As the publishing industry comes to terms with the challenges presented by the digital age, paywalls have become an increasingly common feature of our online lives.
For many, paywalls are a source of constant frustration as they navigate the online space and consumer news or other forms of media. In many respects, this frustration is entirely understandable. If you have spent any amount of time online in recent years, you will no doubt have experienced this sense of frustration first-hand.
On the other hand, paywalls are viewed as increasingly necessary as publishers try to find ways of generating revenue in a world rapidly shifting away from print media. With online advertising often bringing in only modest returns for certain kinds of content, putting your work behind a paywall represents a much-needed way to generate revenue.
Between these two is the conundrum at the heart of paywalls. On the one hand, they are a much-needed way for publishers, writers and media businesses to protect their content and to generate an income from it. On the other hand, they also ensure that only those who are willing to pay can access it, which will inevitably limit your potential audience.
Despite this, some of the biggest publishers in the industry have switched to a paywall-based revenue model. You would be hard-pressed to find a large-scale newspaper publisher that doesn’t lock up its content behind a paywall.
Although the jury is still out on how commercially beneficial paywalls are – with recent data from Ipsos Iris, the media industry’s official data provider, suggesting that non-paywalled publications enjoy a much larger readership – it seems to be the case that they will be a feature of the industry for some time to come.
While paywalls will obviously have implications for publishing houses in terms of the revenue they generate and the audiences they can reach, it is less clear what impact they will have on websites utilising SEO to boost their presence online.
What is a ‘paywall’?
At its most simple, a paywall is a method of restricting access to online content using a pay-to-view or subscription model.
In the context of online newspapers, it is a way of replicating the payment model from physical newspapers – where you would buy a newspaper for a flat fee – for the digital space. Instead of buying a single edition of a newspaper, however, most newspapers that utilise a paywall these days do so via a subscription model. This gives you unrestricted, or in some cases restricted, access to everything published by that publication in exchange for a monthly or yearly fee.
Other paywall models have been attempted in recent years, including a pay-to-view model where you pay a small sum to access single articles. However, these payment models do not appear to have been nearly as successful as the subscription model.
How do paywalls work?
Often, websites will allow users to access a certain number of free articles each month before the paywall comes into effect. This will typically be between three and five articles. Once a user has reached this threshold, a small popup box will be displayed onscreen, which will both block the user from viewing the rest of the article and provide a link to subscribe and gain access.
Although in the early days, users could quite easily get around paywall restrictions – most often by opening up the article in incognito mode – this is no longer the case. Paywall technology is extremely advanced these days and can often be incredibly tricky to get around. Generally speaking, paywalls work by detecting your unique IP address and tracking whether or not you have reached your paywall threshold.
What types of paywall are there?
There are several different types of paywall, including:
- Hard paywalls: This type of paywall simply blocks access to content posted on the website. It will erect a digital barrier that can only be taken down once a subscription fee has been paid. These can often be frustrating for users, however, and might discourage subscriptions if the user can’t access content to see if it is worth subscribing to.
- Soft paywalls: Soft paywalls often provide access to both free and premium content. Also known as a ‘freemium’ model, a soft paywall will provide access to certain kinds of content for free, with selected content closed off using a paywall.
- Metered paywalls: A metered paywall will operate with a cap on the amount of articles a user can access. Using cookies, it will detect how many articles a user has accessed, and once a specific threshold has been reached, it will provide subscription options for continued access. The threshold might reset after a certain amount of time, often on a monthly basis.
- Dynamic paywalls: A dynamic paywall will track user behaviour and adapt depending on how they use the website. For example, if it detects that you are a frequent user of the website, it will display payment options to continue accessing content. On the other hand, if you rarely visit a website, it may continue to provide free access. This is the model used most prominently by New York Magazine.
- Voluntary donations: This type of paywall is used most prominently by the Guardian. Once you have reached a certain number of articles, it asks you to consider donating to the newspaper or subscribing to keep the website running. Access is not restricted if you choose not to donate.
Searching for paywalled articles – restricted access?
Although they are certainly an important way for businesses to both generate revenue and protect their content, paywalls nevertheless have a number of potential implications for SEO.
A paywall could have obvious implications for the functioning of SEO given that it is a way of restricting access to content. This obviously stands in tension with the function of search engines, which is to trawl through content published online using specified search terms. By restricting access to certain content, this could have a knock-on effect on how easily the search engines can access that content.
Paywalled content is similarly in tension with how SEO functions, particularly where you embed links to content within a blog posted on a website. Link building is an important element of good SEO practice. If users reading a blog follow these links and are met with paywalled content, it might disrupt the user experience or put them off reading the rest of the blog.
Google was keenly aware of these potential implications, and when the paywall started to take off in the publishing industry, it adopted a number of strategies to protect its business model.
One way of dealing with this was by putting in place technical requirements that websites would have to follow in order for paywalled content to appear in Google search results – these guidelines produced by Google are called the ‘Structured and Technical Guidelines’.
What paywall type is best for SEO?
When it comes to the visibility of your content for SEO purposes, not all paywall types are created equal.
A soft paywall, for example, tends to be the preferred option for those optimising for SEO purposes. This provides users with easy access to content with fairly minimal restrictions. For this reason, it tends to perform better in user experience tests. The ‘freemium’ option performs similarly well as it provides relatively easy access to users, with only certain content placed behind a paywall.
In contrast, hard paywalls might disrupt the user reading experience as they are the most restrictive. It should be noted, however, that content behind a hard paywall will perform as well in SEO tests, as the search engine itself can still trawl the content contained in the article in question.
Although hard paywalled content might perform okay in SEO tests, you also need to keep in mind that Google does recommend keeping content relatively open in terms of access. In fact, websites that prioritise user experience and access are ranked better by Google.
For this reason, Google recommends a ‘metering’ approach where users are given a certain number of articles they can access each month before being blocked by a paywall.
Paywalls and SEO: moving forward
If all of this talk about paywalls has pushed you to rethink your own SEO strategy, feel free to reach out to the Purecontent team today. As you can see, balancing the need to protect your content behind a paywall and the demands of SEO can often be in tension. With some expert guidance from a member of our team, we will help you to create a content publishing strategy that balances both of these needs.