Amazon SEO Isn’t Google SEO: 6 Differences That Matter

Did you know that Amazon has surpassed Google as the go-to search platform for shoppers looking for products? This may come as a surprise to many readers. (I’ve certainly never heard anyone use “Amazon” as a verb.) Yet the data backs this up. When customers have a specific product in mind, more turn to Amazon […]

The post Amazon SEO Isn’t Google SEO: 6 Differences That Matter appeared first on CXL.

Did you know that Amazon has surpassed Google as the go-to search platform for shoppers looking for products?

This may come as a surprise to many readers. (I’ve certainly never heard anyone use “Amazon” as a verb.) Yet the data backs this up.

When customers have a specific product in mind, more turn to Amazon search than Google.

If you’re porting over your SEO “best practices” from on-site product pages to Amazon product pages, you’ll struggle. This post covers the key differences to help you thrive on both platforms.

The fundamental difference between Amazon and Google search

Anyone who’s been in SEO for a while will tell you that understanding the core goal of a search engine is critical to a sustainable SEO strategy.

Yes, in-the-moment tactics can boost rankings. But their use shouldn’t come at the expense of aligning your site to what search engines want to reward.

So what’s the main objective—and ideal user experience—for Google and Amazon?

  • Google wants to answer questions. You run a search. The first result is exactly what you’re looking for. You either get an immediate answer or click through to a site, with no need to return to the SERP.
  • Amazon wants to sell products. You search for a product, and the first result is the perfect match for your needs. In one or two more clicks, you buy—with the post-purchase experience reinforcing your initial choice. 

Comparatively speaking, Google’s task is more complex. Take outdoor grills as an example.

Google needs to help people compare the use cases for gas versus charcoal grills, to find great recipes for grilling, to understand different techniques (e.g., low and slow vs. searing).

And it needs to answer all those questions with limited data—its visibility into the user experience declines after you leave the SERP.

grill search result page on using Google.
Consider the range of intent: Shopping ads, local restaurants, barbecue techniques, and local retailers. Amazon’s algorithm manages a smaller set of users—those with the intent to buy a product online. 

Amazon, on the other hand, is there to help buyers make a purchasing decision. Every click or scroll is trackable within their ecosystem. Even after a purchase, Amazon knows whether a return was necessary or how buyers felt about the experience (through reviews).

Grill search results when using Amazon.
Amazon’s algorithm needs to solve a far narrow range of user problems and gets to use far more data to do it.

From those fundamental differences flow all tactical differences—the ones that require tweaks to titles or affect how you promote your ecommerce products on other sites.

Of course, not everything requires reworking.

What doesn’t change

Yes, Google and Amazon’s search functions are not the same. No, not everything is different:

  1. Keywords still matter. They’re the primary way that search engines match user needs to web content. You need to know how users think and talk about your product, and how to communicate that knowledge clearly but naturally on key parts of your product pages.
  2. Click-through rate is a proxy for relevance. If no one is clicking your link on Google or Amazon, that’s a sign that you’re not relevant—either because the content visible on the SERP isn’t compelling (e.g., low-quality images, typos) or the search engine misunderstands your page. In either case, you won’t last long on Page 1.
  3. Hardly anyone goes past Page 1. The lion’s share of clicks—and revenue—goes to those who show up near the top. That trend is only accelerating. The more you trust the quality of the search engine (i.e. the better it gets), the less inspired you are to dig through subsequent pages. (Who isn’t already a bit suspicious of sites or products on Page 4?)

So where do the two search engines diverge?

Keys to winning Amazon SEO (that experience with Google won’t teach you)

1. Single use of keywords is sufficient—as long as they’re relevant.

As long as the keyword is applicable to the product and appears in the listing title, there’s no need to litter the description and bullet points with the term.

Titles

On Amazon, most experts recommend including the product, material, quantity, brand, and color in the title, something that would be overload on a Google search result.

(The maximum character count before a title is truncated is 129 characters on Amazon compared to about 60 on Google.)

Consider the difference between All-Clad’s product pages and product listings on Amazon:

All-Clad cookware in Google search.
All-Clad pans on Amazon.

It’s easy to see some of the keywords added to Amazon titles and how those might target user searches: “non-stick,” “dishwasher safe,” “hard anodized.”

