One of the highest search results around the keyword ‘paywall’ is bypass, which is a serious concern for publishers when integrating a paywall into their content … concerns such as:
How can we avoid users getting around our paywall and accessing premium content without paying?
What should we do if your paywall is easy to bypass?
What blocking method should we use to avoid bypassing?
But, contrary to many publishers’ assumptions, bypassing may not be as bad as it appears. Why? There are other factors that need to be taken into consideration, such as the flexibility of your wall blocking method, its impact on SEO performance, and the likelihood of a user converting into a subscriber.
Take the example of The New York Times for instance—the most successful paywall worldwide in terms of sheer numbers of subscribers—but who still operate an easy-to-bypass paywall. Bottom line: when it comes to paywalls and bypassers, there’s more to the story than meets the eye.
User- vs Server-side blocking methods
Given this, user-side blocking methods are simple to integrate and place little risk on SEO, but are the easiest to bypass.
Conversely, server-side methods are more complex to integrate and often risk more when it comes to SEO, meaning a good understanding and optimization of SEO is required for this blocking method to ensure that Google bots can scan and reference your whole content, not just the text available above the paywall. This blocking method is also significantly more difficult to bypass.
User-side vs Server-side
|Simple tech integration and easy to modify||More technical to integrate|
|Fairly easy to bypass||Safer, more secure option, less easy to bypass|
|Less risk to SEO||More SEO risk|
|Better user experience||Potential for some lag in loading time|
Which is the best option to avoid bypassing?
The assumption is that bypassing is always to be avoided because, of course, a user avoiding a paywall has found a way to access premium content for free. To use an analogy, they’re essentially stealing a magazine off-the-shelf of your digital shop.
The question to ask is whether visitors that put the effort and potentially heavy tech knowledge into bypassing your paywall are ever going to pay to subscribe? If they aren’t a potential future subscriber then perhaps using a tougher blocking method to reduce bypasses isn’t worth the possible negative effects on your SEO.
What’s more, user-side blocking methods that are easier to bypass also offer a lot more flexibility for the publisher (in terms of adapting to regulations and competitors), something that’s hugely valuable in today’s rapidly changing environment.
In short, although a certain number of users might bypass your paywall, keep in mind that this won’t likely affect digital subscriber growth and may give you advantages in other areas such as SEO and flexibility.
What about paywalls and SEO?
Blocking methods have a significant impact on a user’s ability to bypass your wall or not, but they equally impact your SEO performance.
Whilst user-side blocking methods mean that content in its entirety is always available for Google bots to crawl – whether the user has access to it or not – this isn’t the case with a server-side paywall approach. Instead, search engine crawlers don’t have access to anything below the paywall, i.e. anything that the user can’t see, the search engine can’t see.
However, even with a server-side approach, you have 2 potential techniques to improve SEO performance:
- Metered sampling (metered paywall) – this refers to the metered paywall type where a visitor to a site is offered a limited number of articles per month before they’re blocked. The benefit of this approach is that it allows for content discovery and is a lower-risk way of launching a subscription strategy.
- Lead-in (hard paywall) – for a hard paywall strategy, you can consider lead-in, where users can access the title and first paragraph before the paywall block. This works well for high-quality, evergreen content but can impact bounce rates, which will negatively influence SEO ranking.
With lead-in, it’s also harder for a user to discover your value, which is essential for converting them into a subscriber. However, to combat this as well as improve the SEO performance of a hard paywall blocking method, you can add an executive summary at the beginning of your content, offering access to a paragraph or two and keywords that will improve search engine ranking.
Metered vs Lead-in
|Metered paywall||Lead-in / Hard paywall|
|✅ Allows for content discovery||✅ Works well for evergreen, high quality and niche content|
|✅ Lower risk to traffic and SEO, so it’s best for publishers launching a subscription strategy||❌ More risk to traffic and SEO|
|✅ An executive summary or allowing Google access to the first paragraph can improve SEO ranking and user’s propensity to subscribe simultaneously|
Aside from user-side methods such as metering and lead-in, you can also improve your SEO ranking by marking up the schema for your blocked content and paywall. Put simply, your code has to signal to Google which content is behind a paywall, which is essential for avoiding cloaking and actually appearing in search results.
Indicate paywalled content to avoid cloaking:
- Add a class name to each section of the page that’s blocked by a paywall.
- Add some NewsArticle structured data (or article schema for non-news-based content).
- Add the structural data linked to the paywall in the JSON-LD NewsArticle.
Paywall bypassing isn’t necessarily 100% negative for publishers – it boils down to whether those bypassing a paywall would ever become subscribers anyway, against the SEO implications for content discovery.
As the New York Times has proven, a measured balance that accommodates both opposing tensions is the optimal approach.
Content Marketing Manager, Poool