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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?

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

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.

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.

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.

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…

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:


Featured Image: Marija_Crow/Shutterstock




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Google Clarifies Organization Merchant Returns Structured Data

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Google updates organization structured data for merchant returns

Google quietly updated their organization structured data documentation in order to clarify two points about merchant returns in response to feedback about an ambiguity in the previous version.

Organization Structured Data and Merchant Returns

Google recently expanded their Organization structured data so that it could now accommodate a merchant return policy. The change added support for adding a sitewide merchant return policy.

The original reason for adding this support:

“Adding support for Organization-level return policies

What: Added documentation on how to specify a general return policy for an Organization as a whole.

Why: This makes it easier to define and maintain general return policies for an entire site.”

However that change left unanswered about what will happen if a site has a sitewide return policy but also has a different policy for individual products.

The clarification applies for the specific scenario of when a site uses both a sitewide return policy in their structured data and another one for specific products.

What Takes Precedence?

What happens if a merchant uses both a sitewide and product return structured data? Google’s new documentation states that Google will ignore the sitewide product return policy in favor of a more granular product-level policy in the structured data.

The clarification states:

“If you choose to provide both organization-level and product-level return policy markup, Google defaults to the product-level return policy markup.”

Change Reflected Elsewhere

Google also updated the documentation to reflect the scenario of the use of two levels of merchant return policies in another section that discusses whether structured data or merchant feed data takes precedence. There is no change to the policy, merchant center data still takes precedence.

This is the old documentation:

“If you choose to use both markup and settings in Merchant Center, Google will only use the information provided in Merchant Center for any products submitted in your Merchant Center product feeds, including automated feeds.”

This is the same section but updated with additional wording:

“If you choose to use both markup (whether at the organization-level or product-level, or both) and settings in Merchant Center, Google will only use the information provided in Merchant Center for any products submitted in your Merchant Center product feeds, including automated feeds.”

Read the newly updated Organization structured data documentation:

Organization (Organization) structured data – MerchantReturnPolicy

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What Is It & How To Write It

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What Is It & How To Write It

In this guide, you will learn about alternative text (known as alt text): what it is, why it is important for on-page SEO, how to use it correctly, and more.

It’s often overlooked, but every image on your website should have alt text. More information is better, and translating visual information into text is important for search engine bots attempting to understand your website and users with screen readers.

Alt text is one more source of information that relates ideas and content together on your website.

This practical and to-the-point guide contains tips and advice you can immediately use to improve your website’s image SEO and accessibility.

What Is Alt Text?

Alternative text (or alt text) – also known as the alt attribute or the alt tag (which is not technically correct because it is not a tag) – is simply a piece of text that describes the image in the HTML code.

What Are The Uses Of Alt Text?

The original function of alt text was simply to describe an image that could not be loaded.

Many years ago, when the internet was much slower, alt text would help you know the content of an image that was too heavy to be loaded in your browser.

Today, images rarely fail to load – but if they do, then it is the alt text you will see in place of an image.

Screenshot from Search Engine Journal, May 2024

Alt text also helps search engine bots understand the image’s content and context.

More importantly, alt text is critical for accessibility and for people using screen readers:

  • Alt text helps people with disabilities (for example, using screen readers) learn about the image’s content.

Of course, like every element of SEO, it is often misused or, in some cases, even abused.

Let’s now take a closer look at why alt text is important.

Why Alt Text Is Important

The web and websites are a very visual experience. It is hard to find a website without images or graphic elements.

That’s why alt text is very important.

Alt text helps translate the image’s content into words, thus making the image accessible to a wider audience, including people with disabilities and search engine bots that are not clever enough yet to fully understand every image, its context, and its meaning.

Why Alt Text Is Important For SEO

Alt text is an important element of on-page SEO optimization.

Proper alt text optimization makes your website stand a better chance of ranking in Google image searches.

Yes, alt text is a ranking factor for Google image search.

Depending on your website’s niche and specificity, Google image search traffic may play a huge role in your website’s overall success.