That’s why keyword research is paramount—not just for the obvious product name but for high-value descriptors. Indeed, keyword research is commonly listed as one of the most important factors for visibility on Amazon search.

Despite the availability of numerous tools to help sellers identify the most lucrative keywords, there’s no simple way to do it. Yes, you should start with a tool to build the initial dataset for your research, but the legwork doesn’t end there. 

Entering your product’s primary description into such a tool generates a seemingly impressive list of related keywords. But this isn’t an exact science.

Each brand must decide which keywords have that special mix of relevance, high search volume, and low competition—those with the potential to generate sales from organic search alone.

Product descriptions

Speaking of product descriptions: Amazon prefers bullets over walls of text. For users, it’s easier to scan a listing to see if a product has the desired features, especially on mobile devices. 

Product description image of a speaker.

And, for Amazon’s algorithm, bullets are a semi-structured way to imbibe information, which helps the search engine compare similar items (and rank them more effectively).

In the example above, separate bullets cover aspects like construction materials, battery life, and microphone capabilities.

Backend keywords

Remember meta keywords? Google once allowed webmasters to dump a laundry list of (supposedly) relevant phrases into the source code, hidden from users. As you might expect, it wasn’t long before:

  1. Webmasters abused the privilege.
  2. Search engines got smart enough to figure it out on their own.

Amazon is still playing catch up, allowing sellers to include “backend keywords,” such as related terms, common misspellings, and even foreign-language versions.

These are freely visible in the source code if you’re looking to do some competitor research:

Black and Decker keyword in source code.
The meta keywords for a hand drill.

This may also be an opportunity to port Amazon learnings back to your ecommerce site. If all the top-ranked products share a subset of backend keywords, they may be worth including in your copy, too.

2. Optimize for the user (no, really).

Google has always pushed webmasters to optimize for the user—to match intent and solve user problems. The challenge, of course, is that “optimizing for the user” doesn’t always optimize for Google.

Recipes are an obvious example. Does anyone really want that 1,000-word personal history above the ingredient list and procedure? No. Does it give more context to search engines—and a potential reason to rank it higher? Yes.

Because Amazon has end-to-end analytics and is interested in sales, however, sellers can focus on copywriting that persuades users to buy

That rationale applies to other aspects of your Amazon product listing, too:

  • Include great images because they will help you sell the product, not because Amazon ranks listings with X number of images at Y resolution higher.
  • Encourage honest (but mostly positive) reviews because they motivate people to buy, which, in turn, will cause Amazon to rank your listing higher.

Amazon can skip right past the superficial metrics in a way that Google can’t, and sellers benefit from it.

Too often, on Google, the inverse is true: We optimize for the micro-conversion of an organic visit—even though winning it sacrifices some of the post-click experience, negatively impacting engagement and conversion.

3. External links are valuable—if they result in traffic.

With Amazon’s A10 update to its algorithm, traffic from external sites is given increased importance.

This may appear to overlap with Google’s affinity for backlinks, but there’s a crucial difference. Amazon focuses on referral traffic—valuing only the the links that drive pageviews.

This makes total sense:

  • Google is looking at links from other sites as a mark of authority.
  • Amazon is looking at links from other sites as a source of leads. 

Calls to action on such external links are far more important for Amazon than they are for Google.

An ecommerce site trying to boost their rankings on Google benefits most from links that appear on credible sites, even if they drive limited traffic. (Yes, Google’s Reasonable Surfer Model suggests that, “The amount of PageRank a link might pass along is based upon the probability that someone might click on a link.”)

But Amazon retailers must earn links that get clicked. Whether it’s “do follow” or “no follow” doesn’t matter. External links that drive traffic to Amazon create another pathway for online shoppers to buy something from them.

Amazon will reward sellers who do that.

4. Internal PPC traffic is less influential than it once was.

With Amazon’s A9 algorithm, people who spent more on internal ads seemed to rank higher organically. With A10, the effect has lessened.

Paying for your listing to appear in the Sponsored Products, Display Ads, and Headline Search Ads may still influence your search result position. But, thankfully, you don’t need to build an organic strategy around it.

(Google, by contrast, has maintained a firewall between paid and organic listings.)

