Premium content and paywalls, how to best manage them for SEO
- What is meant by premium content
- The SEO criticalities of premium content
- In the past, First Click Free was used
- Google SEO guidelines for paid content
- Flexible sampling and the different types of Paywall
- Paywall and structured data
- What do paywall users think?
- How to balance free and premium content
- The search intent behind each paywall content
- Content recommendations
What is meant by premium content
A premium content is a page or a type of page with which a publisher wants to monetize by making the user pay a subscription or a fee to be able to use this information.
Audience monetization is a strategic issue for any online publisher. Advertising may still be the main revenue stream for many publications, but today we are in a context where:
- Ad blocking features are integrated into major browsers. According to eMarketer, 25% of internet users in the United States use ad blocking tools. That number reaches 32% in Germany.
- Ad revenue is falling due to competition from giants like Google or Facebook, which control 38% and 22% of the online advertising market.
- The effectiveness of the ad is reduced by the saturation of the online ads.
This situation is fueling the trend for publishers to implement the so-called paywall , which is a system that requires users to sign up to access the content. The idea is to offset the loss of print and digital advertising revenue with subscriber revenue. This strategy is often characterized as being more sustainable in the long term.
Publishers around the world are therefore increasingly adopting the paywall content approach as a monetization strategy. Paid content has helped publishers generate more revenue online and that’s a fact. However, the user experience in some cases is negative and if not managed correctly an incorrect abuse of the paywall could affect the organic visibility of the website and penalize the SEO, later in the article you will understand what I mean.
Paying for content may seem like an arcane method on the Internet, but that’s hardly new. Newspapers thrived on subscription plans. And high subscription numbers were and are the KPI by which publishers justify their ad rates.
The Internet has democratized access to knowledge, and one would think that today hardly anyone would pay for the content. This is changing, at least for publishers who offer unique, high-quality content. The adoption of the content subscription strategy is steadily increasing. And it’s endorsed by decision makers in major media. However, from both an SEO and a user experience perspective, paywalls can create potential problems.
The SEO criticalities of premium content
When a publisher chooses to switch to the paywall model he must consider different aspects and different implementation methods that we will see in a few paragraphs. The most critical aspect is to try to reduce high bounce rates to prevent Google from downgrading the site due to bad usability signals provided by user navigation.
In other words, if all the contents of the portal are premium and it is not possible for the user to read anything except by subscribing, many users will turn around (visit bounce, with bounce) showing Google clear signs of lack of appreciation of the website. In the long run, these signals negatively affect SEO, and I had already talked about these aspects in this guide on implicit ranking signals .
It is therefore important, for all publishers who want to monetize with their content, to understand which paywall methodology to use and which technical aspects should not be neglected from an SEO point of view.
In the past, First Click Free was used
The biggest problem for premium content owners is how to be visible in search if their content isn’t freely available to all users.
To mitigate this, Google introduced a guideline called First Click Free (FCF) in 2008 . This meant that in addition to their premium content, publishers had to provide some free content that users could access via Google search.
First Click Free was a methodology suggested by Google that allowed Google bots to crawl and index premium content on subscription or signup-only sites. The FCF method then allowed Google to gain access to content behind registration forms so that these pages could be shown in the SERP for relevant searches.
Search engine crawlers , which routinely pass websites to index (or update) their content, do not automatically attempt to fill out forms and forms to access premium content. Since a premium page is not actually readable by bots, First Click Free was a method of allowing premium content to be searched, indexed, and displayed in search results.
Publishers weren’t the biggest fans of this model and it was in fact discontinued in 2017 in favor of a new one, called Flexible Sampling for paywall content.
Basically, the new model gives publishers more leeway in deciding how much of their content they want to deliver to users for free and how they want to deliver it.
Google SEO guidelines for paid content
For a publisher, having some or most of the content behind a paywall can negatively impact presence in organic search if it’s not implemented properly. A paywall implementation that doesn’t take SEO into account may mean that Google and other bots are unable to access, crawl and index your content, making it invisible to search engines.
