SEO For Membership Sites: Getting Around The Paywall

Anyone who has done SEO for a while has heard The Myth of Google’s 200+ Ranking Factors,

To be fair, the number 200 may be somewhat accurate when first mentioned a decade ago by former Googler Matt Cutts.

Much has changed since then, and it’s unlikely anyone knows the actual number of ranking factors baked into the Google algorithm today.

That said, not all ranking factors are created equally.

If you only focus on top eight factors with the greatest effect, you will be successful, Those factors include:

  1. High quality material.
  2. Mobile-first.
  3. page experience.
  4. page speed.
  5. On-page optimization.
  6. internal link.
  7. External Relations.
  8. Local.

Here’s the rub: This only works if your content is visible to Google and available to readers.

What if you put a paywall in front of your content, making it an extra step? Let’s see 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?

The drawbacks are quite obvious:

  1. If your content isn’t visible to search engines, fewer people will be able to see it.
  2. It is worthwhile for them to pass through that door.
  3. Some people may give you false information in order to view your gated content.

That said, it does have some advantages:

  1. You may get better-qualified leads because people who are willing to give you their personal information are more likely to have a higher level of interest.
  2. This can help you segment and target your audience better.
  3. Viewers will often find your content more valuable, useful, and trustworthy (but you have to deliver it).

What does Google have to say about paywalled content?

Whether your content is free or premium, you have to follow Google guidelines,

One of the biggest problems premium content owners face is how to show up in search if their content isn’t freely available to all users.

To mitigate this, Google initially introduced the First Click Free (FCF) policy.

This meant 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 the publishers weren’t the biggest fans of this model and it was discontinued in 2017 and was called “flexible sampling,

Basically, the new model gives publishers a more efficient space to decide 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 with optional sampling.


With the freemium model, some articles o

n The site can be accessed without a paywall, while some will have one.

In other words, it is a combination of gated and ungated content.

There are no specific rules as to which content will be free and which premium, but typically, publishers use popular free content to take advantage of premium content and entice people to subscribe if they want to read. , maybe a more in-depth article.


With a metered paywall, a visitor can read a limited number of articles per month before 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 major websites, including Medium, The New York Times, and others.

Once you reach the limit, you will see a prompt like the one below to subscribe:

An example of a metered paywall.Screenshot by author, February 2022

hard paywalls

The last two methods are known as “soft” paywalls because they allow the visitor to view at least some article or even a portion of the content.

With a “hard” paywall, all of the material comes off.

This means that the content cannot be crawled or indexed by Google or other search engines. Obviously, this makes it very difficult to get new signups, but if the content is of high value, the conversion rate can be very high.

Although perhaps the least preferred of all paywall methods, hard paywalls are still used by some of the top tier websites in finance and other industries such as The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and others.

An example of a hard paywall.Screenshot by author, February 2022

So which of the three is the best option?

It largely depends on the purpose of your content.

News platforms like The New York Times have had a good amount of success with metered content. This model allows visitors to get a good idea of ​​the quality of their content by providing complete samples as “teasers” to entice users to subscribe.

For example, the NY Times introduced metered subscriptions in 2011, and today, a decade or so later, 7.6 out of 8.4 million Total million subscribers are digital subscribers, while only about 795,000 are print subscribers.

Here’s a chart of how their digital-only membership grew from 2011 to 2021:

The New York Times' paid-only digital subscription.Screenshot by author, February 2022

The freemium method makes sense for a website that already has a large and loyal reader base, a wide variety of content, and exclusive content.

Balancing free and premium content

When it comes to organic search, free content has a clear advantage over premium content because of its vast volume. This doesn’t mean that premium content publishers won’t have organic search opportunities.

In fact, one could argue that it is more important for membership sites to engage in SEO, as they have an additional hurdle (paywall) to clear.

Premium content publishers actually have two good options:

  • They may try to find a balance between free and premium content, like The New York Times.
  • Or they could be creating content that readers are looking for, but can’t find anywhere else. This content must be essentially exclusive.

In other words, one cannot put any kind of material behind a paywall.

Basic articles like “How to Optimize Your Website for SEONumbers in the thousands (millions?) on the web and can be found for free with a quick Google search. Users have no reason or motivation to pay for that kind of content.

On the other hand, if a publisher puts a great deal of effort into discovering a need and then creating a solution in the form of a whitepaper, eBook, or in-depth article, they may justify putting their featured content behind a paywall.

If the content is written by a well-known expert, all the better.

In deciding whether or not to gate content, it may be a good idea to consider the following three questions.

1. What is “end game”?

Do you want to increase subscribers or generate leads? If so, the content probably needs to be gated in some way.

However, if you want 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 place and answer the question: “Is this content valuable enough for me to pay for it or fill out a form?”

Be careful while answering this question. As a creator or curator of content, pride in authorship can make it difficult to be truly impartial.

3. Is the data collected meaningful?

Another consideration when it comes to content gating is how it affects the user experience. The increase in the use of pop-ups and overlays is directly responsible for the increase in adblocking software.

By forcing users to turn on personal information to access gated content, a (sometimes large) percentage of the data collected consists of fake names and burner email accounts.

The Difference Between “Fred” Updates and Premium and Gated Content

In March 2017, Google introduced an algorithmic update dubbed Fred,

The original idea was to reward websites that provide a positive user experience and to make 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

An initial problem with Fred was that he had difficulty distinguishing between paywalls and cloaked material. Since then, Google has come up with a solution: structured data.

For paywalled content to be eligible to appear in Google search results, it needs to comply with the following Structured and Technical Guidelines,

Here’s an example of how to indicate paywalled content is compliant with Google’s guidelines:

An example of indicating paywalled content to comply with Google's guidelines.Screenshot by author, February 2022

The question is, “How can Googlebot read the content behind the paywall?” For example, if you see this article With “view source”, the following is visible through the browser:

Wall Street Journal snippet body.Screenshot by author, February 2022

While the rest is behind a paywall…

And the answer is…

through cloaking,

that is, the site itself need Using Cloaking.

When Googlebot asks for a page using the User-Agent HTTP header, it sends the full content, for example:

User-Agent HTTP header example.Screenshot by author, February 2022

One final, yet important point: Clever searchers have learned that the paywall can be bypassed by going into the Google cache and reading the content for free.

To prevent this, one needs to use noarchive robot meta tagWhich will prevent Google from showing the cached links on that page.


Paywalls are becoming increasingly common across the web. They allow publishers to 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 is needed to list your website properly.

We hope these tips will help you decide whether to use a paywall or how to best optimize your paywall for search and profitable success.

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Featured image: Marija_crow/Shutterstock

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