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Paywalls 2.0: How to strategize around gated news content
This week, it's part two of Shelby's look at how to build an SEO strategy for paywalls. (Also: Vote to pick a time for our next SEO for Journalism meetup!)
Hey hey. Welcome back. It’s Shelby once again (are you sick of me? Me too.) finishing what I started and will be discussing SEO strategy around paywalls.
Last week was also the one-year anniversary of Jessie and I beginning WTF is SEO?! It’s been an absolute thrill to walk through various SEO for news concepts for the past 52 weeks, and we can’t wait for what the future holds. (Jessie adds: The one-year anniversary of my greatest scam!! Getting Shelby to teach me news SEO!)
To celebrate one year of this wacky newsletter, we also hosted our first SEO for Journalism community call! A handful of subscribers got together on a random Thursday evening and chatted about everything from advocating for search in our respective newsrooms to our favourite keyword research tool. As you can see, much fun was had by all.
Let’s get into it.
In this issue:
Recap: What is a paywall?
How to strategize around a paywall
Quick recap: What is paywalled content?
A paywall is a method used to restrict access to content on a website with a purchase of a paid subscription.
Paywalls became prevalent in news around 2010 as a response to the gradual decline in print advertising and readership. They exist for a variety of reasons, but the main motivation is revenue.
Paywalls add an additional level of complexity to the job of SEO (because that’s what we need!), but can be easily adopted into a comprehensive strategy for a news publication.
THE HOW TO
Creating a strategy with a paywall
A paywall SEO strategy is just another addition to your overall game plan. Having a paywall puts more emphasis on user experience (i.e., how does the paywall impact the experience of a search reader finding, but not being able to read, your story?) and user journey (i.e., I am an avid reader of your site but I am not yet convinced to pay. What content can I read?).
Keeping that in mind, this is how to approach your SEO strategy if your site has a paywall.
1. Identify/choose your paywall (and tell Google)
Before you begin to form your strategy, you’ll need to understand the kind of paywall your site has. Two weeks ago, we went over the types of paywalls. A quick recap:
Hard paywalls require a paid subscription to access any content. The stories can only be accessed through purchase. This usually includes a registered account on the respective publisher’s site. Do not exclusively use a hard paywall if your goal is getting traffic from search.
Soft paywalls give you partial access to a piece or a group of content before restricting the access.
One version is a metered paywall, which gives access to a specific number of articles before hitting a threshold that triggers the need for a paid subscription.
Another option is the “lead-in,” where you get to read a snippet of an article before having to sign in to read the rest.
Combination paywalls are also known as freemium paywalls. It includes allowing free access to some content while keeping select stories behind the wall for exclusive access.
Paywall decisions are made based on business goals and needs. As audience and SEO editors, you may not get a say. However, it’s important to know the differences and how to optimize around each paywall type.
Next, you need to tell Google some of your content is not free.
Google has a comprehensive guideline for gated content, which include the regular structured data and technical guidelines for appearing in search results.
The following guidelines apply for paywalled content (according to Google):
JSON-LD and microdata are both accepted for specifying structured data;
Don’t nest content sections (in your code);
Only use .class selectors for the cssSelector property.
For paywalled stories, the
“isAccessibleForFree” value will be
“false.” This will signal to Google that part of the story is gated.
If you use a soft paywall, you can then identify which part of the article is behind the paywall using the class selectors (the below example uses
.meteredContent to signal where the text behind the paywall begins).
2. Structure your content based on your paywall
Because not every story is easily accessible, you’ll want to think about your content in the context of the audience funnel.
The audience funnel is the journey we expect our readers to take from awareness of your brand, to engagement, to finally conversion of your product (in this case, getting a subscription).
If your site is a soft paywall, what is visible before the subscription pop-up is most important. Think of it as its own top-of-the-funnel area. You’ll want to structure your articles to be detailed enough to provide context (and links to read other stories), but enticing enough to provide a value to your reader that makes click subscribe.
With a metered paywall, your reader can hit the paywall at any time in any article. That means that every story must have a balance of fulfilling the search intent, but also providing enough value to become a paid reader.
Think about what advantages each article has and how you can make it stand out using structured data, links, content hubs or multimedia.