Image of cooking knifes in Amazon.

There are reasons beyond Amazon SEO to run paid campaigns.

Seller authority is paramount for Amazon (more below.) Retailers new to the platform need to illustrate their conversion potential and credibility to be “picked up” by the search engine, and PPC is one of the most effective ways to kickstart this process.

Once it happens, however, the importance of traffic generated via Amazon’s PPC campaigns falls off in terms of search visibility. PPC, in other words, is a paid tryout for the organic listings.

5. Click-through and conversion rates are critical.

Amazon’s search engine places massive weight on these two metrics. They indicate the percentage of people who:

  • Click your listing on the SERP;
  • Purchase the product the page is selling.

The good news is that sellers can tweak the content that has a direct impact on these ratios. The bad news is that they can’t hide the content that they don’t control.

Click-through rate

Amazon sellers who aim to improve their organic click-through rates have limited options. The main components of an Amazon SERP are the product image, title, price, and customer ratings, with the last item (generally) out of sellers’ hands.

As the most visible component, the product image is critical to grab attention. Test ways to make the most of this element.

Image of mugs in Amazon search.
A hit of bright color can catch the eye on a dull SERP.

The same goes for the product title. It’s arguably the second-most visible component of the search result and needs to catch the eye while also containing the necessary keywords. Finding this balance is crucial

Conversion rate

Compared to optimizing for click-through rate, there are more customizations available to a seller to optimize for conversions.

Fortunately, there are many excellent online resources on how to do so. Typical strategies include: 

On the flip side, things like out-of-stock notices can hurt conversions (and rankings).

Remember, Amazon wants sales, but not all sales are created equal. If Amazon earns a higher margin for a given product, that’s a better end result for them—and a reason to showcase that product in search. 

6. Seller Authority remains pivotal.

Seller Authority is assigned even more importance with the A10 update, meaning that retailers who exhibit a history of customer-focused behavior are given a significant boost in their search engine rankings.

Seller Authority is determined by numerous variables:

  • How long sellers have been on Amazon;
  • The percentage of customer returns;
  • Overall feedback from customers on their products.

Amazon sellers can and should (subtly) motivate customers who had a positive experience to leave good reviews. Getting this right has the twin benefits of providing social proof to drive conversions (an important ranking factor) and contributing to Seller Authority.

The choice for or against Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) shifts responsibility for several aspects of Seller Authority. With FBA, sellers send their goods to Amazon, which sends them to buyers. From Amazon’s perspective, they can:

  • Ensure consistent delivery times;
  • Manage returns and overall customer service.

That, in theory, ensures a more consistent customer experience, which has obvious benefits for Amazon and possible knock-on benefits for the seller. But it also limits the customer data provided to sellers and has some other negatives.

Conclusion

SEO strategies to help pages rank on Google diverge from those that are effective on Amazon.

Amazon’s objective is to serve search results that generate a sale in as short a time as possible. Sales velocity is their primary concern, and the logic that drives their search results is designed to support this.

Mostly, this is good news: On Amazon, you can focus more on making your buyers happy and less on the needs of an esoteric algorithm.

The post Amazon SEO Isn’t Google SEO: 6 Differences That Matter appeared first on CXL.

Paywalls, SEO, and the Need for a Damn Good Brand

Think it’s tough to earn links or shares for your content? Try earning money. For publishers, doing so is a push-pull between discoverability and monetization. News sites have long been at the forefront, but plenty of speciality sites (e.g., The Athletic, Cook’s Illustrated, Adweek) have paywalls, too.  Search engines are vital for discoverability. But, historically, […]

The post Paywalls, SEO, and the Need for a Damn Good Brand appeared first on CXL.

Think it’s tough to earn links or shares for your content? Try earning money.

For publishers, doing so is a push-pull between discoverability and monetization. News sites have long been at the forefront, but plenty of speciality sites (e.g., The Athletic, Cook’s Illustrated, Adweek) have paywalls, too. 

Search engines are vital for discoverability. But, historically, they’ve undermined monetization—requiring crawler access that savvy users exploit and demanding free clicks for searchers.   

The hard part isn’t making it functional but profitable. Indeed, if you want to find out whether anyone really cares about your content, just put up a paywall.

