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SEO For Membership Sites: Getting Around The Paywall

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SEO For Membership Sites: Getting Around The Paywall


Anyone who has done SEO for a period of time has heard the myth of Google’s 200+ ranking factors.

To be fair, the 200 number may have been somewhat accurate, when first mentioned by former Googler Matt Cutts, over a decade ago.

A lot has changed since then, and it’s unlikely that anyone knows the real number of ranking factors baked into the Google algorithm today.

That said, not all ranking factors are created equally.

If you simply focus on the top eight factors with the biggest influence, you will be successful. Those factors include:

  1. High-quality content.
  2. Mobile-first.
  3. Page experience.
  4. Page speed.
  5. On-page optimization.
  6. Internal links.
  7. External links.
  8. Local.

Here’s the rub: That only works IF your content is visible to Google and available to readers.

What if you put a paywall in front of your content, creating an extra step? Let’s take a look at how to do SEO for membership sites in 2022.

Why Put Your Content Behind A Paywall?

The obvious question is – why put your content behind a paywall if it will affect SEO in the first place?

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The drawbacks are quite clear:

  1. Fewer people will see your content if it’s not visible to search engines.
  2. You need to make it worthwhile for them to pass through that gate.
  3. Some people may give you false information just to see your gated content.

That said, there are some benefits to it:

  1. You may get better-qualified leads as people who are willing to give you their personal information are more likely to have a high level of interest.
  2. It can help you segment and target your audience better.
  3. The audience will often perceive your content as more valuable, useful, and trustworthy (but you must deliver on it).

What Does Google Have To Say About Paywalled Content?

Regardless of whether your content is free or premium, you have to follow Google’s guidelines.

The biggest problem for premium content owners is how to be visible in search if their content is not freely available to all users.

To mitigate this, Google initially introduced a First Click Free (FCF) policy.

What that meant was that, in addition to their premium content, publishers had to provide some free content that users could access through Google search.

Suffice it to say that publishers weren’t the biggest fans of this model and it was discontinued in 2017, and replaced with “Flexible Sampling.”

Basically, the newer model gives publishers more maneuvering space in deciding how much of their content they want to provide free to users and how they want to provide it.

There are three options that publishers can choose from in Flexible Sampling.

Freemium

With the freemium model, some articles o

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n the site can be accessed without a paywall, while some will have one.

In other words, this is a combination of gated and ungated content.

There’s no specific rule as to which content will be free and which premium, but usually, publishers use popular free content to leverage premium content and entice people to subscribe if they want to read, perhaps a more in-depth article.

Metered

With metered paywalls, the visitor can read a limited number of articles per month before he is being asked to subscribe. Usually, this is three articles, but it can be five or just one for example.

This method is used by several prominent websites, including Medium, The New York Times, and others.

Once you reach the limit, you’ll see a prompt like the one below to subscribe:

Screenshot by author, February 2022

Hard Paywalls

The previous two methods are known as “soft” paywalls as they allow the visitor to see at least a few articles or even just a part of the content.

With “hard” paywalls, all content is gated off.

This means that content can’t be crawled or indexed by Google or other search engines. Obviously, this makes it much harder to get new signups, but if the content is of high value, the conversion rate can be much higher.

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Although perhaps the least liked of all paywall methods, hard paywalls are still used by some top-tier websites in finance and other industries such as the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and others.

An example of hard paywall.Screenshot by author, February 2022

So Which Of The Three Is The Best Option?

This largely depends on the purpose of your content.

News platforms, such as the New York Times, have had good success with metered content. This model allows visitors to get a good idea of the quality of their content, by providing full samples as “teasers” to entice users to subscribe.

The NY Times, for example, introduced metered subscriptions back in 2011, and today, a decade or so later, 7.6 million out of 8.4 million total subscribers are digital subscribers, while only around 795,000 are print subscribers.

Here’s a chart of how their digital-only subscriptions grew from 2011 to 2021:

The New York Times' paid digital-only subscription.Screenshot by author, February 2022

The Freemium method makes sense for a website that already has a large and loyal reader base, different kinds of content, and exclusive content.

Balancing Free & Premium Content

Free content has a clear advantage over premium content when it comes to organic search, due to its sheer volume. This doesn’t mean that premium content publishers will be devoid of organic search opportunities.

