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.


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.


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.

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How to Create Content that Customers Actually Care About

You turn up the volume of your marketing efforts to meet quarterly KPIs—sending out more posts, emails, and ads. But instead of increasing leads, you see diminishing returns. What’s going on? Customer-focused content marketing can help you stand out from the din of competitor marketing and connect with audiences. But knowing your marketing needs to […]

The post How to Create Content that Customers Actually Care About appeared first on CXL.

You turn up the volume of your marketing efforts to meet quarterly KPIs—sending out more posts, emails, and ads. But instead of increasing leads, you see diminishing returns. What’s going on?

Customer-focused content marketing can help you stand out from the din of competitor marketing and connect with audiences. But knowing your marketing needs to be customer-focused is one thing; producing it is another.

Where do you start? Here are three steps to execute, not just hope for, a consistent customer-centric content marketing practice:

  1. Treat content marketing as a habit.
  2. Use research to speak to what your audience cares about.
  3. Deepen engagement with a unique brand voice.

1. Treat content marketing as a habit.

According to the Content Marketing Institute, only 9% of B2B marketers believe that their content strategy is effective. While the quality of content your company creates and distributes is important, most brands treat content marketing as a one-off campaign instead of an always-on effort.

Content marketing isn’t a tactic you use when you need to increase sales. Effective content marketing requires that you and your team put in consistent effort. How do you make it a habit?

Start small.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about the importance of starting small. Most habits fail because people try to take on too much, too fast. 

We’ve all been there. You come out of a marketing meeting with a list of a dozen things you want to do, only to be back at square one just a few weeks later. 

To build momentum, begin with a small but manageable content marketing practice. Instead of committing to posting on your social media channels three times a day, start with a few times a week. Instead of committing to a dozen blog posts a month, aim for 2–3 high-quality posts a month. 

Don’t overthink it. A blog post, for example, doesn’t have to be 5,000 words to offer value. Depending on the size of your team and marketing resources, choose a realistic path forward that you can hit every time. 

Starting small gives you the opportunity to craft and optimize a documented content strategy, which puts you ahead of the 63% of businesses that don’t have one. 

As you get more comfortable with your content marketing efforts, you can scale up as needed, aiming for more ambitious objectives over time. Taking a few content marketing initiatives from idea to shipped is far more effective than biting off more than you can chew. 

Over time, the momentum you build from taking small steps can snowball. 

Emphasize process over perfection. 

One of the biggest challenges of content marketing, especially with large teams, is that a piece of content often has to pass through many hands for approval, which can slow down your progress. 

Where possible, reduce the number of team members involved without undermining collaboration. Limit executive involvement to the approval of the overall strategy, and let your team take care of the rest. 

You don’t need a team of 10 to make great content. Consider a modified pizza rule, championed by Jeff Bezos. Can your content team share a single pizza? If not, you may be setting up future roadblocks. 

For most teams, three or four people is plenty: 

  • A designer to create visuals;
  • A copywriter to draft the content;
  • A content manager to oversee, edit, and approve the work.

The quicker you can get content out the door, the easier it is to discover patterns of what your customers like or dislike. An additional benefit of keeping your content team small is that you can often capitalize on time-sensitive trends.

In the “tweet heard around the world,” Oreo was able to quickly create a piece of content in real time that went viral and won numerous awards during the Super Bowl a few years ago. The tweet capitalized on the brief blackout during the Super Bowl while millions were watching. 

If the content team at Oreo had to go through multiple revisions and approvals, they would have missed out on the opportunity. 

Test over time.

A consistent flow of content marketing helps you identify: 

  • The best channels to reach and engage audiences;
  • The best days and times to post;
  • The types of content they prefer;
  • The subjects they value most. 

If, for example, you’re D2C and your products have visual appeal, Pinterest may be a good fit.

With clear goals in mind, you can use the data you collect to inform experimentation and drive decisions about future content creation (e.g., Does a post on LinkedIn generate more engagement than a post on Twitter?) Test visuals and messaging. See what people respond to and iterate.