For example, in the case of ecommerce websites, users very often start their search for products with a Google image search instead of typing the product name into the standard Google search.

Screenshot from search for [Garmin forerunner]Screenshot from search for [Garmin forerunner], May 2024

Google and other search engines may display fewer product images (or not display them at all) if you fail to take care of their alt text optimization.

Without proper image optimization, you may lose a lot of potential traffic and customers.

Why Alt Text Is Important For Accessibility

Visibility in Google image search is very important, but there is an even more important consideration: Accessibility.

Fortunately, in recent years, more focus has been placed on accessibility (i.e., making the web accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities and/or using screen readers).

Suppose the alt text of your images actually describes their content instead of, for example, stuffing keywords. In that case, you are helping people who cannot see this image better understand it and the content of the entire web page.

Let’s say one of your web pages is an SEO audit guide that contains screenshots from various crawling tools.

Would it not be better to describe the content of each screenshot instead of placing the same alt text of “SEO audit” into every image?

Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Alt Text Examples

Finding many good and bad examples of alt text is not difficult. Let me show you a few, sticking to the above example with an SEO audit guide.

Good Alt Text Examples

So, our example SEO guide contains screenshots from tools such as Google Search Console and Screaming Frog.

Some good examples of alt text may include:

”The
”Google
”List
”Screaming

Tip: It is also a good idea to take care of the name of your file. Using descriptive file names is not a ranking factor, but I recommend this as a good SEO practice.

Bad And/Or Spammy Alt Text Examples

I’ve also seen many examples of bad alt text use, including keyword stuffing or spamming.

Here is how you can turn the above good examples into bad examples:

”google search console coverage report
”google
”seo
”seo

As you can see, the above examples do not provide any information on what these images actually show.

You can also find examples and even more image SEO tips on Google Search Central.

Common Alt Text Mistakes

Stuffing keywords in the alt text is not the only mistake you can make.

Here are a few examples of common alt text mistakes:

  • Failure to use the alt text or using empty alt text.
  • Using the same alt text for different images.
  • Using very general alt text that does not actually describe the image. For example, using the alt text of “dog” on the photo of a dog instead of describing the dog in more detail, its color, what it is doing, what breed it is, etc.
  • Automatically using the name of the file as the alt text – which may lead to very unfriendly alt text, such as “googlesearchconsole,” “google-search-console,” or “photo2323,” depending on the name of the file.

Alt Text Writing Tips

And finally, here are the tips on how to write correct alt text so that it actually fulfills its purpose:

  • Do not stuff keywords into the alt text. Doing so will not help your web page rank for these keywords.
  • Describe the image in detail, but still keep it relatively short. Avoid adding multiple sentences to the alt text.
  • Use your target keywords, but in a natural way, as part of the image’s description. If your target keyword does not fit into the image’s description, don’t use it.
  • Don’t use text on images. All text should be added in the form of HTML code.
  • Don’t write, “this is an image of.” Google and users know that this is an image. Just describe its content.
  • Make sure you can visualize the image’s content by just reading its alt text. That is the best exercise to make sure your alt text is OK.

How To Troubleshoot Image Alt Text

Now you know all the best practices and common mistakes of alt text. But how do you check what’s in the alt text of the images of a website?

You can analyze the alt text in the following ways:

Inspecting an element (right-click and select Inspect when hovering over an image) is a good way to check if a given image has alt text.

However, if you want to check that in bulk, I recommend one of the below two methods.

Install Web Developer Chrome extension.

Screenshot of Web Developer Extension in Chrome by authorScreenshot from Web Developer Extension, Chrome by author, May 2024

Next, open the page whose images you want to audit.

Click on Web Developer and navigate to Images > Display Alt Attributes. This way, you can see the content of the alt text of all images on a given web page.

The alt text of images is shown on the page.Screenshot from Web Developer Extension, Chrome by author, May 2024

How To Find And Fix Missing Alt Text

To check the alt text of the images of the entire website, use a crawler like Screaming Frog or Sitebulb.

Crawl the site, navigate to the image report, and review the alt text of all website images, as shown in the video guide below.

