Paywalls tempt publishers as Google adjusts algorithm

As content providers search for new sources of revenue, the case for paywalls just keeps on growing

Paywalls are springing up everywhere.

The latest to take the plunge into subscription-based journalism is the New Statesman, offering three free articles a month before a metered cost kicks in.

Not so long ago this would have been seen as a move of some audacity by a relatively small-scale publisher. But paywalls are becoming part of the revenue-raising mainstream.

When early adopters such as The Times got the bandwagon rolling, the climate was far more hostile. Plummeting traffic (with 90% of online readership or more falling off a cliff) left commentators wondering whether this was really a viable alternative to all-conquering ad revenues.

As of 2018, however, the shoe is on the other foot. Paywalls are becoming a more and more attractive option for publishers, while the stock of ads is seemingly in decline.

What has changed?

One big driver behind this reversal of fortunes is the internet leviathan of Google.

Over the last year, the search engine giant has made numerous paywall-friendly tweaks to its algorithms.

The once-strict ‘first-click-free’ policy – which mandated any website using subscriptions to show at least three free articles up front or face SEO penalties – has been relaxed to give publishers the final say on what they do or don’t unveil.

February alone saw two game-changing moves. First, ad blocking arrived on Chrome to filter out pop-ups, autoplay videos and other ads deemed to be among the net’s most intrusive.

Then, Google announced it would be well and truly bringing paywalls into the algorithmic fold, noting a user’s existing subscriptions and funneling that content to the user in searches accordingly.

According to Digiday, Facebook is working on a similar initiative although its recent crackdown on content from businesses has raised the ire of publishers.

Pronouncements from inside Google – promoting paywalls while hammering ads – suggest a sea change is at hand under the banner of ‘user experience’. In other words, content creators will be forced to have a major rethink about how they make their money.

B2B perspective 

We’ve spoken before on Content Desk about the potential and pitfalls of paywalls.

And the jury is still out on the value of gated content in the B2B world.

Some argue it artificially restricts potential leads and deters readers, while others point out their use is growing all the time as a way to pre-filter your audience.

With publications like The Times commanding twice as many monthly users as your average B2B blog even after a paywall, it doesn’t make sense for the latter to move wholesale to subscription-based models. Directing consumers to relevant ads or tracking leads is a much more effective use of content.

However, Google’s algorithm changes do offer new possibilities.

Those in doubt about the value of gating content will see the case for doing so is becoming more tempting all the time as the handful of big players controlling the internet pivot to paywalls.

A gate around some of your consistently high-performing content might just reel in the subscribers. We know now that doing so could, rather than diminish search engine traffic, give it a boost – and additional sympathetic developments are on the horizon.

The time is ripe for experimentation. You might find your paywall or content gate becomes indispensable.

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