Political campaigns are relentless when it comes to testing their content. They run different versions of the same ad to understand what performs better with target audiences, then tweak the creative based on what works best.

For a splash page used during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008, staff tested all possible combinations of four buttons and six different media (three images and three videos).

Image of President Barack Obama's 08 presidential campaign, noting the media and sign up button.

The combination of button and media that performed best was different than the one campaign staff preferred (no surprise to anyone who runs a lot of experiments) and led to a 40.6% improvement in their sign-up rate and an additional $60 million in donations.

2. Use research to speak to what your audience cares about.

You’ve heard again and again how important it is to create content that focuses on issues important to your customers—and yet so few companies do it. Why? 

The quantitative data you collect from marketing automation platforms and dashboards is important. It does not, however, give you insight on customer challenges and motivations—what you need to understand and connect with your audience. For that, you need to conduct qualitative research.

Research helps you create content marketing that speaks directly to what people care about. Without adequate insight into the needs, beliefs, and motivations of your audience, you risk developing content that gets scrolled past instead of consumed and acted on.  

Here are six approaches to research that make it easier to develop user-centered content. 

Read the room.

To quickly get a sense of what’s on your audience’s mind, scan social media. What conversations are happening? What content are people in your target audience sharing?

What are people most concerned about? Search relevant hashtags that customers might use on a regular basis. Spend time in popular forums or social networks where they spend most of their time. 

For example, digital marketing pioneer Ann Handley recently came across a tweet reposted on Instagram. To Ann, the tweet resonated at a time when so many brands conveyed the same vanilla communications about the pandemic.

It inspired her to write in her e-newsletter about how to craft an authentic voice that moves people to action.

Even if you don’t have a sophisticated social listening tool, you can get a high-level feel for what people are most concerned about. Once you have a few data points, test your assumptions! 

A little investment of time can give you a sense of what your brand can credibly and authentically weigh in on. We’ve all seen the “In these uncertain times” emails and black squares on social. The last thing you want to do is come off as insensitive or tone deaf. 

Track industry trends.

Norbord, a manufacturer of wood-based panels, recognized that a shortage of house framers was hurting their clients and the U.S. economy. Building materials dealers and developers couldn’t meet the demand for new homes.

To address the framer shortage, Norbord launched “Thank a Framer,” a content marketing program to spotlight the crucial role of framers in the construction industry and to promote training programs to prepare more people to enter the profession.

Image of the the successful Thank a Framer campaign.

Their content program combined a microsite with videos, social posts, and a contest. An ad campaign amplified the message to professionals in the building trade. For a traditional industry not thought of as digitally engaged, the campaign exceeded their 1 million views target to capture 2.1 million views and reach 7.5 million in just four months. 

Understand your audience’s behavior.

It is not easy to change people’s behavior, so why not meet your customers where they are? 

Research can help you better understand your customers’ current behavior and where they spend their time:

  • Demographic breakdown of users on social channels;
  • Third-party research;
  • Customer surveys.

The New York Public Library (NYPL) shows how even conventional, set-in-their-ways brands can respond to audience behavior. The more than 100-year-old NYPL wanted to attract a younger audience.

After learning that their target audience’s preferred social media platform was Instagram, they transformed their content to align with the native behavior on that channel. The result is Insta Novels:

Image of  Insta Novel classics such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Yellow Wallpaper, and the Metamorphosis by the New York Public Library.

Insta Novels transform classic novels like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Yellow Wallpaper, and The Metamorphosis into multimedia Instagram stories. The stories combine rich visuals with text across a series of Stories taps.

Although the stories disappear in 24 hours, they can continue to be accessed in the NYPL’s Highlights section. 

Uncover how your audience makes decisions.

Customers have greater access to information than ever before. At first glance, this lack of control may seem like a loss of marketing opportunity, but it’s ready-made for content marketing. 

The most effective way to collect information about the buying process and informational needs at each step is to ask customers directly. A short survey can work but interviews are even better. 

To conduct an effective interview, ask open-ended questions about the buying process in your category. Use follow-up questions to understand why the person took the steps they did and why certain types of information were important at different stages.

