10 articles per month is best, according to Google. From here you can iterate based on the percentage of people who click from search and land on a paywall. If you have confidence in your paywall setup, you could then lower the sample value if you believe it won’t impact SEO.

The second recommended method is called ‘lead-in’. This is where publishers show just the first paragraph or several sentences from an article. Google says lead-in can be valuable, as it triggers curiosity and then potential conversions, which is something a completely blocked page cannot do. This method is best deployed when metering runs out.

Balancing act

Using paywalls is always a delicate balance, as Google believes visitors can become alienated when they are regularly presented with them. This can then lead to a decline in interest and clicks. To keep SEO on track, it is better to target engaged users who consistently read more than 10 articles a month and perhaps lower the sampling level for that audience, rather than clamping down on free consumption for others.

Perhaps more importantly, this soft approach enables your pages to be regularly indexed and crawled by Google’s bots, as they are not tracked in the same way as users. If you are considering a hard paywall, a major downside is that content will not appear organically in search. For this reason, make sure to run through Google’s Structured and Technical Guidelines if you want to be eligible.

Conducting a website audit at this point is recommended as you will be able to see clearly how your site is performing in search. This audit will also identify the best way to improve your rankings, and provide you with information that can inform your decision about whether to use a paywall in the future.

Should your content be paywalled?

There are benefits to paywalls but free content will always have the edge for organic SEO, as it is best at generating greater volumes of clicks and traffic. However, it does not have to be an either/or situation. You can have a mix of free and premium content, depending on your objectives.

The first question you need to ask is whether a paywall will add any sort of value for the visitor. Basic articles and blogs that are readily available in similar forms from other publishers probably shouldn’t be gated. If the main purpose is to rank above competitors, drive more visitors to your pages and build links, then paywalls make little sense.

However, if you are set on increasing subscribers and generating new leads, paywalls could be the answer. There is also an argument that publishers with paywalls need to invest more in SEO, as there are more hurdles preventing the average user from accessing content.

Another consideration is data collection. Paywalls allow you to collect more information about users, as they will need to fill in forms and provide email addresses to sign up and access content. This can be useful but should be weighed against how it may detract from the user experience in terms of pop-ups and overlays.

You may also find that users willing to pay for content are more likely to become long-term customers or clients and that people who go through the effort of getting past paywalls then find the content more useful.

Paywalls are not a death knell for SEO campaigns but you need to recognise how different types of paywalls can affect your performance in search. All of the pros and cons should be considered and a course of action decided on that will be best for your business.

Whatever your decision, one theme that is true for all content – gated or not – is the need for it to be relevant, engaging and valuable to the reader. By working with a leading SEO company, you can regularly publish content that drives the metrics that matter to your business and helps you deliver sustainable, long-term success.

Contact us today to find out more about our SEO services. We offer search-driven content creation, outreach services and blog management that could transform your content marketing strategy.


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