SEO for Membership Sites: Bypassing the Paywall

Anyone who’s been in SEO for any length of time has heard the myth of Google’s 200+ ranking factors.

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

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

That said, not all ranking factors are created equal.

If you just focus on the top eight factors with the greatest influence, You will succeed. 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. Local.

Here’s the catch: it only works IF your content is visible to Google and available to readers.

What if you put a paywall in front of your content, creating 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 affects SEO in the first place?

The downsides are pretty clear:

  1. Fewer people will see your content if it’s not visible to search engines.
  2. You have to make it worth it for them to walk through that door.
  3. Some people may give you false information just to see your closed content.

That said, there are a few advantages to this:

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

What does Google have to say about paid content?

Whether your content is free or premium, you should follow Google’s recommendations guidelines.

The biggest problem for premium content owners is how to be visible in search if their content is not freely available to all users.

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

This meant that in addition to their premium content, publishers had to provide free content that users could access through Google search.

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

Basically, the new model gives publishers more leeway to decide how much content they want to provide free to users and how they want to provide it.

Publishers can choose from three options in Flexible Sampling.


With the freemium model, some items o

n the site is accessible without a paywall, although some will have one.

In other words, it is a combination of closed and unclosed content.

There is no specific rule as to which content will be free and which will be premium, but generally publishers use popular free content to leverage premium content and entice people to subscribe if they want to read, maybe a more in-depth article.


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

This method is used by several leading 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:

Screenshot by author, February 2022

Hard paywalls

The previous two methods are known as “soft” paywalls because they allow the visitor to see at least a few articles or even just some of the content.

With “hard” paywalls, all content is blocked.

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

Although perhaps the least popular of all paywall methods, hard paywalls are still used by some leading 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, such as The New York Times, have had great success with measured content. This model allows visitors to get a good idea of ​​the quality of their content, providing full samples in the form of “teasers” to entice users to subscribe.

The NY Times, for example, introduced metered subscriptions in 2011, and now, a decade later, 7.6 million out of 8.4 million total subscribers are digital subscribers, while only about 795,000 are print subscribers.

Here is a chart of their digital-only subscription growth from 2011 to 2021:

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

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

Balancing Free and Premium Content

Free content has a clear advantage over premium content when it comes to organic search, due to its volume. That doesn’t mean premium content publishers will be deprived of organic search opportunities.

In fact, you could argue that engaging in SEO is MORE important for subscription sites because they have an extra hurdle (paywall) to clear.

Premium content publishers actually have two good options:

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

In other words, you can’t put any type 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 for free with a quick Google search. Users have no reason or motivation to pay for this type of content.

On the other hand, if a publisher goes to great lengths to uncover a need and then create a solution in the form of a whitepaper, ebook, or in-depth article, they may justify placing their specialized content behind a paywall.

If the content is written by a renowned expert, so much the better.

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

1. What is the “end game”?

Looking to increase subscribers or generate leads? If so, the content should probably be blocked in some way.

However, if you are looking to generate more visitors and links, the trigger approach will be counterproductive.

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 a content creator or curator, pride in authorship can make it difficult to be truly unbiased.

3. Is the data collected useful?

Another consideration with content blocking is its impact on the user experience. The increase in the use of pop-ups and overlays is directly responsible for the increase in ad-blocking software.

By forcing users to provide personal information to access secure content, a (sometimes significant) percentage of the collected data consists of fake names and burner email accounts.

The “Fred” update and the difference between premium and closed content

In March 2017, Google introduced an algorithm update dubbed Fred.

The basic idea was to reward websites that provided a positive user experience and demote websites that were light on quality content and heavy on ads.

Fred also had the unintended consequence of downgrading some legitimate paid websites.

Technical SEO Considerations for Paid Content

An initial problem with Fred was that he had trouble telling the difference between paid and hidden (hidden) content. Since then, Google has found a solution: structured data.

For paid content to appear in Google search results, it must follow the Structured and Technical Guidelines.

Here’s an example of how to indicate that paid content meets Google’s guidelines:

an example of how to mark paid content to comply with Google's guidelines.Screenshot by author, February 2022

The question is: “how is Googlebot able to read the content behind the paywall?” For example, if you look This article with “view source”, the following is visible via the browser:

Body of the Wall Street Journal excerpt.Screenshot by author, February 2022

While the rest is behind a paywall…

And the answer is…

By camouflage!

Namely, the site itself Needs use camouflage.

It sends the full content when Googlebot requests the page, using the User-Agent HTTP header, for example:

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

One last but important point: Astute researchers have learned that paywalls can be circumvented by accessing Google’s cache and playing content for free.

To avoid this, use the noarchive robots meta tag, which will prevent Google from displaying the cached link to this page.


Paywalls are becoming more and more common on 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. Additionally, they can prevent search bots from accessing what they need to know to properly catalog your website.

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

More resources:

Featured Image: Marija_Crow/Shutterstock

About Nereida Nystrom

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