Use the insights from your interviews to develop content that addresses the questions and concerns your target audience has at each point in their decision process, which is exactly what HubSpot does.

Image of HubSpot's blog post "How to write a blog post: a step-by-step guide"

Hubspot is a content marketing machine, cranking out tools, checklists, blog posts, ebooks, videos and more—all focused on helping people answer their most pressing marketing questions. 

Make research meaningful.

Research doesn’t only help you understand your audience; it can also be the content.

An asset management firm, OppenheimerFunds, used proprietary research on how emotions shape decision-making to educate potential clients on the power of optimism when considering long-term financial stability. 

In place of numbing charts, graphs, and blocks of text, the firm offers a highly engaging and interactive experience that combines music, a quiz, illustration, and animation.

Collect stories.

You can go beyond developing content customers are interested in by featuring them in your content marketing. Instead of writing a dull whitepaper or impersonal case study that focuses on what you did, tell the stories of your customers. 

Making customers the heroes of your case studies helps you demonstrate empathy and stand out from competitors—you’re speaking directly from your customers’ perspective. 

Research can help you understand your category from your customers’ point of view and make it easier to identify the most compelling customer stories. (Your sales team is a great source for these stories.) 

Barclays Bank uses video to make their customer and the community it serves the star of the story. One video revolves around a community’s passion for their local soccer club and the sponsorship of the team by a local small business, Low Cost Vans.

The video shows a Low Cost Vans representative sharing how meaningful the soccer team sponsorship is to their business. Music, shots of a game, and excited conversations with fans combine to create an emotionally moving tale.

3. Deepen engagement with a unique brand voice.

Your voice, tone, and brand personality can help personalize your message and make it stand out from the anonymous-feeling, bland corporate marketing that streams into people’s inboxes and other channels.

Here are four ways to translate your brand into personalized content marketing. 

Empower your people.

User-generated content will far exceed branded content. Brands need to embrace this and accept they aren’t in complete control of their own brand.

Chris Brandt, CMO of Taco Bell Corp

The content people are creating and sharing online dwarfs the volume of content brands create. Moving forward, your target customers—your people—may be less and less interested in the content you produce. 

Embrace it. Put the passion of your customers to work by empowering them to share their love of your brand.

Traditionally, corporations have used meticulously documented brand standards to control and manage their brand image. But companies never really control their brand.

Former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg recognized this and made it easy for his supporters to advocate for and show off their passion for their candidate with an online brand toolkit.

Image of Pete Buttigreg's campaign showing a vartiety of logos and ways to show support.

The toolkit includes everything supporters need to show their love and spread the word—fonts, colors, logos, messaging, even personalized graphics for each state and a color pairing tool to take the guesswork out of color combinations for campaign logos. Buttigieg’s campaign made it easy for supporters to amplify their message. 

Starbucks has created a similar online destination where fans can use interactive features to learn more about the elements of the Starbucks brand and how they work together.

Creative director Ben Nelson explained that the decision to open their brand to the public was “inspired by other brands being more transparent about their creative process.” 

Image of Starbuck's "our new expression campaign."

Instead of restricting use of your brand, find ways to make your brand accessible and empower your most passionate fans to advocate for you. 

Develop a unique brand voice.

Most email newsletters are written in the same bland corporate monotone that make them easily forgettable.

The Hustle isn’t one of those. A tech and business news daily email, it uses a casual bro voice to target millennials. 

Image of the Hustle Newsletter highlighting their unique style with both images and voice of the newsletter.

The Hustle makes news fun, with pop culture references and punny headlines like “The call for change is coming from inside the house” (about employees pressuring their company to do more to promote racial equity) and “A new player in email knocked over a bushel of debate about Apple’s App Store” (about the new email service, Hey).

With over 1 million engaged email subscribers, they’re on to something. 

Let’s take a look at another example, CBInsights, a market and business intelligence software platform.  Their product isn’t cheap, which might lead you to expect their tone to be stodgy—that traditional finance and corporate speak.

Image of pricing chart of CBInsights, showing they charge premium prices.