In fact, one could argue that engaging in SEO is MORE important for subscription sites, as they have an extra hurdle (paywall) to clear.

Premium content publishers actually have two good options:

  • They can seek to find a balance between free and premium content like the New York Times does.
  • Or they can create content that readers are searching for, but can’t get anywhere else. This content essentially needs to be exclusive.

In other words, one can’t put just any type of content behind a paywall.

Basic articles such as “How to Optimize Your Website for SEO” number in the thousands (millions?) on the web and can be found with a quick Google search for free. Users have no reason or motivation to pay for that kind of content.

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On the other hand, if a publisher puts considerable effort into discovering a need and then creating a solution in the form of a whitepaper, ebook, or in-depth article, they can justify putting their specialized content behind a paywall.

If the content is authored by a renowned expert, so much the better.

In deciding whether to gate content or not, it may be a good idea to consider the following three questions.

1. What Is The “End Game”?

Are you looking to increase subscribers or generate leads? If so, then content should probably be gated in some way.

However, if you are looking to generate more visitors and links, the gating approach will be counterproductive.

2. Is The Content Worth Paying For?

Put yourself in the user’s shoes and answer this question: “Is this content valuable enough for me to pay for it or fill out a form?”

Be careful when answering this question. As the creator or curator of content, pride in authorship can make it difficult to be truly unbiased.

3. Is The Data Collected Worthwhile?

Another consideration when it comes to content gating is how it impacts the user experience. The rise in the use of pop-ups and overlays is directly responsible for the increase in adblocking software.

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By forcing users to turn over personal information to access gated content, a (sometimes large) percentage of data collected consists of fake names and burner email accounts.

The “Fred” Update & The Difference Between Premium & Gated Content

In March 2017, Google introduced an algorithm update that was dubbed Fred.

The basic idea was to reward websites that provided a positive user experience and to demote websites light on quality content and heavy on ads.

Fred also had the unintended consequence of demoting some legitimate paywall websites.

Technical SEO Considerations For Paywalled Content

One initial problem with Fred was that it had difficulty in differentiating between paywalled and hidden (cloaked) content. Since then, Google has come up with a solution: structured data.

In order for paywalled content to be eligible to appear in Google search results, it needs to follow the Structured and Technical Guidelines.

Here is an example of how to indicate paywalled content to comply with Google’s guidelines:

an example of how to indicate paywalled content to comply with Google’s guidelines.Screenshot by author, February 2022

The question is, “how is Googlebot able to read the content behind the paywall?” For example, if you look at this article with “view source,” the following is visible via the browser:

Wall Street Journal snippet body.Screenshot by author, February 2022

While the rest is behind a paywall…

And the answer is…

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Via cloaking!

Namely, the site itself needs to use cloaking.

It sends the full content when Googlebot asks for the page, using the User-Agent HTTP header, for example:

User-Agent HTTP header example.Screenshot by author, February 2022

One final, yet important point: Clever searchers have learned that paywalls can be bypassed by going into the Google cache and reading content for free.

To prevent this, one needs to use the noarchive robots meta tag, which will stop Google from showing the cached link to that page.

Conclusion

Paywalls are becoming increasingly common across the web. They allow publishers generate revenue by charging readers for access to articles or other content.

While they can be useful for providing premium content, they also limit free access to information. And, they can limit search bots from accessing what they need to know to properly catalog your website.

We hope these tips help you decide on whether to use a paywall or how to best optimize your paywall for search and profitable success.

More Resources:

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Featured Image: Marija_Crow/Shutterstock





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SEO

Fact Checking: Get Your Facts Right

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Fact Checking: Get Your Facts Right

In the last decade or so, the concept of “fake news” has become a major thorn in the side of consumers and content writers alike.

Digital marketing experts who write SEO content at the enterprise level might not consider themselves journalists or news reporters – but there’s a greater overlap between the roles than many people realize.

Like journos, enterprise SEO content writers need to earn the trust of their audience by demonstrating authority, relevance, and experience.

And while you might think that, as a content marketing specialist, the only person you’re serving is your client or employer, the truth is that good SEO content provides just as much service to consumers.

You’re not just advertising to people; you’re helping them find answers, information, and solutions to their problems.

That’s why, for SEO content writers, getting the facts right is crucial.