Google offers some guidelines for publishers who want to implement the paywal method to monetize their content. In particular, Google requires to offer users a kind of free sampling (Flexible sampling, mentioned above) of the content and to allow full access to the content to Googlebot. This benefits Google, as it will be able to offer quality content to search engine users. But this system is also beneficial to publishers as sampling makes a reader more likely to sign up if they are able to learn the value of the content they will get from the subscription.
Flexible sampling and the different types of Paywall
There are three main types of flexible sampling for paywalls content:
- Hard Paywall (lead in):The reader is only able to see the title and a paragraph or two of the content. The rest of the page is blocked and the reader is prompted to subscribe. This is the approach adopted today, for example, by the Financial Times and it is a compromise that allows the user to evaluate the quality of the content without distributing it entirely. While this option complies with Google’s guidelines, it can be a frustrating user experience for news sites, resulting in a higher bounce rate. This user behavior can adversely affect the search ranking for the publisher and as a result Google may choose to present the user in the SERP with other websites that may be more useful to the end user.
- Metered Paywall (with counter):the reader can access a limited number of articles for free before being invited to subscribe. The publisher must determine how many articles a user can read before having to subscribe. This type of paywall offers the advantage of focusing conversion opportunities on the most engaged users, those who access the publisher’s site frequently. The New York Times, for example, now has a dynamic paywall that regulates the number of free reader articles per reader. This flexible pricing strategy has helped them substantially increase their conversion rates. Users can then be shown numerous articles for free each month before they are required to subscribe. Google recommends 10 articles per user per month, but publishers need to experiment,
- Freemium content model or reverse paywall:In this case, there is a strong separation between free content and subscription content. This model is mostly used by smaller or niche publishers who balance free content for visibility with a subscription for very in-depth or exclusive content to generate monetary revenue. Access to premium content can be managed through a hard paywall or metered paywall.
Deciding which approach to take depends on each publisher’s publishing strategy and the type of content they want to protect behind a paywall. The metered paywall works best for news publications. Casual users will be able to access content and be exposed to ads and other monetization options, such as ads for example. Frequent readers will be able to get a good idea of the quality of the content before being invited to subscribe. The hard paywall is most often used by sites with premium and evergreen content as portals dedicated to specialized research, videos or statistics.
According to a 2019 research from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism , most of the publications analyzed used a metered paywall or freemium content model, finding that hard paywalls were “extremely rare.” The Reuters Institute study analyzed 212 online news publishers in the United States and the European Union and found that only 27% of the largest regional publishers in the United States and Europe offered their content for free, compared with 36% in the 2017.
Overall, 48% of 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 you look specifically at newspapers, the numbers are even higher. In 2016, 78% of US newspapers with print runs of more than 50,000 had a paywall in place. 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 comes from digital sources.
How are you doing in Italy? As usual here we are on the high seas, most of the best known publishers do not use any form of paywall (and GaC I would say, as long as they are maintained by the state subsidies that pay the citizens…).
A few years ago, when Repubblica, Corriere and Il Sole 24 Ore timidly launched their paywalls Stefano Quintarelli, president of the Steering Committee of the Agency for digital Italy, drew a pessimistic picture: “With us often the game may not be worth the candle “ , he explained to Lettera 43. ” By switching to systems such as the paywall you risk limiting the users who follow you today because they can do it for free elsewhere, and because they are not very sensitive to the difference between quality and popular journalism “ . Probably, I say, because the user does not recognize this great quality in a large part of Italian journalism … Two years later, a report published by Pay For News, produced by the Associated Press and the American Press Institute, revealed that if54 percent of Americans had an online subscription to a newspaper ; in Italy, the percentage dropped to 4 per cent, the last of the major European countries. O’RLY?
Paywall and structured data
The HTML code on the publisher site must identify content 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 robots and users. If Googlebot is able to crawl and index the article, but the user finds the paywall and a subscription request is presented instead, it could be interpreted by Google as a cloaking technique. Using structured data to identify subscription content avoids this risk.