And yet, they’re known for their funny subject lines and down-to-earth writing style: 

Image of the "illegal ice cream" subject line by CBInsight.
Image of CBInsight newsletter showing how they catch readers attention.

Use your brand voice to offer a unique take on content that your audience can’t find anywhere else.

Embrace brand transparency.

You can also use content to reveal something about your brand.

Image of a person next to fresh fish.

Super U, a French supermarket chain, uses Snapchat to show that the fish they sell are only hours out of the water. The series, “Fresh Stories,” filmed with Snapchat Spectacles, takes shoppers through the fish’s journey from the fisherman to the sales manager and, finally, to the fish case at the grocery store.  

Next to each fish is a label with a Snapcode that shoppers can scan to view the story. Because Snapchat Stories last only 24 hours, shoppers know that a fish was caught within the day.

Which parts of your business, if customers understood them better, might remove the fears or doubts that keep them from purchasing? Or showcase a differentiator that inspires loyalty?

Create an unforgettable brand experience.

When you hear the phrase “content marketing,” the first things to come to mind are probably assets like thought leadership pieces, blog posts, and newsletters, but don’t let convention limit your approach. 

Split image of two different ways the hotel chain Ace goes above and beyond. Examples include towels and even trash.

The Ace Hotel chain, known for its hip, boutique spaces, wastes no opportunity to use often overlooked touchpoints as an opportunity to create a brand experience.

From clothes hangers to blankets, ironing boards, trash cans, stair risers, and exit signs, The Ace covers surfaces with thoughtful and sometimes irreverent messages that personalize what can often be a lonely travel experience.

Whether it’s your packaging or PowerPoint templates, look for new opportunities for content marketing to deliver value to your audience.


Often, the biggest obstacles to creating customer-focused content marketing are clear, tangible steps to make execution straightforward. 

But publishing consistently isn’t enough to stand out when you’re competing for attention, not just with other brands but with users’ own content. 

Use research to understand consumers’ needs, motivations, and behaviors. Personalize your marketing with a distinctive brand voice to deepen engagement with your audience. 

The post How to Create Content that Customers Actually Care About appeared first on CXL.

Microsoft Ads 101: Get Up and Running in Minutes

Google is the biggest search engine ad platform in the world. But Microsoft Advertising has potential advantages, including lower CPCs and less competition on Bing. It’s worth a look, and this article shows you how to get started. I’ll walk through the step-by-step process to set up Microsoft Ads as well as best practices for […]

The post Microsoft Ads 101: Get Up and Running in Minutes appeared first on CXL.

Google is the biggest search engine ad platform in the world. But Microsoft Advertising has potential advantages, including lower CPCs and less competition on Bing.

It’s worth a look, and this article shows you how to get started. I’ll walk through the step-by-step process to set up Microsoft Ads as well as best practices for running campaigns. 

How to set up your Microsoft Ads account

The first step is to create an account on Microsoft Advertising.

microsoft ads homepage.

When first creating your Microsoft Advertising account, you have the option of importing campaigns from Google. If you don’t currently have any Google campaigns or simply want to start fresh, proceed with “Create a new campaign.”

import google ads account into bing.

You can create an ad campaign during the account creation process, but I recommend skipping for now. 

skip campaign creation when creating microsoft ads account.

Next, add your billing information. There are two ways to pay for ads:

  • Prepay allows you to add funds to your account and have charges deducted from those funds. You have the option to pay with PayPal, check/bank transfer, or credit/debit card.
  • Postpay option allows you to pay after charges accrue. You must use a credit/debit card for the postpay option.

If you want to skip the add payment option, you can come back to it later. 

payment options selection screen in microsoft ads.
skip payment in microsoft ads setup.

That’s it. You just created your account.