How we got here

Google’s guidelines have changed over time, but they’re built around the needs of news publishers and hold fast to a central tenet: Google cares more about providing the best information than whether that information is behind a paywall.

Google’s Public Search Liaison Danny Sullivan has openly pushed back against those who want subscription-only content flagged in search results:

Experiments run by Dan Smullen, who manages technical SEO for Independent News & Media, demonstrate that Google isn’t biased against paywalled content: 

Before launching our paywall in February, we implemented a soft wall—a registration wall. We tested this on two completely temporary replicas of our sites for Canada (independent.ie/ca/) and Australia (independent.ie/au/).

For users in those countries, we put all content behind a registration wall. We saw less than a 5% drop in traffic over a six-month period but a considerable amount of new registrations.

We also tested putting a randomised 50% of all pages in our travel section (with an average position of 1–5 in Google Search Console over a 3-month period) behind a registration wall. The travel section on Independent.ie was selected due to its ranking for evergreen queries, such as “things to do in Canada.”

We saw no significant decrease in average ranking. Currently, Independent.ie is still #1 on Google.ie in Ireland—despite being behind a paywall.

Still, as Barry Adams of Polemic Digital told me: 

If Google has to choose between a gated piece of content and a free piece of content that have roughly the same quality signals, Google is always going to rank the free content first—because it’s a better user experience.

In addition to those underlying principles, there have been two seismic shifts: First Click Free and Flexible Sampling.

First Click Free (2008)

Google announced its First Click Free (FCF) policy in 2008, requiring publishers to:

allow all users who find your page through Google search to see the full text of the document that the user found in Google’s search results and that Google’s crawler found on the web without requiring them to register or subscribe to see that content.

For publishers, the policy didn’t work. Anyone who accessed an article via a Google search enjoyed Infinite Clicks Free. In 2009, Google allowed publishers to cap FCF views at five articles per day; in 2015, the cap tightened to three articles.

The changes didn’t solve the issue. Access to three articles per day—still as many as 93 articles per month—sated most users. Additional devices were a multiplier: A phone, tablet, work computer, and home computer meant 12 articles per day, or 372 per month.

By early 2017, some publishers had had enough. The Wall Street Journal opted out of FCF in February after a partial opt-out in January “result[ed] in subscription growth driven directly from content.”

(An alternative to participating in FCF, a “subscription designation,” allowed Googlebot to crawl an 80-word snippet of an article, which served as the sole source of ranking material.)

Other publishers had similar issues, as Taneth Evans, Head of Audience Development at The Times in London, detailed:

There were too many flaws with the model to participate, so the business opted out. As such, Google continued to get stopped at our paywall during crawls, and we became virtually non-existent in its search engine results pages.

Google ended FCF in October 2017, shifting the responsibility of metering and experimentation back to publishers.

Flexible Sampling (2017)

Even as Google dismantled FCF, it contended that publishers should provide some free content. What changed was who was in charge of defining those limits:

We found that while FCF is a reasonable sampling model, publishers are in a better position to determine what specific sampling strategy works best for them [. . . ] we encourage publishers to experiment with different free sampling schemes, as long as they stay within the updated webmaster guidelines.

Flexible Sampling, still in place today, offers publishers two options:

  1. Metering. “Provides users with a quota of free articles to consume, after which paywalls will start appearing”;
  2. Lead-in. “Offers a portion of an article’s content without it being shown in full.”

In both instances, search engines have access to the full article content—either in the HTML or within structured data—while user access is restricted.

For sites like The Times, the change resurrected their participation in search:

From those two core variations—metering and lead-in—come an array of hybrid possibilities (e.g., showing users lead-ins after metering expires, making some content fully free and other content lead-in only, etc.).

A third option, of course, is a hard paywall—denying all access to searchers or searchers and crawlers. Which system—or any system at all—makes sense is up for debate, and experimentation.  

Metering vs. lead-in

Paywalls, by default, are a barrier to organic acquisition—they stop some users from accessing some content. Many sites adjust that barrier with metering.

Metering

“As far as Google’s concerned,” explained Adams, “metered sites are free websites. Googlebot looks with a clean session, so Google is perfectly fine as long as the first click is freely visible.”

