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Paywalls’ impact on SEO: How publishers can minimize risk and maximize value

male hand breaking with fist concrete wall

SEO is vital for audience acquisition and paywalls help generate revenue. However, paywalls can also impact SEO. New report offers tips on how publishers can minimize the impact of paywalls on SEO.

There is a lingering concern as more and more publishers put up paywalls for subscription revenues – will blocking content have a negative impact on SEO? There are no straightforward answers. “The question is less about sacrificing a wall for SEO or vice versa, but more about how you can limit the SEO risks whilst maximizing the value of a wall,” states a new report from paywall solutions provider Poool

Generating revenue from content relies heavily on audience acquisition from search engines like Google… and, of course, SEO plays a vital role here. So, if employing a paywall will put this at risk, is it really a good idea?

Paywalls & SEO: How to limit the impact of a wall on SEO

The report, Paywalls & SEO: How to limit the impact of a wall on SEO, authored by Maxime Moné, Co-founder, Poool, addresses this issue. It looks into how publishers can minimize risks to SEO whether they are launching or are already working with paywalls.

Key recommendations include:

  • Examine how different blocking methods affect content – altering them can limit the impact on SEO.
  • Keep up with Google’s rules for referencing content across its different environments like News, Discover, and AMP among others.
  • Take an article-by-article approach for determining the strategy.

Pros and cons of different content blocking methods

Content blocking can be frontal/user-side or server-side. Frontal blocking can be done via CSS or Javascript. Server-side blocking methods include with or without SEO optimization. Here are their key pros and cons.

Source: Paywalls & SEO: How to limit the impact of a wall on SEO

Determining the right blocking solution depends upon a publisher’s business model and strategy. Frontal blocking is recommended for publishers who rely heavily on ad-revenue, are launching a paywall strategy, and are not sure about the server-side method’s impact on SEO. 

Server-side blocking is recommended for those who understand how to optimize SEO with this method and need to protect their content. This method makes it harder to bypass walls so a publisher also needs to figure out whether its readers are likely to use such methods or not.

User-side methods have little impact on SEO and offer a lot of flexibility. And although they are easier to bypass, even The New York Times uses javascript-based user-side blocking. The publisher’s continued exemplary growth indicates that users who are able to bypass paywalls don’t matter in the larger scheme of things as they are less likely to subscribe anyway.

The NYT results show, you may have to accept that there will be a certain amount of paywall bypass but that this won’t affect digital subscriber growth.

Paywalls & SEO: How to limit the impact of a wall on SEO

The next part involves understanding the impact of different blocking methods on SEO. Broadly, the different types of paywalls include freemium, metered, hard, hybrid and dynamic. Referencing is easier with metered walls as Google can access free content easily. 

However, publishers who use hard, freemium, hybrid, or dynamic paywalls need to follow the rules set by Google to ensure proper referencing of their content. These differ across the various Google environments and publishers are advised to keep up with the specifics and updates. 

Tailor strategy according to content

Rather than focusing on the risks posed by paywalls to SEO, the report suggests publishers look at the issue from the perspective of their business goals. They should try to figure out how to minimize SEO risk while simultaneously maximizing the value created by the walls. 

It presents three ways to achieve that:

  1. Adapting the blocking method according to content type: The choice of blocking method and the type of paywall can impact SEO. Moné recommends publishers adopt a hybrid strategy. For example, they can use a hybrid freemium-metered paywall as well as a combination of content blocking methods. Server-side blocking can be deployed for exclusive content, and front-side blocking with a metered wall will be apt for high SEO risk content.
  2. Adapting the strategy to new vs existing content: The decision to paywall new content hinges on the competition in that topic and the publisher’s experience in it. It’s not recommended if the competition is fierce and the publisher does not have experience in the area. However, if it needs to be done then following Google’s rules and testing with small batches of content is important. Putting a paywall on existing content is a more complex decision as that can affect its existing positioning on Google. However, the risk is less for “hot” content for which the competition aso uses paywalls. 
  3. Adjusting strategy according to SEO risk: Different types of content help achieve different goals, just like users. Some may be more effective in getting subscribers while others contribute chiefly to traffic, engagement and data. The report provides a flowchart that can guide publishers in determining the content that can be paywalled and that which can be made freely available.
Source: Paywalls & SEO: How to limit the impact of a wall on SEO

“Be careful not to only leave ‘the crumbs’ to the premium content”

“Don’t switch a large existing inventory to premium for the SEO audience,” says Alexy Souciet, SEO Manager, CMI France. “At first, for production, have a mind map for the free/premium arbitrage and add the SEO dimension (and the potential traffic notion). Be careful not to only leave ‘the crumbs’ to the premium content – work towards a SEO and premium combination. Do it progressively, step by step in test and learn.”

Moné recommends adopting a step-by-step strategy wherein the publisher starts by deciding what content has to be paywalled. The next steps include choosing the right blocking method and ensuring that Google’s instructions are being followed. Finally, they must run tests to evaluate the impact on SEO vs business goals.

You have to ask yourself if launching a wall helps you bring in more revenue globally, whether the goods outweigh the bads. And whether the SEO is impacted. If you marginally impact SEO but considerably increase revenue, you’ve succeeded and your only issue will be to control the wall’s impact on SEO.

Maxime Moné, Co Founder, Poool

The full report can be downloaded here:
Paywalls & SEO: How to limit the impact of a wall on SEO