Why Paywalls Are Damaging To SEO

In order to remain profitable, many publications have resorted to locking their content behind subscription fees. Unfortunately, from a search engine optimization perspective, this is one of the worst things you can do. Here’s why.

See if this sounds familiar.

Whether for professional purposes, academic research, or simply personal interest, you’re searching for something on Google — details on a news story, perhaps, or information on your industry. You find a website that looks promising on the search engine results page (SERP), click through, and suddenly, you’re hit with a paywall. Your research efforts immediately grind to a halt, and you bounce back to the SERP, frustrated.

Eventually, you find the exact same information elsewhere. 

Whether through a need to remain profitable or an effort to open up new revenue streams, more and more publications appear to be relying on gated content. Instead of allowing users free access to their site and paying the bills through advertising networks, they lock down their site and lock out anyone who can’t pay. The problem is that in most cases, their content is nowhere near unique enough to justify this approach. 

This is particularly pronounced, and more than a little ironic, where journalism is concerned. We’ve seen publications tout the importance of freedom of information in one breath, then stick out their hand and demand payment with the next. We’ve seen news agencies try to charge money for a story that is available essentially for free from multiple other sources.

In short, all a paywall does in most cases is alienate prospective users and drive them right into the waiting arms of your competitors. And Google will notice. It’s long been known that the search engine keeps track of how long a user spends on a particular website, meaning not only are you driving away your audience, you’re also potentially hurting your ranking on the SERP. 

We aren’t saying there’s no place for gated content on your website. Certain materials, such as case studies, webinars, or guidebooks, are completely acceptable to lock behind paywalls. Subscriber-exclusive content, like unique thought leadership pieces, can also be gated behind a subscription. 

Most users don’t expect to receive this kind of content for free, and so won’t be upset if you gate it off. The people who do want to pay to support your brand will do so. The rest will continue to drive traffic and share your content, potentially bringing in more paid subscribers.

Well-gated content also tends to be unique and valuable enough that people are willing to pay for it. That, more than anything, is the key differentiator. If you try to wall off content that’s freely available on a competitor’s website, your audience will simply go to that website and blacklist your brand. 

Paywalls are seen by many as a solution to the prominence of ad blocking software. But they are a clumsy, ham-fisted fix at best. Applying them across your entire website isn’t going to save you, nor will it bring in more revenue.

It will simply drive more and more people away from your content, and further drag down your brand.

Author: Terry Cane

Terry Cane is a technical writer for SEOHost.net, a reliable and supportive SEO hosting partner.