While publishers ultimately control how many free clicks a user gets before hitting a metered paywall, Google has recommendations:

  • Use monthly (rather than daily) metering.
  • Start with 10 monthly clicks.

Publishers are free to experiment, as, historically, WSJ aggressively has.

Google’s own research, done “in cooperation with our publishing partners,” showed that “even minor changes to the current sampling levels could degrade user experience and, as user access is restricted, unintentionally impact article ranking in Google Search.”

Google offers a relative threshold for that “degraded” user experience:

Our analysis shows that general user satisfaction starts to degrade significantly when paywalls are shown more than 10% of the time (which generally means that about 3% of the audience has been exposed to the paywall).

So, in theory, a pile-up of users hitting your paywall could affect rankings. But is Google carefully monitoring (notoriously noisy) clickstream data to paywalled sites

Probably not, according to Matthew Brown, a consultant who previously managed SEO for The New York Times:

You’d have to get really aggressive with metering to see a significant negative ranking impact. But you can imagine a scenario with limited metering (e.g., one click per month) in which most users pogostick after hitting a paywall—a bad user experience that, it’s hard to imagine, helps rankings.

Metering does allow sites to segment users who hit your paywall—a key audience for conversion optimization. Google endorses that strategy of variable, user-specific metering:

By identifying users who consistently use up the monthly allotment, publishers could then target them by reducing the sample allowance for that audience specifically, and, by allowing more liberal free consumption for other users, reduce the risk that overall user behavior and satisfaction is degraded.

For sites that rely on a lead-in, it’s a different conversation.

Lead-ins

Metering and lead-ins aren’t mutually exclusive. Google even recommends using lead-ins for users who’ve hit a metered paywall:

By exposing the article lede, publishers can let users experience the value of the content and so provide more value to the user than a page with completely blocked content.

Lead-ins can also restrict access immediately or restrict access to a subset of site content (i.e. a freemium model). 

site with some freemium content, some paywalled content.
On ChefSteps, users must sign up for a “Studio Pass” to access a subset of recipes—otherwise, only the lead-in is visible. 

From a technical standpoint, metering is simpler—search engines can always access the full content of the article in the HTML. Lead-ins must provide search engines access while also keeping freeloaders from exploiting loopholes. 

Smullen identifies two types of lead-in models:

  1. Lead-ins with content in HTML or structured data for Google and users;
  2. Lead-ins with content in HTML or structured data for Google only.

1. Lead-ins with content in HTML or structured data for users and Google

A standard lead-in offers a short paragraph followed by a subscription form:

example of a lead in.

If you load that article into Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool, however, the entire article is in the body copy of the Article schema. This method helps Google crawl paywalled content that users can’t see.

For example, in that article, this sentence is present only in the structured data: “The Longstaffs have given hope, but only if they stay, only if more follow in their promising footsteps.”

That text can’t be found in the HTML using an HTML viewer:

example of paywalled content not found in the html.

But if you perform a site: search for it, Google has no issues indexing content found only within the structured data:

example of google indexing content from structured data.

That content, controversially, can even show up in a featured snippet, as this example does for the query “should newcastle’s new owners hire Alan Shearer”:

example of content within structured data showing up as the featured snippet.

The upside of this approach—from a non-SEO point-of-view—is that URLs can’t be loaded with HTML viewers, making content less vulnerable to scrapers.

However, as just shown, anyone willing to go the extra step of extracting content from the structured data can do so—hence the second method below.

2. Lead-ins with content in HTML or structured data for Google only

If you take a random article on The Washington Post and load it into Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test, you can see that Google has no issue crawling or rendering the content:

example of how the real googlebot has no problem crawling paywalled articles.

That’s because the Google Mobile-Friendly Test uses the real Googlebot user agent and IP.

If you try to replicate that with a crawler, such as Screaming Frog, you’ll get a 403 Forbidden response code because Screaming Frog only spoofs Googlebot. (You can verify the real Googlebot for your site.)

demonstration of how spoofing googlebot doesn't allow access to paywalled content.

So, yes, if someone really wants to read the article for free, they can copy the HTML from the Mobile-Friendly Test and load it into an HTML viewer.

But this method better protects publishers against scrapers since the Mobile-Friendly Test would limit the volume of requests. Unless a requester is the real Googlebot, the content isn’t scrapable en masse. 