Pro tip: Google just recently introduced a new robots tag, `
indexifembedded`, that tells the robots to index content that is embedded through iframes or similar HTML tags (think: videos, which can be individually indexed even if the page is paywalled).
If you’re using a combination paywall, you’ll want to find a good balance between providing news, information and guidance to your readers while also finding ways to push them toward converting.
You wrote an investigation that deserves to be behind the wall. Can you provide a behind-the-scenes/FAQ that is not gated, but links to the main article? (The Globe’s Tom Cardoso wrote a first-person introduction for his 2021 paywalled investigation, for example.)
And remember: Paywalled stories can be a search play. Consider how you can extra optimize your articles to drive readers based on your site’s E.A.T signals.
3. Extra optimize your paywalled content
Google does not ignore E.A.T signals on paywalled content. The algorithm will still serve your story to the reader when it is relevant, even if it’s behind a paywall. Optimize your headline, deck, URL and linking structure.
Follow your on-page SEO checklist:
Keyword research. Is there a long-tail keyword that will convert better than a seed keyword for this story?
Headline. Keyword close to the front. Use numbers, dates, questions, place names.
Meta description (deck). Why is this story behind the paywall? Your deck can answer this.
Your deck should convey to readers why the story is worth paying for. If an investigation took 20 months of reporting and filing freedom of information; requests and digging through thousands of documents to find the truth, your readers should know;
The behind-the-scenes information could be the reason readers fork over their credit cards.
URL. Short, to the point. Use your keyword.
Images. Use your full arsenal – how can you provide the best experience for your readers?
Use good, strong imagery that is compelling but loads fast;
Optimize your images with proper file names (keyword-focused like
Write compelling cutlines and captions that also include primary and secondary keywords for the story.
Internal links. More on this next.
On paywalled content, images, decks and links become even more important. Take time to plan their execution.
4. Link your gated content to your free content. And vice versa.
This is a great way to provide different avenues for readers to not only get all of the information they need, but be compelled to pull out their credit cards because you’ve provided them a valuable service.
Linking gated content out to free content (especially high in the article) and vice versa forces Google to crawl the paywalled story and index it from multiple entry points. The more the paywalled story is linked to, the more Google will identify the story as an important piece of content that needs to be ranked appropriately.
A good linking structure will also help readers understand the importance of the piece. When you put something behind the paywall, your audience may not understand why at first. But if you can provide an explanatory experience, they are more likely to convert.
Link to everything in a way that makes sense. Create content hubs on subjects where you have a mixture of paywalled and non-paywalled stories, as well as avenues to explore more content (a gallery, newsletter, or social promotion like a Twitter Spaces or Facebook Live, perhaps?).
The time of publishing is important here. Paywalled content can be included in Top Stories, so you want to publish your piece at a time where you feel traffic will be the highest on this topic.
Search interest can be determined using Google Trends or Keywords Everywhere. Figure out what time during the day interest is the highest for the keyword you’re targeting – that’s your ideal time to publish.
If the article is behind the paywall because it has exclusivity, a scoop or will be an advantage against your competitors, consider monitoring backlinks after publishing, too. Use Ahrefs or SEMRush to keep track of all the mentions of the topic generated by your article.
If a competitor or other news organization publishes a story on the same subject, ask for a link back to the original story (if they’re already mentioning you, there’s no harm in asking for a link).
The bottom line: Paywalls are here to stay, but good SEO practices don’t change whether your content is in front of or behind the wall. Focus your strategy on good, quality content and you’ll see results.
THE JOBS LIST
These are roles across the globe we see that are audience positions in journalism. Want to include a position for promotion? Email us.
The Washington Post is hiring two Operations and SEO Editors (Washington, D.C.).
New Scientist is hiring an Engagement Editor (Hybrid).
News Revenue Hub is hiring a Project Coordinator (Remote).
Google launched the new Search Console URL API.
SEO questions that can be answered using the URL API in Screaming Frog/Sitebulb.
Google’s broad core update and the difference between relevancy adjustments, intent shifts and overall site problems.
How to fix “crawled, not indexed” in Google Search Console.
Top SEO podcasts from Ahrefs.