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SEO For Membership Sites with Content Behind a Paywall

  • Joe Curmi
  • 6 min read
SEO For Membership Sites with Content Behind a Paywall


If you've decided to introduce a paywall to your website, congratulations! You're on your way to generating additional revenue from your content. More news websites are choosing this monetization strategy as of late. Big names like FT.com, independent.co.uk, and theathletic.com have been using this subscription model for years now with a great deal of success. So it's a proven model.

But how do you ensure that your paywalled content is still visible to Search Engines? After all, paywalled content is also written for Search Engines, not just Humans! It is therefore essential that your technical search engine optimization (SEO) is implemented as part of marketing your paywalled content. If a specific schema is not implemented correctly, the Search Engines might treat the paywalled content as cloaking and your web pages might trigger a cloaking penalty. Keep reading to learn more about the specific schema that you need to implement and cloaking.

What Is a Paywall?

A paywall is a way for content creators to make money from their online content. It works by restricting access to content behind a paywall so that only people who pay or subscribe can read it. This can be done by having a full paywall, where all content is behind the paywall, or by having a metered paywall, where some content is available for free, but other content is behind the paywall.

Why Put Content Behind a Paywall?

Putting your content behind a paywall is a way to monetize your content. But not only, it also gives you access to better-qualified leads as people willing to give you their personal information are usually more interested in what you have to say. Additionally, it can help you segment and upsell your audience better since they're already self-selected by paying for your content. Finally, paid content is perceived as being more valuable. However, fewer people will discover your website if your website pages are not visible to Search Engines. Why you might ask? If Search Engines cannot find the content on a page, that page won’t rank. Thin content pages will struggle to rank in Search Engines.

Additionally, you need to ensure that the content you offer is worth the admission price; if it's not, people will be less likely to pay for it. Or they might subscribe and cancel after a few months.

Different Types of Paywall Content Models

There are 3 types of Paywall content models:

1. Freemium Paywalls

These offer some basic content for free but require payment for premium, more in-depth content. This model allows users to sample the content before deciding whether or not to subscribe. An example of a freemium paywall is The Guardian which provides some articles for free. However, you need to pay $30 monthly for premium news analysis content with no ads.

Freemium Paywalls

2. Metered Paywalls or Soft Paywalls

These allow users to access a certain amount of content for free before requiring payment. Usually 3 to 5 pieces of content a day. This model allows readers to become familiar with the premium content before deciding whether or not to subscribe. New York Times is an example of metered paywall and they have a dynamic system that allows them to adjust how much readers are charged per article.

3. Hard Paywalls

These types of websites do not offer any content for free and require payment from users to access any of the content. This model is typically used by publications that offer unique or niche content that cannot be found elsewhere. The Wall Street Journal is a successful example of hard paywall content.

Which Paywall Content Model Is Best?

Before you consider implementing a paywall to your website, weigh the pros and cons carefully. Do the math. The New York Times has reached 10 million subscribers this year. 11% of the company’s revenue ($351.2 million) comes from Subscribers. The Guardian’s ad free reading subscription service generated £68.7 million in revenue last year from 961,000 subscribers. That amount of revenue wouldn’t be possible with display ads.

Google’s John Muller on Paywalled Content

John Mueller, a Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, recently spoke about the issue of paywalls and how they affect Google's crawling and indexing of content. Mueller said that while paywalled content is not visible to users, it can still be visible to web crawlers. Therefore, there is no need to worry about Google not being able to see paywalled content. In addition, Mueller, confirms that just because some content is behind a paywall does not automatically mean that Google sees it as thin content.

Ultimately, Google treats all content equally, regardless of whether it is behind a paywall or not. This is good news for publishers who rely on paywalls to generate revenue. In an office hours video, John Muller confirms that “the paywall content is not one of the things that Google would show as a specific rich result type.” He advises testing this by creating a test page or doing a normal URL inspection test using Google’s Mobile Friendly Test tool or inside of Google Search Console.