The downside of this method—if you use AMP—is that the article can be read on Google’s AMP cache.

example of ability to read paywalled article on google amp cache.

Indeed, there’s no shortage of ways to bypass paywalls.  

So how do you keep the freeloaders out?

“If someone wants to circumvent a paywall,” says Adams, “they’ll find a way.” He continues:

Don’t make it too technically complex. For maximum adoption, make it a little more difficult. But, more importantly, make sure that it’s frictionless to sign up, and once you’re signed up, it stays entirely frictionless—so people never feel bothered anymore.

Complexity adds more risk than benefit. “You might be able to squeeze another 1–2% of freeloaders into paid subscribers,” suggests Adams, “but how much will you piss off everyone else?”

Most of us have, at some point, cleared our cache or cookies to reset our metering on a site. And metered sites with “sophisticated” systems to keep out freeloaders (e.g., The New York Times) can be undone simply by disabling JavaScript.

Chrome developers continue to play cat-and-mouse with publishers on Incognito mode. Each time they publish an update to fix the “bug” that lets publishers block Incognito users, someone finds another workaround.

Your time is better spent making sure search engines can crawl your content.

Technical SEO implementation for paywalled content

paywall setups of major news publishers.
Dan Smullen has cataloged the paywall setups of major news publishers.

Search engines have to crawl your content to index it. Paywalls, of course, restrict access—to humans and, potentially, crawlers. 

On top of that, if you show different content to humans and crawlers (to help crawlers index your full page while restricting visible access) without a proper SEO setup, your site may get flagged for cloaking

Avoiding cloaking

Google worries about cloaking because it causes Google to index your content for what you show it (e.g., healthy living guide), but users see other information (e.g., hard sell for diet pills).

The March 2017 Fred update unintentionally demoted some legitimate paywalled sites as Google cracked down on cloaking. As a result, Google developed structured data to denote paywalled content.

Structured data for paywalled content

Google has clear guidelines on structured data for paywalled content:

  • JSON-LD and microdata formats are accepted methods.
  • Don’t nest content sections.
  • Only use .class selectors for the cssSelector property.

This markup is supported for the CreativeWork type and subtypes:

  • Article;
  • NewsArticle;
  • Blog;
  • Comment;
  • Course;
  • HowTo;
  • Message;
  • Review;
  • WebPage.

Multiple schema.org types are allowed (e.g., “@type”: [“CreativeWork”,”Article”,”Person”]).

div class paywall example.
css selector paywall example.

To keep Google from showing the cached link for your page, which allows freeloaders access, add the “noarchive” robots meta tag.

Accommodating AMP

In May 2020, Google announced that publishers no longer had to use AMP to appear in the Top Stories section, starting in 2021.

For many news publishers, the Top Stories carousel accounts for the bulk of organic traffic—as much as 80–90%, according to Adams—making AMP accommodation essential.

Because timeliness is paramount—stories have a maximum shelf life of 48 hours—Google doesn’t have time, Brown explains, for more in-depth analysis:

News-specific ranking algorithms are considerably less sophisticated than general web ranking algorithms, so they’ll use simplified things like drastically lower CTRs, increased bounce-backs to search, and lower dwell times.

These are things they can measure simply and use significant outliers to identify user satisfaction issues.

Documentation for AMP is based on the amp-subscriptions component, which adds features on top of amp-access, notably:

  1. The amp-subscriptions entitlements response is similar to the amp-access authorization, but it’s strictly defined and standardized.
  2. The amp-subscriptions extension allows multiple services to be configured for the page to participate in access/paywall decisions. Services are executed concurrently and prioritized based on which service returns the positive response.
  3. AMP viewers are allowed to provide amp-subscriptions a signed authorization response based on an independent agreement with publishers as a proof of access.
  4. In amp-subscriptions content markup is standardized allowing apps and crawlers to easily detect premium content sections.
structured data example for paywalled content with amp.

AMP adds a challenge for publishers who want to show content only to logged-in users because “AMP can’t pre-fetch whether someone is a subscriber or not,” explains Smullen, “which is probably why they’re very interested in offering their own subscribe with Google product.”

