Paywalls are one possible model from monetizing a website’s content. They are especially popular with quality news sites and websites that offer highly valuable content that takes a lot of resources to produce.

While it’s a great model for monetization, it’s always been tricky for SEO: if Google doesn’t see your content, how are they going to rank it?

What are Google’s SEO recommendations for paywalled content?

Up until 2017, Google had the so-called “first click free” rule, where publishers were expected to give away their premium content for free. At least one time, to users that come from Google. Not only did this lead to some misuse by users, but also to frustration for publishers. Google was essentially telling them: “Either you give your content for free to users coming via Google (on the first click), or we don’t rank you anymore.”

This model was discontinued last year (https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2017/10/enabling-more-high-quality-content.html). Since then publishers are free to decide themselves on how much content they provide for free. The new method is called “Flexible Sampling”.

There are 2 options:

  • Metering: provides users with a quota of free articles to consume, before they have to pay for more. This could be 5 per day or 3 per month – the amount is up to each publisher.
  • Lead-in: offers a portion of the article’s content, while not showing the entire article. To read the full article, the user has to pay.

Google says that “a lead-in clearly provides more utility and added value to users” because it “allows users a taste of how valuable the content may be.”

Metering can be the better option for news platforms so people can get an idea of the journalistic quality of their content. I’ll be better equipped to decide whether I want to subscribe to a news site, if I get to read 3 full articles rather than the first 3 paragraphs of an unlimited number of articles. Many factors come into play when deciding the right model for news sites, and SEO is just one of them.

For other platforms offering premium content – studies, charts, statistics, knowledge or tutorials – lead-ins are usually the better option. For them SEO often plays a more important role. Therefore, I’ll focus on the lead-in option in more detail here.

 

What are the technical SEO considerations for paywalls?

In order to take part in the expanded scheme of flexible sampling, publishers must mark-up content that will be hidden from non-subscribers using the machine-readable structured markup JSON-LD. This enables Google to know exactly which bits of content Googlebot is getting to see only because it’s Googlebot (and the publisher is engaging in Flexible Sampling) and what will actually be visible to users when they click through. This will prevent Google from seeing it as cloaking, which is a spam technique.

It’s possible to prevent Google from showing the cached link to the report, so people can’t just go into Google cache and read your content there.

Guidelines on how to do it: https://developers.google.com/search/docs/data-types/paywalled-content
Verify Googlebot to give them access: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/80553

 

How to balance free and paid content?

Google has no interest in sending users to a website where the content is behind a pay gateway. It’s a poor user experience. Google likes content that satisfies the search query and provides value. This value is what Google wants to see, and ultimately what it ranks within its search results.

Showing the entire content to Google as described above will help, but we still have to think about the user experience. More important than the technical setup will be the work on the visible portion of the content – the lead-in.

Ideally, the lead-in will provide answers to the most common questions regarding a particular subject. This in itself will make it valuable to many users. It should also have an index and provide meta information on the content that’s behind the paywall. This will not only add content to the lead-in page, but also provide users with valuable information on why they should pay for the full article.

 

Keywords considerations when creating lead-in content:

The searchers’ intent heavily depends on the topic. A search for “global ad budget 2017” clearly shows an interest in actual data and indicates a possible willingness to pay for the statistics. Three of the four first results on Google show premium content, each one with a lead-in.

A search for phrases like “ads on Facebook” on the other hand shows a completely different intent and Google doesn’t list any premium content in the SERPs. What they do show are a number of featured snippets.

Google is more likely to show paywall content for the first category of searches, indicating an in-depth research, than for purely informational search queries. This is something to keep in mind and consider for the keyword strategy. It will be much easier to compete in the first category and get your content ranked.

The second category also provides an opportunity: if you get your – very well written – lead-ins ranked within the top 10 results, even at the bottom, you can aim at attaining a featured snipped by giving the best answer to the question asked.

 

The ideal lead-in content:

The ideal lead-in content for SEO is rarely the first few paragraphs of an article or report. In most cases we prefer an executive summary that covers the following points:

  • A headline (h1) describing the topic and containing the main keywords
  • A short summary
  • Two or three most common questions around the topic, formatted as h2 or h3 heading
  • Concise answers to each of these questions. These answers serve two purposes: they give the most important information to make users happy, and they are potential candidates for achieving featured snippets in the SERPs.
  • An index and meta information on what’s behind the paywall (length, charts, in-depth analysis, interviews, downloadable PDFs, etc.)
  • As much schema.org markup as relevant and possible

 

So, who has the better chances?

If your content is ordinary and there are many other sites that offer the same or similar information for free, it’s going to be very difficult to achieve good rankings with premium content. But if your lead-ins satisfy 90% of all visitors looking for a quick answer, and provide killer-content behind the paywall that justifies it’s price, you may actually be in a stronger position than your competitors, who offer lukewarm content for free.

Good content, a well thought out keyword strategy and a solid technical setup can go a long way in positioning your premium content at the top of the search results and thus drive valuable traffic to your site.

Paywalls and SEO – how to get your gated content ranked by Google
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