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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

Here’s How We Do It

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Here’s How We Do It

I’ve managed Ahrefs’ social media accounts for nine months now—and it’s been a journey, from experimenting with content formats to figuring out what engages people the most.

To keep things succinct, I’ll be focusing on our primary social media platform: Twitter.

I’ll also make it clear now that I won’t cover my content creation process in too much depth, since many people expressed more interest in learning about our growth strategy and how we measure engagement.

Twitter’s a convenient way to build camaraderie, lead conversations, get immediate feedback, as well as respond quickly to mentions and/or related news. Mind-blowing, right?

Now let’s get to the reasons for Ahrefs’ focus on the social media platform:

It’s the place for marketers to be

If you’ve been in the SEO space for a while, you’ll know that many prominent marketers and influencers spend their time on the platform, including Lily Ray, Rand Fishkin, Amanda Natividad, and scores more.

It “humanizes” us 

We get to interact with our followers closely and in a more casual manner. This reminds people that we’re actively listening to their concerns and engaged in the SEO space.

Brand-building 

In all, 47% of people who visit a Twitter profile also visit the website linked in that profile. In our case, we get an average of 113 link clicks per day across our tweets.

Graph showing link clicks

For versatility’s sake

We’ve got a wide variety of content and resources: product updates, blog posts, videos on Ahrefs TV, free courses in Ahrefs Academy, and free tools like Ahrefs Webmaster Tools.

Twitter allows us to amplify all of these in fresh formats, plus cover them in both breadth and depth. They’re also easily shareable (e.g., via RTs and quote tweets).

And because it’s impossible for us to cover everything within our own content, we sometimes create threads based on others’ content—I’ll get to this later.

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Cracking the Twitter algorithm

It’s common knowledge that as long as you use a social media platform, you’re at the mercy of its algorithm. So how to crack it? Is there a formula to win the game?

Unless you go the Google Sheets hacks route, the answer’s… no. (Were you really surprised?)

The Twitter algorithm is constantly evolving, just like our social media strategy. So your best playing cards are experimentation and gathering feedback from your followers.

For instance, I try to publish each blog post in at least two formats on Twitter and stagger their publishing dates to reduce content fatigue.

Take these examples that are based off a blog post on promoting your website for free.

As you can see, numbered lists are one format that consistently gets a decent number of likes and RTs. That’s one measure of success in our books. 

Still, the secret isn’t to stick to one formula that works. Rather, it’s to keep finding new formulas over and over. That’s because repeatedly using the same format could tire out your followers by making you seem uninventive and boring. (Fight me on this one!)

In fact, some of my biggest hurdles include two key things.

First, finding a way to tell effective stories through tweets and threads. Capturing an audience’s attention once or twice is good, but getting them to view Ahrefs’ Twitter account as a go-to for SEO-related topics is the bigger challenge.

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Second, not pandering to trends. Memes aren’t really our thing, and neither are snarky tweets. My colleagues, Si Quan Ong and Rebekah Bek, set the tone for Ahrefs’ social media pages early on—and ultimately, we’ve kind of stuck to it. 

That isn’t to say things won’t change, though. Our CMO, Tim Soulo, and I have discussed adopting a more casual tone of voice in the coming months and possibly experimenting with non-educational tweets. It’s all about trying things out to see what sticks.

(I kinda like some of what Shopify is doing on Twitter. Would you be averse to that if we took cues from it? Our DMs are open to suggestions. 👀)

Still, these realizations armed me with some lessons that will help you to sharpen your Twitter marketing strategy.

Lesson 1. Develop a thick skin

I originally joined Ahrefs as a content marketer, with a focus on producing and peer-reviewing content for our blog. Sure, I did things on the side—like run our Instagram accounts—but my knowledge of Twitter best practices was embarrassingly paltry.

After all, I hadn’t been active on Twitter since 2016 and only had a basic foundation of SEO to get things rolling.

So when I transitioned into looking after all of our social media pages, it was daunting—especially when it came to responding to our users, seasoned SEOs and, sometimes, trolls. 🥲

If you can relate to this, I’ll encourage you to speak with people who’ve been in the industry for some time. 

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That may include reaching out to your colleagues or marketers whom you admire or even putting out a tweet (#DidABraveThing).

Make it clear you’re looking to learn and then build out your network from there. And ask questions, because no question is silly.

I also get regular feedback from the team about my published tweets—including from Tim.