If you publish AMP content and want to appear on Google search, you must allow Googlebot in, note Google’s AMP guidelines: “Make sure that your authorization endpoint grants access to content to the appropriate bots from Google and others.”

As Smullen discovered, this led The Irish Times to deploy an interesting paywall method. A snapshot of their split of paywalled articles shows that about 10% (7/71) of homepage articles are “subscriber only” or use a hard paywall, which suggests that their primary method to encourage subscriptions is metering (since 90% of articles are openly available).

But they also use a hard lead-in approach for their subscriber-only articles. When viewing these articles on desktop or mobile, the article body text is removed from the HTML. They use a temporary redirect to push users into a hard paywall:

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/critical-essays-on-richard-murphy-a-poet-s-lifelong-quest-for-identity-1.4246452

302s to 

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/critical-essays-on-richard-murphy-a-poet-s-lifelong-quest-for-identity-1.4246452?mode=sample&auth-failed=1&pw-origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.irishtimes.com%2Fculture%2Fbooks%2Fcritical-essays-on-richard-murphy-a-poet-s-lifelong-quest-for-identity-1.4246452
example of irish times lead-in and paywall.

However, if you inspect the source and identify the AMP alternate…

<link rel="amphtml" href="https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/critical-essays-on-richard-murphy-a-poet-s-lifelong-quest-for-identity-1.4246452?mode=amp">

…then load that page into the Mobile-Friendly Test and, finally, paste the HTML into an HTML viewer, you can access the full article. The HTML is in the HTML page source for the real Googlebot.

So, subscriber-only articles restrict the content in the HTML and structured data for everyone except Googlebot—even within AMP content.

Smullen sees their strategy as a clever stretching of Google’s recommendations. Their hybrid model allows them to encourage subscriptions from metering but also restrict Incognito users, HTML viewers, AMP users, and scrapers from their subscriber-only content.

The only downside is error warnings of content mismatch in Google Search Console.

QA’ing your implementation

Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool shows if your structured data implementation is correct, but you may also want to see the render—if your implementation, while error free, also displays what you expect.

You can do that using:

  • Google Search Console;
  • Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test.
example of qa'ing content in google search console.

“Technically,” Adams told me, “there’s always a way to build it. It’s more about whether it makes business sense.”

How to make a paywall profitable

“The websites I’ve seen work,” Adams said, “either focus on quality or quality and a specific niche.”

Smullen agrees: “Real stories, fact checking politicians, investigative journalism, exclusive interviews, and explainers on what the headlines mean is what people are willing to pay for.”

Editorial behavior lags behind that realization. Smullen again: “Most broadsheets and tabloids are free because online, traditionally, was a ‘digital dumping ground’—an afterthought.”

The long-term impact of that neglect has become more costly as it’s gotten harder to monetize pageviews.

Monetizing pageviews isn’t enough

As popular as news sites may seem, Smullen explains, they’re small fish in search:

Mel Silva, Google’s managing director for Australia, said that news accounts for barely 1% of actions on Google search in Australia, and that Google earned only AU$10 million in revenue from clicks on ads next to news-related queries.

In addition, good journalism, such as fact checking politicians in an election, might not always be what drives pageviews—and also not what advertisers want to bid on—but is massively important for our society.

As Smullen concludes, “the fall of Buzzfeed and the rise of The New York Times suggests that the news subscription model is the only sustainable model left to publishers.”

It helps if you’re starting with a powerful brand.

Where are you starting from?

the athletic homepage.

Building a brand new brand behind a paywall is tough, admits Brown:

The Athletic managed it by capitalizing on well-known local writers in each market who would bring an audience with them and meet the open-my-wallet criteria. It’s much tougher to try that without bringing an audience with you from the outset.

I doubt we’ll see a ton of current publishers adopt a new paywall strategy, even with Google’s efforts to relax guidelines. Too much of what they’re covering is still a commodity for most users, and unwinding the ad-supported model has a lot of friction.

You’re rewriting your business on speculation.

A speculative strategy can end in catastrophe, as Adams saw when he came in to rescue The Sun:

Paywalls can work for news sites, just not news sites that don’t necessarily have a strong USP in terms of the quality and type of reporting they do, which is why The Sun’s paywall was such a failure [. . . ] their content was very interchangeable with other websites.

