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All about paywalls
In this week's newsletter, the first instalment of our look at how paywalls interact with search. Shelby outlines what types of paywalls exist and how they affect news SEO
Hello, friends! Welcome back to another issue. It’s Shelby behind the keyboard hot off buying eight new houseplants over the weekend. You can find me in my newly-created apartment jungle.
I also got to enjoy a delicious berries and lemon cake courtesy of Jessie in celebration for us hitting 2,000 subscribers. It was delicious, moist, and I didn't at all have a sugar coma for 12 hours after.
This week, we’ll go through paywalls, paywalled content and how that affects SEO, and next week, we will dive into strategy. If you have questions about how paywalls intersect with SEO and search, be sure to send them to us!
Join our Slack community to talk about news SEO any time with over 350 audience editors in 21 time zones across the world.
Let’s get into it.
In this issue:
What is a paywall?
How do SEO and paywalls work?
SEO considerations with a paywall
What is a paywall?
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 the news space around 2010 as a response to the gradual decline in print advertising and readership (over here at WTF is SEO?, even though we’re big fans of the internet and saving trees, we still love our print product. Pick one up when you can).
Paywalls exist for a variety of reasons, but the main motivation is the business need: revenue. News organizations need money to produce their stories and pay their writers and editors. As the way we consume information changes, so do our methods to pay.
Types of paywalls
There are a few different types of paywalls news organizations can choose between, and each type allows a different level of access.
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.
Soft paywalls give you partial access to a piece or a group of content before restricting the access. One version is metered paywall, which gives access to a specific number of articles before hitting a threshold that triggers the need for a paid subscription (that threshold is chosen by the publisher – some will use 20, some 10, some only one or two). The Globe and Mail and The New York Times both use metered paywalls. 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. The choice as to which content goes behind the paywall is entirely up to the publisher, but is usually decided based on niche, authority, expertise or value to the reader.
Nota bene: In 2008, Google implemented “first click free,” where publishers that had paywalls were required to give access to at least three articles per day that could be accessed by Google News and search. If publishers chose not to let any articles accessible to Google’s web crawlers, they were penalized by being dropped in rankings. This practice was discontinued later in 2017 when Google said they would provide additional tools and resources to publishers around using subscriptions with news content. Google has since said they care more about providing the best information than whether that information is behind a paywall (but this remains a contentious issue).
Which type of paywall is the best? Like everything in SEO, the answer to this question is, “it depends.” Your business goals will largely decide which paywall works for your site. The New York Times has had overwhelming success with their combination paywall, hitting over 8 million total subscribers with a goal of reaching 10 million by 2025 (The Times also just bought The Athletic, so we’ll see how that affects their paywall decisions).
A hard paywall across your entire site will not be good for SEO, as you are restricting almost all access to the free audience. Sure, the content can still be indexed, but we run into issues, and you’ll have to adjust your strategy accordingly.
The divide on paywalls
I wanted to touch quickly on the divide that exists in news regarding the paywall. Journalists are aware of the monetary strain on the industry and therefore the need to adopt new methods to gain subscribers and increase the bottom line.
However, paywalls are often denounced because they are inaccessible to individuals that cannot afford to pay for news and extends into the argument of freedom to information.
As SEOs, we are also worried about the user experience and “pogo sticking,” a term that means to click on a link, realize it does not serve you, leaving and clicking on an alternative link. If a paywall is in place, it is very likely the reader will encounter the wall and leave.
How does a paywall affect news SEO?
In the context of search, SEOs often grumble when they realize content is behind a paywall.
The reason? It makes our jobs a little more difficult. The focus becomes more and more 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?).
Grumble not! Paywalls are becoming more and more acceptable in the realm of search and you can ensure your site is optimized for your audience regardless of the type of content.
A paywall and good SEO can work together as part of an effective overall strategy (we will go into how to create a strategy around a paywall next week). Afterall, we’re always thinking about the bottom line (money!).
You will also want to follow a lot of the basic elements of SEO and really focus on your headline and URL structure. Since the reader cannot literally read your story, you need to make sure your headline is the best it can be – enticing enough to click, but tempting enough to convert.
Pro tip: Paywalled content is already exclusive, so look into optimizing your paywalled pieces for long-tail keywords. These are more niche and have lower historical search volume, but tend to convert at a higher level than short-tail keywords.
The bottom line: Paywalls are here to stay in journalism, so audience editors need to learn to adapt to optimizing with it. Next week, we’ll go deeper into how to create an effective SEO strategy around a paywall.
While you wait for next week, read this great Twitter thread on paywalled content and SEO (technical focused).
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 Globe and Mail is hiring an Audience Growth Editor for a one-year contract.
The New York Times is hiring a Technical SEO Manager.
Gannett/USA TODAY Network is hiring an Audience Development Strategist.
Google explains how it deduplicates Top Stories from main search results
🧵 Twitter thread from Barry Adams: Is Google filtering Top Stories from regular SERPs?
Google added desktop to their page experience ranking.
Common questions asked when your page doesn’t rank answered.
🧵 Twitter thread from Debbie Chew: Link building tactics that aren’t “dead”
Video from Google: Do URL structure changes affect SEO?
Google created a new robots tag for embedding iframe videos.
Axios launches a premium subscription product aimed at “dealmakers”