Tim's feedback about a tweet

When writing threads based off blog posts, I share my drafts with the respective authors via Typefully too; then I refine them accordingly.

Mateusz's feedback about a tweet

Keeping a tight feedback loop helps me learn more quickly.

Lesson 2. Normalize making mistakes

Sometimes, you will inevitably stuff up. Think about it: The more you post, the higher your chances of making a mistake… but that’s part of the process. 

Here’s a tweet I put out that divided our followers—yet gained plenty of engagement.

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Regardless, it was a mistake on my part because I left out some context when writing it. My intention hadn’t been to be divisive for the sake of it.

Lesson 3. Talk to people outside your circle

I also began lurking in marketing communities to have a look-see at what people were discussing and looked at top tweets for relevant hashtags (e.g., #SEO).

After doing this for some time, I noticed some patterns.

People love:

  • Relevant recommended reads.
  • The “I’ve been a [marketer/SEO] for XX years. Here are XX lessons I’ve learnt” format.
  • Infographics and clean charts/visuals.
  • Google updates—these are almost always a talking point.
  • To read things that reaffirm their points of view or are so grossly contrasting that they are irked enough to leave a response.

In fact, the latter observation holds true regardless of the topic you’re broaching. But don’t do it just for the sake of it.

You need to add value to the conversation, like this tweet by SparkToro’s Amanda.

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It takes discipline to remain active in communities—and guts to reach out to seasoned marketers! But keep at it, and you’ll soon see how much you’ve learned from moving beyond your comfort zone.

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You may even start your own marketing community, like what I did. (Drop me a DM via Twitter for invite details!)

My content planning process 

And now to the fun part!

If you’re setting up a Twitter page from scratch or are fresh into your role as a social media manager, you may wonder: How to get traction?

That’s a loaded question, but I’ll attempt to guide you by sharing my workflow.

At the start of each week, I plan the content schedule for Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Doing this weekly instead of monthly makes more sense, as things move so quickly at Ahrefs and in the SEO space.

As part of my research, I look at:

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  • Our upcoming publishing schedules for Ahrefs TV and the Ahrefs Blog.
  • Product updates and announcements (in Slack).
  • The most recent edition of our newsletter, Ahrefs Digest.
  • Brand mentions on Twitter.
  • Top-performing tweets on our account.
  • Past Ahrefs blog posts and other pieces of content that may be worth sharing.

In my opinion, you’d be remiss to keep all social content on-brand. Sharing content from others is a win-win: You can amplify other voices while introducing your followers to new ideas. (Obviously, use your discretion when doing this!)

This is why I also look into promoting external content, including:

A content calendar isn’t a necessity

I’d initially maintained a content calendar in a spreadsheet but soon found it to be needlessly time-consuming.

My current process involves writing and scheduling content directly in scheduling tool Hypefury—then adapting my tweet for LinkedIn and Facebook. Much of the content is mirrored, albeit in different formats. 

Example of content planning spreadsheet
Contentious opinion: I ditched my content calendar because keeping it updated was hampering my productivity.

If it feels counterintuitive to neglect maintaining a content calendar, you’re right to have your doubts. Still, my current system works better for me.

My advice: Do this only after you’ve figured out how often to publish content and at what times of day.

I established these by studying Ahrefs’ Twitter analytics. Our weekly organic impressions tend to peak on Wednesdays and Thursdays, so I try to queue at least five (or more!) pieces of content on each of those days.

Graph showing data on impressions

Refine the process

Speaking of giving my content calendar a wide berth—I’m working on an SOP document to improve my workflow.

My aim is to iterate each step of the process (plan → write → schedule → update Notion cards with copy → promote → track engagement) so that, eventually, I’ll have a leaner and more efficient system for planning our socials.

Many of you showed curiosity about how we analyze performance.

Our main goal is to maintain steady growth to our Twitter page. A larger audience means we get to showcase the utility of our toolset, content, and ideas to a wider pool of marketers.

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The end goal will then be conversions. For instance: get people to try Ahrefs Webmaster Tools, install our SEO Toolbar and, eventually, convert into a paying customer of our toolset.

Here’s the thing, though:

We don’t measure our goals or track conversions

(Phew, that deserved a subheading in itself!)

We don’t track any of these goals. These include click-through rates to blog posts or YouTube videos which, frankly, is a great load off of the marketing team. This allows us to focus on consistently creating quality content that resonates with our audience.