To use structured data, Google recommends using the NewsArticle schema . The publisher must mark each section of the page protected by a paywall by adding a CSS class of their choice to each HTML element they want to protect. Additional code is required to tell Google that content within that CSS class is only accessible with a subscription. The CSS selector used to define the premium content must be expressed in the structured data in the cssSelector entry found in the example below. It is important to note that content sections cannot be nested.
It is also recommended that you use the noarchive meta tag . This would prevent users from accessing the full version of the article via Google’s cache. Never underestimate the smart ones;)
Let’s see an example of structured data for paywall content:
What do paywall users think?
A 2015 online survey by Statista.com found that 75% of respondents found it frustrating to find a paywall when accessing an online news article. This statistic is hardly surprising. The user’s expectation is to be able to access the information free of charge. Finding content that can answer their question or information needs behind a paywall is understandably frustrating. At least that was the idea in 2015.
More recently another survey by Meclabs found that 41% of US readers are willing to purchase a digital subscription if they were able to access exclusive content, such as local news, that is not found elsewhere.
How to balance free and premium content
When a publisher makes the strategic decision to implement a digital subscription model, steps need to be taken to balance several elements that come into play:
- Content detection:Users need to be able to access parts of the content or a limited number of articles in order to assess the quality of the content before being asked to make a purchase decision. Search engines play an important role in content discovery and it would be smart to come up with a specific strategy to address this visitor segment.
- User Experience:Encountering a paywall is always a frustrating experience for the user. 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 already visited, and what actions they can take to access more content. Depending on the business model, measurement limits can be increased if the user is logged in rather than anonymous. The user experience is always worse for sites that use a hard paywall where content is blocked in whole or in part, as publishers have fewer options for handling user frustration.
- Conversion:Constant experimentation and testing is needed to find out what the right amount of content a publisher can offer for free. This is part of what is called conversion rate optimization – CRO optimization. For larger publishers with large audiences, this limit may be different for each audience segment.
The balance of these three elements is, in the end, a strategic decision that will be different for each publisher. For example, a website may want to increase its global audience and move away from the paywall entirely outside of its country or region.
The search intent behind each paywall content
When Google presents the user with a search results page, it takes into account the search intent behind the keywords used in the search. The highest ranking for a specific search depends not much on having those keywords in your content as it does on fulfilling the intent of the searcher when using those keywords.
Content protected by a paywall tends to satisfy an informational intent. If a publisher uses premium content or a hard paywall approach, it is likely because they have very specific or exclusive content that would be hard to find elsewhere. In this case, the intent they respond to is probably more in-depth research than just information.
Take into account the search intent it is most likely to respond to when determining which keywords you are optimizing your content for. For example, the keyword “meteo Milano” returns a series of free pages and websites that fully respond to this intent. It would be very difficult to compete for that keyword with a protected article behind a paywall.
Publishers who implement the hard paywall option to show partial content to search engine visitors must pay particular attention to the content they show to the user. The goal is to manage the user’s disappointment in encountering a paywall and provide them with the information they need to assess whether the content meets their needs.
Instead of simply showing the user the first few paragraphs of the article, the best approach is to create a summary 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 he decides to subscribe. The publisher should explain the problem or need that their content solves in the full article. Implementing structured data in this executive summary can help this content appear in a rich snippet, increasing its visibility on the search results page.
For a content benefit, the recommendation is to include:
- A descriptive title that contains the main keyword covered in the article.
- A short paragraph summarizing the article content, providing an accurate description and main arguments of the article content.
- A short list of key facts, statistics, or questions that the article answered with a brief description.
- Information on what’s behind the paywall: a video, a pdf, an in-depth research.
This approach takes into account the needs of the user. Behavior resulting from a positive user experience will support other ranking signals.
The approach to a paywall from an SEO perspective has three main objectives:
First, make sure that the paywall’s technical implementation is aligned with search engine recommendations so that the content is fully visible to bots.
Second, to manage user expectations when it comes to content that may be protected by the paywall. Taking search intent into account and creating a good user experience will help signal to Google that the content is still useful and will help maintain good rankings. This is especially important when implementing the hard paywall.
Third, balance these requirements with the need to optimize the conversion rate to maintain sustainable growth in the digital subscription revenue stream.