If you go behind that paywall, you have to be fairly confident that you’ve built those quality signals over time—that Google can’t just throw out your website. If another website can pick up the slack, that’s going to happen.

the sun's drop in organic traffic after paywall implementation.

News is an especially challenging vertical since no site owns a newsworthy event. The facts you publish may quickly become the source material for dozens of competing articles, something Smullen laments:

I see daily evidence, even for free stories, that regional publishers swipe the content and story from us, giving it a different headline and ranking in front due to their published time being more recent.

At the same time, organic traffic, for many news sites, isn’t the primary acquisition source, in part because most news-related queries are new and never searched before.

Smullen estimates that SEO accounts for 25% of sessions, some 70% of which are brand queries; his colleague at a Belgian news site reports organic traffic to be less than 10% of total sessions.

SEO requires backend considerations but doesn’t, in many cases, drive editorial strategy, says Smullen:

If someone were to build a paywall-worthy brand from scratch and get bogged down by domain authority metrics and traffic stats, they would never produce award-winning content.

Tapping into a niche, being subscription only, and getting in front of the audience you want—instead of the mass audience—may be a better way to get started than concerning yourself too much with the online authority of the big players.

Maintaining a balance between discoverability and monetization requires getting everyone onboard, as Brown explains:

One crucial strategy is to model out organic decline to the most severe point to gauge how comfortable everybody is with risking that traffic.

More often than not, this gives decision-makers serious pause, and in some cases has led to scrapping the paywall idea altogether. That’s probably for the best, as the worst paywall decisions are ones where half-measures and unrealistic expectations are in play.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that some trends have shifted back in publishers’ favor.

Trends that just might help your paywall succeed

As Adams argues:

  1. People are increasingly willing to pay for quality information;
  2. Online payments are easier to process.

The New York Times, which passed 5 million subscribers in February and cleared $800 million in revenue last year, supports that opinion.

Since launching a paywall on Independent.ie in February, Smullen has seen strong, consistent subscription growth—from zero to 22,000 in three months:

growth in subscribers with paywall implementation.

Smullen’s experience—recent and over the long haul—has made him an advocate of a hybrid approach to paywall implementation. His strategy is specific to the news industry but has obvious parallels for other niches:

1. Free access for major news stories (e.g., a country announcing a lockdown) or free news, such as press releases or unessential news that every other publisher has (e.g., a fast-food company giving away free fries for the next 24 hours).

That type of content, Smullen says, gets great traction on social media and helps publishers monetize pageviews with ads.

2. Lead-in with a registration or subscription wall and an app conversion strategy. From a technical perspective, content isn’t visible to the user or random bots in the HTML or structured data.

When a specific search engine (e.g., Googlebot) accesses the content with a valid IP, however, it’s presented with the content in the HTML and has correct paywall structured data.

The strategy also allows publishers to deploy a “soft wall” to capture an email address from search and encourage users to download the app. After a certain number of articles per month, you apply a hard paywall.

App users are the most loyal users, according to Smullen. They also give publishers direct marketing potential with push notifications and newsletter subscriptions, all while secreting users away in a walled garden.

Finally, a deep-linking strategy can ensure that when a user discovers content via a search engine, they’re directed back to the app (similar to how The Guardian app works). 

Conclusion

“It always boils down to the same conversation,” said Adams. “Are people going to pay for this? Are you unique enough or confident enough in your service offering that you want to put a paywall on it?”

Those are questions about your editorial and brand strength. If you don’t have the content to do it, you’re in trouble. The technical side, in comparison, is straightforward.

On the whole, the future of the publishing industry may not be as dire as it seemed a few years ago, when search engines gave away the store, consumers balked at paying for online content, and ad blockers ate away at revenue.

But it’s not easy. The Athletic recently laid off 8% of its staff. Whether that’s a sign of a dysfunctional model, insufficiently valuable content, or the current economic times is up for debate. 

“If you’d asked me four or five years ago if a paywall was a good idea,” said Adams, taking it all in, “I would’ve said, ‘No.’”

But, he concluded, like any good SEO, “Now I’d say, ‘It depends.’”

The post Paywalls, SEO, and the Need for a Damn Good Brand appeared first on CXL.