Tim elaborates on the rationale behind this process:

We do, however, try to identify successful posts—tweets that get >100 likes or more RTs/comments/quote tweets than the average post. But we don’t obsess over numbers. 

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This brings me to my next point.

Vanity metrics aren’t our final source of truth

Likes,” follower numbers, and impressions are useful indicators of what our followers and potential followers (literally) like, but they still are vanity metrics. So they aren’t our only markers of success.

Not all your content can or will resonate with all of your followers at any given time. Relinquish the heavy obsession with numbers and focus on sharing valuable yet unique content instead.

For instance, I dug into Ahrefs’ past tweets to identify content formats and topics that were worth pursuing.

Example of past tweets that performed well
Researching top-performing tweets on Ahrefs’ account using the highlighted search operators.

I then categorized them in a spreadsheet and repurposed some of them accordingly:

Spreadsheet of content that could be repurposed

Reporting on performance

Every four weeks, Tim and I review the past month’s tweets and their engagement. Our discussions center around content formats that worked, what didn’t work (and why), and the types of topics that got traction.

Example report to Tim
Here’s how I open a typical report. You don’t need a fancy deck to get the job done.

The third section (“tweets”) is further categorized into:

  • Repurposed blog posts.
  • Monthly content picks (a thread).
  • Ahrefs TV + product updates.
  • Quick SEO tips/did-you-knows.
  • Question tweets/Ahrefs trivia.
  • Guest tweets/threads (external content sourced from newsletters and Twitter).
Tim's suggestion of creating a simple visual
Tl;dr: try everything at least once (within reason).

Many of you also asked about running ads on Twitter and how much they contribute to our growth.

Hold your hats, because I’m about to deliver yet another disappointing kicker: We don’t track ad performance all that closely.

(Breathe! Let that sink in, then read on.)

Amplification is only a part of the process, and it helps in raising awareness about the value we can bring to the user. But just like vanity metrics, we don’t rely purely on ads for growth.

Every three weeks or so, I study our ad performance. Then I revisit promoted tweets that achieved an engagement rate of 20% or higher.

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Table showing engagement rates

Doing this has helped me develop a better understanding of what our audience wants.

Of course, this method may change in the near future—but for now, it’s what we’re rolling with.

Frequency

We also promote each of our blog posts and YouTube videos at least once, regardless of how well the original tweet performed organically. Each ad typically runs for at least three weekdays.

If something performs astronomically poorly (e.g., 10 likes or fewer after multiple RTs from our account), I rewrite it in a new format and track its performance before running an ad for it.

We’ve also got a slightly higher budget for running ads for product updates and feature releases. Unlike our content, I try to promote each announcement at least twice (once with a static image and another time with a screencast video).

Tracking the future

I’ve also begun looking into:

  • Studying marketers’ top tweets. 
  • Brand mentions (via Sprout Social).
  • Responding more actively to users’ tweets, including technical questions and negative feedback. (This is a team effort! Some questions continue to baffle me, which is where Tim and the marketing team help to fill the gaps.)

Bonus: Our Twitter toolkit 

If you’re curious, these are some of the tools to make my workflow a little bit easier.

Hypefury 

Hypefury is great for writing and scheduling tweets and threads. Also includes an auto-RT function.

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Writing and scheduling tweets on Hypefury
Hypefury lets me craft and preview tweets and threads easily, as well as view my publishing schedule at a glance.

Typefully 

This lets you create, preview, and share draft tweets and threads. Typefully is especially useful if you’re looking to get internal feedback.

Drafting tweet thread on Typefully

Loom 

Loom is useful for screencast recordings (with or without audio). You can also trim your clips. I use these mainly to create simple product tip videos and to highlight product features.

Others 

I’m tinkering with Sprout Social and Napoleon Cat to track brand mentions (especially when we aren’t tagged directly on Twitter).

Recommended reading: 13 Top Digital Marketing Tools (Incl. Tips on Using Them)

Closing thoughts

By the time this blog post is published, our strategy will likely have shapeshifted in some way. No Twitter marketing strategy is foolproof after all.

Once you’ve found a formula that seems to resonate with your audience, you need to keep experimenting to find more formulas that work. Iteration will yield results.

If you show that you value your followers—and can offer them value and solutions through your content and product—you’ll have a far better chance at success.

Have questions or thoughts? Ping me on Twitter.



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