“Fake news” has eroded a lot of people’s trust in media. Online content, in particular, is always fighting an uphill battle due to the oversaturation of the digital space – and the sheer amount of misinformation that finds its way into blogs and social media sites with little quality control.

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Today, fact-checking is arguably more important than ever before.

One little mistake is all it takes to lose a consumer’s trust forever.

But what does it mean to get your facts right? Is it just ensuring every name is spelled correctly, and every claim has an attributed source?

Both of these things are an important part of SEO fact-checking, but they’re only a small piece of a large puzzle.

Enterprise SEO Fact Checking Best Practices

Fun fact: Even when consumers don’t know you’re lying, Google does.

Web pages with deceptive, inaccurate, or poorly vetted content are penalized and less likely to appear in search results.

Want to avoid the wrath of the almighty algorithm? Here’s what you need to do:

Get The Basics Right

A few paragraphs back, I mentioned that fact-checking isn’t limited to correctly writing people’s names, ages, positions, and pronouns.

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Nevertheless, getting the basics right is still important. If you can’t do at least that much, then you won’t be prepared to do more in-depth fact-checking.

It’s especially important to get this information right when you’re quoting multiple people.

Not only do you need to attribute quotes and ideas to the proper sources, but you also have to make sure the information they shared with you is accurately reproduced.

Double Check Everything

If you get a quote from someone that says the sky is blue, go outside and look up, just to be sure.

Okay, that might be an exaggerated example – but you get the point.

Double and triple-check everything.

If you find a useful quote or statistic online, track down the original source. See if you can find other reliable web pages with the same information.

Don’t be afraid to do a little research yourself. Crunch the numbers and try to find corroborating evidence.

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Never take anything at face value.

Go To The Source

Speaking of tracking down the sources of stats and quotes: That’s a cornerstone of fact-checking so important, it merits expanding on now.

Have you ever had a teacher or professor tell you, in no uncertain terms, never to use Wikipedia as a source?

Well, that’s just as true when writing enterprise-level SEO content. Wikipedia might be useful in pointing you toward helpful sources, but it shouldn’t be your primary text.

Nor should any second-hand source. If another web page states something as a fact, confirm where it got that fact.

If it’s a disreputable source and you parrot it, then you become a disreputable source, too.

Understand The Information

Content writing – especially at the enterprise level and especially in an agency (rather than in-house PR team) context – often requires authors to cover many different areas of expertise in many different industries.

It can be tempting to regurgitate and plagiarize information that already exists, but if you do that, you won’t be able to offer any meaningful insights.

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You have to understand the information you’re relaying.

That will help you spot contradictions and factual errors and demonstrate genuine authority.

Is AI Automation The Future Of Fact Checking?

Enterprise-level content fact-checking requires a lot of time and effort, but cutting corners is a recipe for disaster.

Fortunately, just as it has with many other aspects of SEO, AI automation may soon be able to simplify the process.

U.K.-based independent fact-checking organization, Full Fact, has been leading the charge in recent years to develop scalable, automated fact-checking tools.

Full Fact’s efforts have already garnered the attention of the biggest names in search engine technology.

In 2019, the non-profit organization was one of the winners of the 2019 Google AI Impact Challenge, which provides funding for potentially revolutionary automation research projects.

Full Fact’s stated goal is to develop AI software capable of breaking down long content pieces into individual sentences, then identifying the types of claims those sentences represent, before finally cross-referencing those claims in real-time with the most up-to-date factual news data.

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Though Full Fact is still years away from achieving its goal, the benefits of such a breakthrough for SEO content writing are self-evident.

That said, you don’t have to wait for the future to use AI automation and other software tools to help you fact-check.

For example, the Grammarly Plagiarism Checker not only identifies duplicate content taken from another source but also highlights portions of text requiring attribution.

Commonly used enterprise SEO tools like Semrush, Ahrefs, and Moz, meanwhile, can be used to investigate a domain’s authority, helping you decide which sources are considered reputable.

Fact-checking in today’s oversaturated news and information marketplace can be intimidating at first glance. But the number of resources available to content writers is growing by leaps and bounds every day.

Making full use of these resources better enables you to win consumer trust in an age when that kind of trust is a very delicate, precious, and valuable commodity.

More resources:


Featured Image: redgreystock/Shutterstock

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