From Freemium to Paywalls: SEO Analysis

thestar paywall
21st Aug, 2018
John Wright Author Profile Photo John Wright

While most companies feel the need to offer freemium services and content, others especially newspapers are moving to paywalls. Is this the way of the future and how does SEO factor in?

Despite a trend of newspapers of changing their online free/freemium content and moving it to a paywall. How will this affect the big picture for both the newspaper and the user? While many newspapers decades ago were moving their news to online formats, they gave these articles away for free and you didn't have to pay for a subscription when you can get it online.  This has changed the way people view news and now more users are simply getting their news fix on a computer, laptop, tablet and phone. Some even have made custom apps for iPads/iPhones and Android devices. Newspapers, or rather paper news, will no doubt become obsolete soon and everything will be accessed digital. Paper news doesn't have the ability to share the article and the articles are not updated in real time or rather just once a day. You also can't leave public comments about the article for others to share and interact with. Now users have more power than ever with information, they can get access to almost any news source in the world and it doesn't matter where they are. On top of that, anyone can write a news article so there is more content than ever and we can of course search for it. Twitter and other social media sites are changing the way we handle news with Twitter now becoming a source of real time news.

Why are publications switching from Freemium to a Paywall?

The obvious answer is money. Any organization has to pay for their writing staff and a long list of expenses to produce content. They are used to having people pay for their news and also having advertisers pay them money as well. Now users don't want to pay for news and advertisers are simply paying less for online exposure with cheap rates and something they never had before, the most detailed feedback and analytics ever to assess how effective their campaigns are. [caption id="attachment_5012" align="aligncenter" width="550" caption="Boston Globe sells for $70 Million USD"]boston globe[/caption] Before the internet, newspapers were massive and worth fortunes. In 2013 we have witnessed the sale of the Boston Globe for $70 million US and the Washington Post for $250 million. In 1993 the Boston Globe sold for $1.1 Billion so it shows on how much value all of these companies lost, likewise we can see the gain in Google itself.

TorontoStar announces paywall

August 2013, announces it is putting it's website behind a paywall. Users get to view 10 articles for free a month but to view any more would have to pay.  Their subscription services encourages you to signup for paper news delivery. If paper news is going to become obsolete then why would The Toronto Star do this? If they can get more income that helps them but more importantly if they can show that advertisers get more exposure then this becomes a sales number the Star would use to sell subscriptions. There probably still exists a generational gap of users that have read the news their whole life in paper format and maybe don't feel like switching. For everyone else, paper news is on it's way out.

Are paywalls bad for SEO?

It depends on how you set it up but overall it seems obvious that search traffic will definitely be affected on any site that enforces a paywall on it's users. So lets look at every aspect in detail.
  • Freemium users will go elsewhere: It is news, unless your news is something that people can't live without, expect them to go somewhere else. This just has too many negative consequences. Advertisers get less exposure and probably more exposure on the site that doesn't charge. A freemium user that doesn't want to pay, they can't comment on your website, they probably won't be a fan of it and most importantly, they cannot link to your article if they cannot read it. Regarding comments, less comments means the article isn't revived and less comments obviously means less text. Comments can add new keywords to the article and sometimes generate more search results.
  • Fully blocked can't be indexed: Some paywalls fully block the users and in some cases, the search engines as well. Probably has setup their paywall in the best way for SEO, that is the articles can be indexed by robots and the users can usually see the content. However a site like it appears the content is blocked from both the user and the search engines leaving only the titles visible. Don't expect the titles of the articles to appearing in search engines. Sometimes this can happen but for competitive topics or news that has the same title, the edge goes to the companies that give full access to the text and information.
  • Bounce Rates: Bounce Rates & Retention rates are important. When users get that "pay me now or else" popup, many of them close it and will leave. How does the user know if your content is worth paying for? If they don't know then expect them to just not stick around. This will increase the bounce rate, which does affect your SEO efforts.
egamingreview paywall So in the end, a paywall can have a negative effect on a website's SEO efforts. In the case of Egaming Review, their content is not visible and that results in getting less search traffic and that alone has even more negative consequences. Who knows, maybe they are happy with the income they get but the expense is at having less traffic. In the case of TheStar, they have at least fully thought it through and perhaps have made the best of both worlds. Either way if regular users can't read the content online and have to decide to pay or find the content elsewhere, most will probably go elsewhere. The negative consequences of that are people could like and share the content of the competition. Some of these effects could indirectly hurt their rankings. If you believe social media is now an integral part of any marketing campaign and also a big factor in search, then you will know that paywalls make it difficult for people to share content. In some cases it makes sense to put up a paywall but when you have competition covering the same news or the same topics, freemium seems to be what will win.
21st Aug, 2018
John Wright