If you’re a content publisher, from a national newspaper to a small local blogger, you’ve likely struggled with ways to monetize your online content (after all, it takes time and resources to create, and neither is free).
There are a number of options when it comes to monetization of online content, like affiliate links, native ads, sponsored content, e-commerce (merchandising), and more. One of the most popular, though, is the paywall.
There are numerous pros and cons to setting up a paywall: consistent revenue and greater profitability than ads on the one hand, and the possibility of reduced readership on the other.
But one factor that’s often overlooked in the discussion about paywalls is their effect on SEO. Is there an affect, and if so how significant is it? Let’s take a look.
How Search Engines Work
Before we look at how SEO might be affected on a site by the implementation of a paywall, let’s see a brief overview of how Google and other search engines’ bots crawl the web to index and rank content:
- Content is published on the web
- Crawlers find content either via hyperlink from another page or by direct submission to search engine
- Crawlers “read” and interpret the substance of content
- Content is added to search engine’s index, and given addition authority based on factors such as domain age, page speed, backlink popularity, and too many others to go into
- User makes a query into search engine, engine delivers content based on authority and relevance to query
In a nutshell!
How Gated Content Might Affect SEO
Let’s break this down point by point:
Content is published on the web & crawlers find content either via hyperlink from another page or by direct submission to search engine
So far so good!
Crawlers “read” and interpret the substance of content
Here’s where we might start running into problems. If a human user can’t access a webpage without subscribing, signing up, responding to a survey, or whatever form its gate takes, can a search engine crawler?
Probably not, and if so probably not without some penalty – engines are quite likely to rank easier to access content ahead of the stuff that’s behind lock and key.
Content is added to search engine’s index, and given addition authority based on factors such as domain age, page speed, backlink popularity, and more
The big issue here is backlink popularity. It should be fairly obvious that webmasters and other content creators will likely be less willing to link back to something behind a paywall than its next-closest free equivalent. It simply creates a better experience for their users.
That said, using a paywall doesn’t necessarily mean always using a paywall. Free content can always be created and used for link-building campaigns. Not to mention, any site with enough of a readership in place to make a paywall worthwhile likely already has decent authority already.
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First Click Free vs Subscription Designation
The problem of paywalls isn’t one that’s eluded Google. Google works with subscription-based sites to offer “first click free” service, meaning that the first page navigated to from a Google search engine can be viewed for free, while subsequent pages must be gotten to through the content gate.
If “first click free” isn’t opted for by the publisher, their results in Google SERPs will be flagged with a (subscription) designation in snippets, which could negatively affect click-through.
Read more here.
What about Google’s Interstitial Penalty?
As we’ve previously written, Google has announced that starting in early 2017 they will be penalizing the use of interstitials on webpages. While the official announcement claimed that “private content such as email or unindexable content that is behind a paywall” would not be affected, there’s no way to know how true this is until the penalty is implemented and things shake out – but it’s something worth keeping in mind.
How do paywalls affect SEO? In all likelihood, they’re not exactly a boon to your site’s rankings. They make indexing your content difficult or impossible, discourage other content creators from linking to your site, and may even incur the wrath of Google.
But search engines aren’t the only traffic source in the world, and like we said, if you’ve got enough of a readership to be considering a paywall you’re probably in a pretty good place to begin with. It may well be that the benefits of paywalls ($$$) outweigh these negative SEO impacts.
That said, paywall or no paywall, you really shouldn’t be neglecting your SEO completely. If you’re interested in learning more, get in touch with Keyword Performance, an ethical search engine optimization company, by filling out the form below.