For your content to be SEO-optimized and discovered by Search Engines, you need to follow these steps on how to develop a paywall content SEO strategy:

SEO For Paywall Content - Step By Step Implementation Guide

1. Add no Archive

Adding the noarchive tag <meta name=”robots” content=”noarchive”> to your website requests Search Engines not to cache your content. This means the content will only be available to those subscribers who are logged in. The noarchive is important because you wouldn’t want content behind a paywall to be indexed and discovered by people who are not paid subscribers.

2. Create the Article Schema Markup

Add the article structured data to your news or blog articles, to help Search Engines understand the type of content you are publishing. This is a piece of code your developers need to add to your web pages to help Google understand your content better. You can easily create an article structured data using tools like this schema builder.

Google has now created isAccessibleForFree to the datasets structured data. Basically this enables you to let Google know if the content is accessible for free or if you need to pay to access the data. For paywalled content add "isAccessibleForFree": "False" to your structured data. Here’s an example from a Washington Post page

Create the Article Schema Markup

If you use AMP with structured data, your page can be eligible for the Top stories carousel, visual stories, and rich results in mobile search results. Your page might also be eligible for FAQ’s, video, how to’s, listicles, and images featured snippets.

If you use a non-AMP web page with structured data, with rich results, Google

can comprehend the web page more thoroughly and enhance your appearance in Search Engines.

3. Add a Class Name Around the Paywalled Content

The third and final step is to add a class name around each paywalled section of your page to indicate which part of your content is not accessible for free. Here’s an example of how to use the Class Nane for paywalled and non paywalled content on the same page:


    <div class="non-paywall">

    <p>This content is outside a paywall and is visible to all.</p>


    <div class="paywall">This content is inside a paywall, and requires a subscription or registration.</div>


This helps Search Engines to understand which sections of the article are hidden behind a paywall and which sections are visible to everyone.

Google has a dedicated section about this class name, here.

Avoiding a Cloaking Penalty

Cloaking is when a website shows specific content to the user and completely different content to Search Engines. By correctly implementing the Class Name mentioned above, Search Engines will fully understand your paywalled strategy and your website will be safe from any cloaking penalty.

Additional Tips:

  • Allow only verified bots to crawl the full content i.e the paywalled content. You can block any unwanted bots in your robots.txt file by adding this rule;

      _User-Agent: omgilibot_
      _Disallow: /_

Replace omgilibot with any other bot you would like to block

  • To test your Schema Markup and make sure Google can see the full content, run a few pages in the Google Rich Results test tool. This tool shows you if there are any Schema markup errors and also reveals how your content is being rendered. Do a simple searchin the HTML section of the tool for any paywalled content and you will see if Google is able to discover the content or not.

To test your Schema Markup and make sure Google can see the full content

  • And while you are on the Google Rich Results tool, check the More Info section for any page resources that cannot load or any other errors on the page.
  • Use keywords strategically throughout your content to ensure that it is still discoverable by those looking for it.
  • Promote some of your paywalled content through social media or other channels to drive traffic to your site.
  • Offer a variety of subscription options to appeal to different readerships.
  • Most importantly, provide quality content that is worth paying for! With value, your readers will be more likely to subscribe.

Wrapping It Up

A paywall is a way for content creators to make money from their online content. It works by restricting access to content behind a paywall, so that only people who pay or subscribe can see it. Although implementing an SEO strategy for paywalled content can be a little intimidating if you’ve never done it before, the benefits are worth the effort. And as we’ve mentioned in this article, it only takes 3 steps to become search engine compliant.

By following Google’s guidelines you will improve your chances of ranking better on SERPs and increase traffic to your website.

Choosing between the freemium, hard, and metered paywall is a decision you need to think hard about. Overall, big media outlets have proven that the pros of paywalls outweigh the cons. This is already a proven strategy by thousands of websites and generates consistent revenue for content creators. Apart from that, it helps improve journalism's quality.

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