How best can publishers optimise paywall content for SEO?

23.02.2022 · By Camilla Allen

Publishers are increasingly adopting the paywalled content approach as a monetisation strategy but how can they optimise paywall content for SEO? 

Adopting the content subscription strategy is on the rise and it is an important consideration for the majority of major media outlets. However, while this is a crucial strategy for many, it’s key that SEO is not overlooked. It’s a significant way to boost the success of this high-quality content.

Why do publishers use paywalls?

In the early days of the web, many publishers shared their content for free, arguably precipitating a decline in print sales. This in turn increased the pressure on their financial models and reliance on digital advertising dominated by Google, Apple and Facebook.

Over the last decade, publishers have been experimenting with a number of content payment models to compliment their advertising revenue streams. The rise of subscriptions models, paywalls and, in some cases like The Guardian via donations, the emergence of “gated” content is here to stay.

These models provide a key way for publishers to survive in a digital-first world and provide a key way for many to drive significant revenue and thrive. 

Indeed, most publications have reported success after adopting a form of paywall. The Wall Street Journal has over 2.9 million subscribers that have opted to pay to read their content. As of this year, The New York Times has reported hitting 10 million subscribers with the acquisition of The Athletic and digital contributes the most to its revenue source.

However, their effect on SEO is important to understand for any publisher and in this blog post we’ll outline some strategies that can help to address this.

A quick background to SEO and paywalls

The first interaction of SEO and paywalls was Google introducing the first click free policy in 2008. This policy allowed all users who find a webpage through Google search to see the full text of the document that the user found in Google’s search results and that Google’s crawler found on the web without requiring them to register or subscribe to see that content. However, this policy was discontinued by Google in 2017.

Google then introduced a new model allowing publishers to choose the best option. “We encourage publishers to experiment with different free sampling schemes, as long as they stay within the updated webmaster guidelines,” says Google.

Now publishers can choose from several different types of paywalls, including:

  • Lead in paywalls the first paragraph is accessible while the rest of the page is behind the wall. 
  • Metered paywalls – this allows the user to access a limited number of webpages per month. 
  • Freemium paywalls – this allows free content to be available to everyone while premium content is reserved for subscribers.

How do paywalls affect SEO? 

The goal of Google and other search engines is to crawl and evaluate content, and to present it in search results pages in a way that best serves the interests of their users. SEO specialists go to great lengths to ensure content is optimised and highly-accessible both to search engines and site visitors in an attempt to maximise the search traffic it generates. 

The use of paywalls runs somewhat counter to the interest of search engines given they’re specifically intended to restrict access to content, rather than to make it as open and accessible as possible.

As a result, any publisher that places content behind a paywall must think carefully about their expectations for search performance, and consider how search traffic relates to their specific business needs and priorities.

5 key ways to optimise your paywall content for SEO

Publishers will want to make sure they are following all the basic SEO elements and making sure their content hits all the main EAT (“Expertise, Authoritative, and Trustworthiness”) standards even when content is behind a paywall.

By providing readers with well-researched, authoritative content from trusted authors, it will improve your chances of ranking well on Google and is not something publishers can afford to overlook.

Read more about how to improve your E-A-T and how it affects the ranking position of your content on Google. Check out our five helpful E-A-T tips for publishers.

Here are some other best practice strategies you should consider when improving the SEO of your paywall content:

1. Make time for keyword research

As WTF is SEO? suggests, paywall content is already exclusive, so try optimising each article for long-tail keywords as these are more specific to reader search intent. You can use Google Keyword Planner to help you target your keywords to specific search intent as you plan content.

LOYAL Tip:
Check out the WTF is SEO? newsletter. It’s a fantastic SEO-focused resource for publishers which you can read alongside our LOYAL newsletter of course!

2. Optimise headlines and meta descriptions

Headlines are incredibly important when it comes to SEO. This is especially true for paywall content. You will want to “use numbers, dates, questions, and place names” within your headline WTF SEO suggests, and try to make sure your keyword is located towards the start.

You will also want to concentrate on optimising your meta description and deck which describes exactly what the article will focus on and why a reader should pay for this high-quality content. Make sure you explain exactly what makes this content so valuable to your target audience – including your keywords, of course. 

3. Focus on internal linking

As you no doubt already know as a publisher, your linking strategy is key! With paywall content links can be an invaluable way to link from paid content to free content and vice versa.

You can use LOYAL to dive deep into your archives and retrieve the most relevant content so your journalists can easily add internal links and boost the SEO value of your paywall content.

Watch this short video to discover how LOYAL can help.

4. Create an effective URL

You’ll want to keep this short. What topic does your article address? Make sure you include keywords within your article URL so Google’s algorithm can easily understand what your content is about and how valuable it is to readers.

5. Think about imagery

When concentrating on the written copy, sometimes it can be easy to overlook the importance of imagery. However, every successful publisher will know how critical a striking, relevant image is for attracting readers.

Stick to compelling imagery that has optimised file names. Make sure images are saved with keywords in the file name that describes exactly what the image is communicating to a reader. This also goes for image captions. You’ll want to be as descriptive as possible. 

You should now have a clearer understanding of how to optimise paywall content for SEO as a publisher. But if you want to brush up on the basics of SEO, check out our piece on how to kickstart an effective SEO strategy in 2022

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