How to set up a Microsoft Ads campaign

First, go to the “Campaigns” tab and click on the “Create campaign” button:

Campaign goals

You have six options for your campaign goal:

  1. Visits to my website. Choose this option if your main goal is to drive traffic to your website.
  2. Visits to my business location. Select this goal if you have a brick-and-mortar business, and you want people to visit your store, office, or event.
  3. Conversions. Pick this option if you want to track the actions people take on your website, such as purchasing a product or signing up for your email list.
  4. Phone calls. Use this option to drive more phone calls to your business.
  5. Dynamic Search Ads. With dynamic search ads, your ads are automatically customized based on the content of your site; you don’t even choose keywords for your campaign. Check out this article to learn when dynamic search ads may make sense.
  6. Sell products from your catalog. Showcase your inventory with product images on the search results page. This feature is equivalent to Google Shopping.
product ads on bing.

Campaign settings

Next, it’s time to define your campaign settings. 

  1. Campaign name. It’s important to name your campaigns sensibly, especially if you’ll be running a large number of campaigns within your account. Here’s an excellent guide that covers best practices for naming your campaigns.
  2. Campaign budget. Here, you can set how much money you’re willing to spend per day on your ads. Learn more about how your budget is calculated here
  3. Location. You can set locations for your ads based on a country or you choose states, cities, coordinates, or zip codes you want to target. Additionally, you can exclude locations you don’t want to target.
location targeting in bing ads.
  1. Who should see your ads. If you want to show ads to people who live in your target location, check “People in your targeted location.” In most cases, you wouldn’t check “People searching for or viewing pages about your targeted location,” although there are exceptions (e.g., tour business).
  2. Language. Select a language consistent with your location targeting.

Ad groups and keywords

The next step is to name your ad group and choose the right keywords for your ads. 

example of broad match modified keywords in bing ads.

You probably noticed the plus sign in front of each word in the image above. That’s called a broad match modifier, and it’s one of four match types:

  1. Broad match. With a broad match type, someone could type your keywords out of order in the search bar, and your ads will still display. Your ads also show if the searched words are loosely related to your keywords, even if they don’t exactly match (hence “broad” match). Broad match will generally generate the most traffic, but your ads will be less targeted.
  2. Broad match modifier. When you use broad match modifier keywords, your keywords must be in the search query, although the order can differ. You will get less, but more relevant, traffic.
  3. Phrase match. Phrase match keywords generally bring highly targeted traffic to your website since the search query has to contain all of your keywords in the exact order they’re written. You also get exposure to new audiences who type in long-tail keywords that contain your keywords.
  4. Exact match. The exact match requires the search query to match your keywords with no deviation, and the search query can contain no other words. Exact match is the most targeted but will provide the least traffic. 
table showing various keyword match types.

To learn more about each match type, here’s a great guide.

example of keyword ideas for core topic on bing ads.

If you need inspiration for keyword ideas, use tools such as Wordtracker, SEMrush, Adzooma, or Moz.

table with searches and estimated CPC on bing ads.

Once you’ve chosen your keywords, click “Save.” Next, we’ll get into the ad creation process. 


Click on “Create ad.”

creating an ad with microsoft ads.

Next, fill in the following information:

  1. Ad type. Choose between expanded text ads and responsive search ads. If you go with expanded text ads, you have to write your own headline and description for each ad you create. With responsive search ads, Microsoft Advertising automatically combines headlines and descriptions.
  2. Final URL. Enter the URL of your landing page.
  3. Title part 1. People usually notice your title first to decide if your ad is relevant. It’s a good idea to include keywords in your title.
  4. Title part 2. This is a subheading for your ad, separated from the first title by a vertical bar.
  5. Title part 3. The last title is less important and may not appear in your ad at all, but it still provides helpful context.
  6. Path. Name your path with relevant keywords. For example, if you’re a dentist, you may name your first path as “teeth” and the second path as “whitening,” so the path is relevant to the search query. Your display URL will show as “” Each path comes with a 15-character limit.
  7. Ad text 1. Include important information with your first ad tex. If you want examples of good PPC ad copy (with explanations), check out this article.
  8. Ad text 2. The second ad text is not guaranteed to show in your ads. 
  9. Mobile URL. This should be the same as your final URL unless you have a different URL for mobile users.
example of ad creation in microsoft ads.

This is how your ad appears to search users.

dissection of ad components on bing ads.

