Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
9 mins read

SEO & Subscriptions: Frenemies?

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It’s no secret that many publishers struggle to find a sustainable business model that will help them generate sufficient revenue and stay afloat. Banner ads and clickbait techniques have become a thing of the past, and the financial burden is not getting any lighter.

Luckily, new monetization opportunities such as native advertising and digital subscriptions have proven to be successful and may hold the key to preserving independent journalism.

Statistics show that the digital subscription economy is on the rise: reputable newspapers such as The New York TimesWall Street JournalWashington Post, have managed to hit six figures (and more) in revenue – solely down to online subscriptions. Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza smashed through its digital subscription target hitting 133,000 subscribers, while Norway has many local and regional outlets that are performing outstandingly, even with the hard paywall model.

In the first quarter of 2019, The New York Times reached a new milestone by gaining more than 3.5 million digital-only subscribers, which lead to a revenue increase to $165.4 million. This indicates two things. Firstly, the subscription model brings new hope to the publishing business, both in terms of nurturing loyal readership and finances. Secondly, readers are showing they want and expect quality. They are getting fed up with fake news, sensationalism, and the “cheap thrill” kind of content, and are willing to pay for trustworthy quality reporting.

However, when it comes to setting up a paywall and ensuring solid visibility on search engine results pages, it’s anything but smooth sailing for publishers.

Understanding how Google works

According to the comprehensive research conducted by the Media Insight Project, while engagement is an essential element for getting people to subscribe, SEO is an important piece of the puzzle in terms of reaching potential subscribers:

“Publishers must optimize content to be found in search engines. They also must have a robust social strategy—for these casual encounters through social platforms lead to subscribers in bigger numbers than publishers may believe. Having a well-designed and constantly updated website is vital—not just for younger subscribers who form the future of a publication’s base.”

A while ago, we discussed the importance of SEO for newsrooms and provided optimization tips for publishers. However, when you introduce a paywall, you don’t only disable your site visitors from seeing your content, but you also prevent search engines from indexing it too.

As evidenced by the fact that ‘to Google’ has now become a phrase so ubiquitous as to have gained verb status, it should come as no surprise to find that Google is the most popular search engine with the highest market share (89% according to the latest data), which is why most webmasters tend to optimize their sites according to its algorithm.

Like all search engines, Google relies on crawlers that map out websites and index them, so that when users type in a certain search query, the most relevant results get retrieved and displayed within the results page. Its main goal is to provide the best possible search experience for users; it acts somewhat as a filter of value and relevance.

Bearing that in mind, Google doesn’t see the point in sending users to a website where the content that matches the query is unreachable, i.e. hidden behind the paywall. This is why some newsrooms struggle with mixed SEO results.

Google vs. paywalls: a closer look

So, if Google is not a fan of paywalls, how come some of the most reputable publishers use them and still manage to preserve great visibility in search results?

In March 2017, Google released a significant algorithm update called Fred. At its core, this update enabled the search engine to filter out websites that were doing a poor job of engaging their visitors.

Fred targeted black-hat SEO tactics that were tied to aggressive monetization and low-quality content. Here, we’re talking about websites that weren’t exactly focused on providing a worthwhile experience to their users, but were instead ad-heavy and thin on content. They were the first in line to get buried beneath more valuable results on SERP (the search engine results page).

Needless to say, this update deeply shook the SEO community, especially those webmasters who thought they could get away with bending the rules a bit. But can you really compare spammy websites that don’t offer any value to users with credible news websites and publishers that are trying their best to find a sustainable business model? Well, if you’re a machine such as Google – you may not be aware that there’s much of a difference between these two things.

However, people at Google are well aware that ads and subscriptions represent popular ways of monetization, and that the latter might cause some issues SEO-wise if there is no balance between premium and free content. The problem with hard paywalls is that users don’t know what they can expect, i.e. they are not sure of the quality of the hidden content. As Google published on their official blog:

“Our evaluations have shown that users who are not familiar with the high-quality content behind a paywall often turn to other sites offering free content. It is difficult to justify a subscription if one doesn’t already know how valuable the content is, and in fact, our experiments have shown that a portion of users shies away from subscription sites.”

So, what is the solution here? Well, a small amount of free sampling could do the trick.

Moving from First Click Free policy to Flexible Sampling

Google is not about discouraging success of quality publishers, especially not news outlets’. On the contrary, one part of its mission is to organize the unthinkably large amount of online information and make it accessible to users who are searching the web.

Back in the day, Google launched its First Click Free policy in an attempt to standardize publishing practices and enable the search engine to index content located behind the paywall, in order to give the best possible user experience.

The idea of this policy was that it would require publishers to provide a limited amount of free content to Google Search users in order for the content to get indexed. They were expected to give readers access to a minimum of three free articles per day before hitting them with a paywall.

The policy was seen as controversial by many news outlets and publishers, especially as it seemed like an imposed ultimatum: either publishers offer some free content or the engine would push them out of the organic results.