You can also export only images that have missing alt text and start fixing those issues.

Alt Text May Not Seem Like A Priority, But It’s Important

Every source of information about your content has value. Whether it’s for vision-impaired users or bots, alt text helps contextualize the images on your website.

While it’s only a ranking factor for image search, everything you do to help search engines understand your website can potentially help deliver more accurate results. Demonstrating a commitment to accessibility is also a critical component of modern digital marketing.

FAQ

What is the purpose of alt text in HTML?

Alternative text, or alt text, serves two main purposes in HTML. Its primary function is to provide a textual description of an image if it cannot be displayed. This text can help users understand the image content when technical issues prevent it from loading or if they use a screen reader due to visual impairments. Additionally, alt text aids search engine bots in understanding the image’s subject matter, which is critical for SEO, as indexing images correctly can enhance a website’s visibility in search results.

Can alt text improve website accessibility?

Yes, alt text is vital for website accessibility. It translates visual information into descriptive text that can be read by screen readers used by users with visual impairments. By accurately describing images, alt text ensures that all users, regardless of disability, can understand the content of a web page, making the web more inclusive and accessible to everyone.

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Google Dials Back AI Overviews In Search Results, Study Finds

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Photo of a mobile device in mans hand with generative google AI Overview on the screen.

According to new research, Google’s AI-generated overviews have undergone significant adjustments since the initial rollout.

The study from SE Ranking analyzed 100,000 keywords and found Google has greatly reduced the frequency of AI overviews.

However, when they appear, they’re more detailed than they were previously.

The study digs into which topics and industries are more likely to get an AI overview. It also looks at how the AI snippets interact with other search features like featured snippets and ads.

Here’s an overview of the findings and what they mean for your SEO efforts.

Declining Frequency Of AI Overviews

In contrast to pre-rollout figures, 8% of the examined searches now trigger an AI Overview.

This represents a 52% drop compared to January levels.

Yevheniia Khromova, the study’s author, believes this means Google is taking a more measured approach, stating:

“The sharp decrease in AI Overview presence likely reflects Google’s efforts to boost the accuracy and trustworthiness of AI-generated answers.”

Longer AI Overviews

Although the frequency of AI overviews has decreased, the ones that do appear provide more detailed information.

The average length of the text has grown by nearly 25% to around 4,342 characters.

In another notable change, AI overviews now link to fewer sources on average – usually just four links after expanding the snippet.

However, 84% still include at least one domain from that query’s top 10 organic search results.

Niche Dynamics & Ranking Factors

The chances of getting an AI overview vary across different industries.

Searches related to relationships, food and beverages, and technology were most likely to trigger AI overviews.

Sensitive areas like healthcare, legal, and news had a low rate of showing AI summaries, less than 1%.

Longer search queries with ten words were more likely to generate an AI overview, with a 19% rate indicating that AI summaries are more useful for complex information needs.

Search terms with lower search volumes and lower cost-per-click were more likely to display AI summaries.

Other Characteristics Of AI Overviews

The research reveals that 45% of AI overviews appear alongside featured snippets, often sourced from the exact domains.

Around 87% of AI overviews now coexist with ads, compared to 73% previously, a statistic that could increase competition for advertising space.

What Does This Mean?

SE Ranking’s research on AI overviews has several implications:

  1. Reduced Risk Of Traffic Losses: Fewer searches trigger AI Overviews that directly answer queries, making organic listings less likely to be demoted or receive less traffic.
  2. Most Impacted Niches: AI overviews appear more in relationships, food, and technology niches. Publishers in these sectors should pay closer attention to Google’s AI overview strategy.
  3. Long-form & In-Depth Content Essential: As AI snippets become longer, companies may need to create more comprehensive content beyond what the overviews cover.

Looking Ahead

While the number of AI overviews has decreased recently, we can’t assume this trend will continue.

AI overviews will undoubtedly continue to transform over time.

It’s crucial to monitor developments closely, try different methods of dealing with them, and adjust game plans as needed.


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