How to use dynamic keyword insertion

If you type “{“ into any of the title boxes, you have the option to choose “Keyword insertion.”

example of dynamic keyword insertion.

The keyword insertion function matches the exact keyword someone typed in. For example, say you have keywords that include teeth whitening and dental bleaching, and you set your title as “Book Your {keyword: dental} Appointment Today.”

When someone types in “dental bleaching,” your ad displays as “Book Your Dental Bleaching Appointment today.” When the searcher’s keyword cannot be displayed in ads, your ad automatically displays default text (e.g., “Book Your Dental Appointment Today”).

(For your default text, choose something general that works for multiple scenarios.)

choosing default text for dynamic search ads.

Ad Extensions

There are nine core ad extensions, some of which are unique to Microsoft Ads. (There’s also a tenth extension to promote app downloads, if you have an app.)

1. Action extensions

These allow you to embed a call-to-action button to your ads, which can help increase the click-through-rate of your ads. 

action extension on microsoft ads.
example of "compare" button on bing ads.

2. Price extensions

With price extensions, people can see sample prices before they click. Price extensions help can increase the relevance and improve conversions of your ads. 

price extensions example bing ads.

3. Sitelink extensions 

Sitelink extensions allow you to include additional links to specific products or offers. They significantly increase the surface area of your ads, which can drive more clicks. 

sitelink extensions on bing ads.

4. Callout extensions

Callout extensions also increase the screen space of your ads. You can use them to highlight product features or benefits. But, unlike sitelink extensions, callout extensions don’t add additional links to your ads.

example of callout extensions on bing ads.

5. Structured snippet extensions

With structured snippet extensions, you can highlight aspects of your product or service. A structured snippet contains a header and a list of 2–10 words that relate to the header. For example, if your header is “services,” then the words that relate to your header may be “oil change” and “brake repair.”

example of structured snippet extension on bing ads.

6. Review extensions

Review extensions allow you to display customer reviews on your ads “from reliable, well-established and trusted sources.” For more information on Microsoft’s review extension policies, click here.

example of barcode extension on bing ads.

7. Location extensions

These are useful if you own a brick-and-mortar business. With location extensions, you can add the physical location of your business for easy reference (instead of forcing potential customers to click your ad just to find your address). 

example of location extension on microsoft ads.

8. Call extensions

Call extensions display your phone number on your ads. Your phone number can be displayed on all devices, including PCs, tablets, and smartphones. On PCs and tablets, people can make calls by using a free Skype call, which is an exclusive feature of Microsoft Ads.

On smartphones, people can make calls by tapping on your number. According to Microsoft, ads with call extensions have a 3–6% higher click rate than ads that don’t.

example of location extensions on bing ads.

9. Image extensions

With image extensions, your search ads have a chance to appear on non-search placements.

There are a few requirements for images that you can use in ads:

  • Minimum image dimensions: 760 x 400 pixels;
  • Maximum image dimensions: 1,900 x 1,000 pixels;
  • Required aspect ratio: 16:9;
  • File types eligible: .jpeg, .png, and .gif.

The next step is to set your budget and bids.


Your budget comes down to how much you’re comfortable spending and the industry you’re in. Know what kind of CPC you’re looking at before you commit to a paid strategy.

example of budget setting in microsoft ads.

To help get you started, Microsoft Advertising provides suggested bids when choosing keywords. It’s their estimate of how much you’ll have to spend to show up on the front page of Bing.

This bid is just an estimate. Keep a close eye on how your campaign performs and adjust your bids accordingly.

estimated clicks and spends based on bids in microsoft ads.
campaign performance in microsoft ads.

Bid strategy

There are three main bid strategies:

  1. Manual: With a manual bid, you set bids for your ad groups and keywords, and these bids are set in stone unless you change them.
  2. Enhanced CPC: With Enhanced CPC, you set your bid manually, and Microsoft Ads automatically increases or decreases your bid when the conversion is more likely. Enhanced CPC ads come with certain geographic restrictions.
  3. Maximize clicks: Your bid is set automatically to a number that maximizes clicks while staying within your set budget. (You have an option to set a maximum CPC.)