This opened up a complex topic regarding who’s who in the cyberspace and how the responsibility of making the World Wide Web accessible and visible is divided. Jason Kint, CEO of a non-profit, Digital Content Next, said that tech giants such as Google are using their dominance to define business models for publishers, something he considered to be “highly questionable”. He also thinks that, along with Facebook, Google has “the ability to create a positive effect on the news and entertainment industry, they have the ability to drive subscription revenues, and to clean out the propaganda or false news”, but in the end it’s entirely up to them how they will use their power.

Publishers such as Axel Springer and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp have even described the First Click Free policy as “toxic”, while others such as Robert Thompson saw it as a “fundamental change to the content ecosystem”. As the negative reactions built up, the pressure within the industry got heavier – all of which lead to Google withdrawing the policy.

At last, it was now entirely up to publishers to experiment with offering free samples of content to their readership.

Technical guidelines and best practices regarding paywalls

Speaking from a technical point of view, paywalls that are not implemented properly are problematic since they serve one type of content to the Googlebot and the other type of content to users – a black-hat SEO tactic known as cloaking. This is frequently used by spammers who over-optimize their content in the attempt to fool crawlers, while ‘genuine’ users face poor quality content.

Luckily, the algorithm has advanced enough to recognize most of these cloaking tactics and it now ranks those domains that practice them accordingly.

So, how can you, as a publisher, avoid getting your paywall interpreted as a form of cloaking? You should definitely have someone with the tech background take a closer look at your website’s markup, check the instructions provided by Google and apply new structured data to your publication’s pages.

As for the best practices, Google recommends two types of sampling:

  • Metering
  • Lead-in

A metered paywall allows readers to consume a finite number of articles per month for free. When this number is reached, the content gets locked behind a paywall and can be accessed only after the reader signs up for a subscription.

The Lead-in is a different method whereby a sample of content gets displayed “above the fold”, while the rest remains hidden behind the paywall. This way, readers get a taste of quality and can judge the value of the content. Their curiosity regarding the hidden content might be triggered, which can help with increasing subscription rates.

As for balancing premium and free content, Google advises the following:

“Our analysis shows that general user satisfaction starts to degrade significantly when paywalls are shown more than 10% of the time (which generally means that about 3% of the audience has been exposed to the paywall). We recommend caution in approaching that limit, because you may start to alienate users who have not yet become convinced of the value of your content.”

In addition, they recommend daily news publishers should offer “between 6 and 10 free articles per user per month”, but again – it’s not really a one-size-fits-all kind of thing.

Final verdict: SEO and subscriptions – friends, foes, or frenemies?

Richard Gingras, VP of News at Google and one of the key people leading the front of the journalistic innovation on the Internet, has written about the necessity of continuous progress and collaboration between the folks at Google, who organize the Internet, and modern journalists and publishers, who are expected to bring accurate information when it matters the most:

“Since news products and subscription models vary widely, we’re collaborating with publishers around the world on how to build a subscription mechanism that can meet the needs of a diverse array of approaches—to the benefit of the news industry and consumers alike.”

In the era of misinformation and fake news, readers are slowly recognizing the value of trustworthy and objective information. They are gravitating towards showing their respect for this type of news by signing up for subscriptions and becoming an integral part of the conversation.

If you bear in mind the successful paywall strategies of major names such as The New York TimesThe TimesWashington Post, and industry-focused publications such as The Economist or Financial Times – you can see that this business model can truly work. Plus, all of these names are highly visible in search. So, reader-based revenue is not a far-fetched dream anymore: independent journalism can survive and people are truly willing to pay for it. Even if you’re not among the biggest fish, it’s still possible to thrive with a subscription model. Just look at the highly successful publications such as The LocalThe Bristol CableZetland, and others.

The dilemma about the possible negative influence paywalls may have on search results is partly in the domain of technical SEO, and partly in the domain of assessing separate business interests. On the one side, you have Google, and on the other, you have journalists and publishers trying to survive and keep their integrity.

Even though most of us perceive the most popular search engine as the “Good Guy Google” who basically democratized the Internet and brought order to it, it’s perhaps wise to lose the rose-tinted lenses for a bit and think about both the power and the responsibility that come with such a role. Noble goals are praiseworthy indeed, but we mustn’t forget Google is not a non-profit organization.

In the end, there are different types of paywalls which publishers can use: the hard paywall, metered paywall, freemium paywall and the hybrid kind. All of them have their pros and cons. Those huge, reputable media names who have managed to build a loyal follower base and generate steady amounts of traffic, can logically expect to remain visible in search. As for those new publishers who are thinking about setting a paywall, it’s always good to start small – by following best practices.

SEO and subscriptions can be best pals – as long as they both play fair and follow the rules.

by Mia Čomić

Abridged and re-published with kind permission of Content Insights, the next generation content analytics solution that translates complex editorial data into actionable insights.

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