SEO For Membership Sites: Getting Around The Paywall

Anyone who has done SEO for a while has heard the myth of the 200+ Google ranking factor.

To be fair, the number 200 may have been fairly accurate, when first mentioned by former Google employee Matt Cutts, over a decade ago.

Much has changed since then, and it is unlikely that anyone will know the true number of ranking factors hidden in Google’s algorithm today.

However, not all ranking factors are created equal.

If you simply focus on the top eight factors with the greatest impact, will be successful. These factors include:

  1. High quality content.
  2. Mobile first.
  3. page experience.
  4. Page speed.
  5. On-page optimization.
  6. Internal links.
  7. external links.
  8. Sweetened.

Here’s the catch: 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, which creates an extra step? Let’s take a look at 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’s going to affect your SEO in the first place?

The disadvantages are quite obvious:

  1. Fewer people will see your content if it is not visible to search engines.
  2. You have to make it feasible for them to pass through that gate.
  3. Some people may give you wrong information just to see your content.

However, there are some benefits to that:

  1. You may get better qualified leads because people who are willing to give you their personal information are likely to have a high level of interest.
  2. It can help you better segment and target your audience.
  3. Audiences often see your content as more valuable, useful, and trustworthy (but you have to provide it).

What does Google say about paywalled content?

Regardless of whether your content is free or premium, you must follow Google Content Guidelines.

The biggest problem premium content owners face is how to appear in search if their content is not freely available to all users.

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

What that meant was that in addition to the premium content, publishers had to provide some free content that users could access through a Google search.

Suffice it to say that publishers weren’t the biggest fans of this model and it was discontinued in 2017 and replaced with “Flexible sampling. “

Essentially, the newer model gives publishers more wiggle room in determining how much content they want to provide for free to users and how they want to provide it.

There are three options publishers can choose from in flexible sampling.


With the freemium model, some articles o

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

In other words, this is a mixture of walled and unwalled content.

There is no set rule on what content will be free and which is premium, but publishers usually use popular free content to cash in on premium content and entice people to subscribe if they want to read, perhaps a more in-depth article.


With a paywall, a visitor can read a limited number of articles per month before being asked to subscribe. Usually these are three articles, but it can be five or just one for example.

This method is used by many prominent websites, including Medium, The New York Times, and others.

Once you reach your cap, you will see a prompt like the one below to sign up:

Screenshot by the author, February 2022

Tough paywalls

The former two methods are known as paywalls because they allow the visitor to view at least a few articles or even just a part of the content.

With “hard” paywalls, all content is turned off.

This means that the content cannot be crawled or indexed by Google or other search engines. This obviously makes it more difficult to get new subscriptions, but if the content is of high value, the conversion rate can be much higher.

Although perhaps the least liked of all paywalls, some of the top level websites are still used by some of the top level websites in finance and other industries such as the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and others.

Example of a fixed paywall.Screenshot by the author, February 2022

So which of the three is the best option?

This largely depends on the purpose of your content.

News platforms, such as the New York Times, have had good success with rationed content. This form allows visitors to get a good idea of ​​the quality of their content, by presenting complete samples as “teasers” to entice users to subscribe.

For example, the New York Times introduced calculated subscriptions in 2011, and today, a decade or so later, 7.6 million from 8.4 One million total subscribers are digital subscribers, while only about 795,000 subscribers are print subscribers.

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

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

The Freemium method makes sense for a website that already has a large base of loyal readers, different types of content, and exclusive content.

Balance free and premium content

Free content has a distinct advantage over premium content when it comes to organic search, due to its sheer size. This does not mean that publishers of premium content will be free of organic search opportunities.

In fact, one could argue that engaging in SEO is more important for subscription sites, as they have an additional hurdle (the paywall) that must be removed.

Premium content publishers actually have two good options:

  • They may strive to find a balance between free and premium content such as the New York Times.
  • Or they can create content that readers are looking for, but can’t get anywhere else. This content must be essentially exclusive.

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

Basic articles like “How to Optimize Your Website for SEO” number in the thousands (millions?) on the web and can be found with a quick Google search for free. Users have no reason or motive to pay for this type of content.

On the other hand, if a publisher goes to great lengths to discover a need and then creates a solution in the form of a white paper, e-book, or in-depth article, they can justify putting their niche content behind a paywall.

If the content is authored by a famous expert, so much the better.

When deciding whether or not to want a content portal, it might be a good idea to consider the following three questions.

1. What is the “end game”?

Are you looking to increase subscribers or generate leads? If so, it is likely that the content is confined in some way.

However, if you are looking to drive more visitors and links, the portal approach will backfire.

2. Is the content worth paying for?

Put yourself in the user’s shoes and answer this question: “Is this content valuable enough for me to pay for it or fill out a form?”

Be careful when answering this question. As the creator or curator of content, being proud of authorship can make it really difficult to be truly unbiased.

3. Is the data collected useful?

Another consideration when it comes to portal content is how it affects the user experience. The rise in the use of pop-ups and overlays is directly responsible for the increase in ad blockers.

By forcing users to hand over personal information to access blocked content, a (sometimes large) percentage of the data collected consists of fake names and fake email accounts.

Update “unique” and the difference between premium content and portals

In March 2017, Google introduced an update to its algorithm, which it called Unique.

The basic idea was to reward websites that provide a positive user experience and discount websites that are light on quality content and heavy on ads.

Fred also had the unintended consequence of downgrading some legitimate paywall sites.

Technical SEO considerations for paywalled content

One of the initial issues with Fred was the difficulty in distinguishing between paywalled content and hidden (hidden) content. Since then, Google has come up with a solution: structured data.

In order for paywalled content to be eligible to appear in Google search results, you must follow Structured and technical guidance.

Here’s an example of how paywalled content can be flagged to comply with Google’s guidelines:

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

The question is, “How can Googlebot read content behind a paywall?” For example, if you look at This article With View Source the following is visible via the browser:

Text excerpt from The Wall Street Journal.Screenshot by the author, February 2022

While the rest is behind a paywall…

And the answer is…

By blocking!

It is the same site Need to use blocking.

It sends the whole content when Googlebot requests the page, using the User-Agent HTTP header, eg:

Example of a user agent HTTP header.Screenshot by the author, February 2022

One last but important point: Clever researchers have learned that paywalls can be bypassed by going into Google’s cache and reading free content.

To prevent this, one needs to use the noarchive robots meta tag, which will prevent Google from showing the cached link to that page.


Paywalls are becoming more popular across the web. They allow publishers to generate revenue by charging readers to access articles or other content.

While they can be useful for providing premium content, they also limit free access to information. They can restrict search bots from accessing what they need to know to properly index your website.

We hope these tips help you decide whether to use a paywall or the best way to improve your firewall for research and profitable success.

More resources:

  • Google displays paywall content in featured snippets
  • How to assess the SEO value of a piece of content
  • Content Marketing: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners

Featured image: Marija_Crow/Shutterstock

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