While automated ads can save time, the tradeoff is you have much less control. And despite their potential, PPC automation isn’t guaranteed to outperform manual bids. 

bidding strategy choices on bing ads.

Conversion Tracking

You can only optimize what you measure, but conversion tracking is also vital to automation. Many Microsoft Ads features depend on the volume and quality of data from conversion tracking

How to set up conversion tracking 

Click on “Conversion Tracking.”

conversion tracking setup within bing ads.

Then, click “Get started.”

setting up uet tag with bing ads.

Next, click on “Create UET Tag.”

creating uet tag for bing ads.

Fill in the “UET tag name” section. For your description, it’s recommended to either write the name of your page or page URL. 

naming conventions for uet tags.

In the following steps, I’ll set up a UET tag using Google Tag Manager (GTM), though there are other ways to implement the tag on your site.

Go into your GTM container and click on “New Tag.”

creating new tag on gtm.

Next, click on the pencil icon in the Tag Configuration.

tag configuration in gtm.

Scroll down and click on “Bing Ads Universal Event Tracking.”

choosing bing tag in gtm.

Go to your Microsoft Ads account and click on “UET Tags” under “Conversion Tracking.” Copy the Tag ID from your UET Tag.

tag id for bing to add to gtm.

Go back to GTM and paste the Tag ID into the “Bing Ads UET Tag ID” section.

adding bing uet to gtm tag.

Click the pencil icon in the triggering pane.

setting up triggering for microsoft ads tag.

Select All Pages and click Add

add a trigger for a gtm tag.

Enter a tag name and click Save.

saving a gtm tag.

Click on Submit.

submitting tag changes in gtm.

Finally, click on Publish.

publishing tag in gtm.

You should see your tag verified under the UET tags pane in your Microsoft Advertising account within 24 hours.

confirming active tag in bing ads.

Conversion goals

After you’ve added conversion tracking for your website, create conversion goals

How To Set Up Conversion Goals

Go to “Conversion goals” and click on “Create conversion goal”:

creating conversion goal in bing ads.

Name the conversion goal and select a goal that best describes the measure you want to track. 

We’ll walk through an example based on a destination URL (e.g., “thank you” page). 

destination url conversion for micrsoft ads.

Add the destination URL to ensure your conversion gets recorded when the customer reaches, in this example, your thank you page.

defining destination url in bing ads.

For destination URLs, you have four options, similar to what you see in Google Analytics Goals: 

  1. Equals to. The URL that users visit has to exactly match your destination URL to count as a conversion.
  2. Begins with. Any visit to a page that begins with your URL will count as a conversion. For example, “” will be recorded as the conversion if your destination URL is set to “”
  3. Contains. Any visit to a site that contains your URL or keywords will count as a conversion. For example, if you set your destination URL to “thank-you,” then both “” and “” will count as conversions.
  4. Regular expression. This is a useful option if you’re trying to track a purchase for a specific product. For in-depth details, check out this page.

Once you set your destination URL, you can fill in the rest of the information, and click on save to complete the process. If you need additional help, check out Microsoft’s guide on creating conversion goals

Remarketing with Microsoft Ads

Remarketing can substantially increase your conversion rate for paid search marketing. It’s a way to re-engage website visitors who have visited your site but not yet converted.

How to create a remarketing list in Microsoft Ads

To create a remarketing list, go to “Shared Library” and click on “Audiences.”

shared library in bing ads for remarketing.

Click on “Create remarketing list.”

creating a remarketing list on microsoft ads.

Fill in the following sections:

  1. Remarketing list name. Write the name that best describes your remarketing list.
  2. Who to add to your audience. Pick one of the four rules.
defining who gets added to a remarketing list.

For example, if you set the rule to “URL contains welcome,” your remarketing ad will target unconverted users who visited a page on your site that had “welcome” in the URL.

url-based rules for remarketing lists.
  1. Membership duration: Type in how many days you’re willing to wait before you give up on people who didn’t convert. Nick Supapol from SearchEnginePeople recommends using a time lag report to match the membership duration to your sales cycle (e.g., 14 days).
  2. Tag name. Select the tag name that you verified during the conversion tracking step.
remarketing campaign ui.

Microsoft Ads: Exclusive features and benefits 

While Google Ads and Microsoft Ads share a lot of similarities, there are features unique to Microsoft Ads. Additionally, you get access to Bing traffic, which owns close to 26% of the search market share for desktop searches in the United States (and its traffic is on the rise).

The following are some key features for Microsoft Ads.

Competition Tab

Inside the competition tab, you can peek at some of the key advertising performance metrics of your competitors, such as impression share, average position, and many more.

Additionally, you can view how your competitors perform across devices and over time.

Linkedin profile targeting

With LinkedIn profile targeting, you can target users based on their: 

  1. Industry. Ex. Finance, health care, agriculture.
  2. Company. Ex. Microsoft, Google, Facebook.
  3. Job functions. Ex. Operations, real estate, administrative.

For example, say you sell PPC software and you want to reach decision-makers. Linkedin targeting can help you reach a director of digital marketing instead of a PPC analyst. 

Importing campaigns from Google Ads

If you import campaigns from Google Ads into your Microsoft account, double-check location targets, as there are differences in supported cities and countries. 

In most cases, you’ll be fine if your targeting is based on the state and country level. But things can get tricky when you get down to DMAs and MSAs. Check out a detailed guide on how to import Google Ads here.

How to import Merchant Center from Google

You can also import Google Merchant Center to Microsoft Ads if you have shopping ads set up in Google. First, go to Microsoft Ads and select “Tools.” Next, click on “Microsoft Merchant Center”:

microsoft merchant center in bing ads.

If you haven’t created your store yet, click on “Create store.” If you get stuck on the domain verification stage, follow the steps outlined in the conversion tracking section to copy and paste the UET code onto your website. Next select, “Validated via UET tag” from the destination URL.

validated uet tag in bing ads.

The next step is to import a merchant store from Google. You can access the tutorial with the entire process here.


If you’ve primarily relied on Google Ads for your advertising efforts, Microsoft Advertising is a great alternative to add to your mix. With so many marketers and organizations advertising only (or primarily) with Google, there’s plenty of opportunity for those willing to learn a new platform. 

With useful features such as Linkedin profile targeting and a variety of ad extensions, Microsoft Advertising has exclusive opportunities, too. Even if you’re setting up your Microsoft Ads from scratch, it should take only a few hours to go from nothing to a live campaign. 

The post Microsoft Ads 101: Get Up and Running in Minutes appeared first on CXL.

Where Does Pinterest Fit in Your Marketing Mix?

When thinking about organic or paid traffic, Google and Facebook often come to mind. Pinterest, for most, does not. And yet, Pinterest is the third-most popular social network, with over 322 million monthly active users, nearly 50% of whom are in the United States. Some 70% of users are adults between the ages of 30 […]

The post Where Does Pinterest Fit in Your Marketing Mix? appeared first on CXL.

When thinking about organic or paid traffic, Google and Facebook often come to mind. Pinterest, for most, does not.

And yet, Pinterest is the third-most popular social network, with over 322 million monthly active users, nearly 50% of whom are in the United States. Some 70% of users are adults between the ages of 30 and 49, and 41% have household incomes over $75,000 per year. 

If you’re looking for an alternative way to drive traffic, leads, and sales, Pinterest is an opportunity. 

How to get organic traffic on Pinterest

One of the great things about Pinterest is that you don’t have to jump straight into paid ads to see results.

That said, company promotion is indirect—don’t plan a hard sell. Instead, think of Pinterest as a way to build an audience or an additional distribution channel for your content.

Google requires on-page SEO, technical SEO, outreach, link building, and a months- (or years-) long wait—just to discover if it works or not. With Pinterest, however, you can start seeing results in just a few days. 

Niches that work well on Pinterest

Because Pinterest is a visual platform, niches such as recipes, travel, fashion, parenting, home decor, and fitness do incredibly well (similar to Instagram).

If your products are visual in nature, you’ve won half the battle. But you can succeed with a broader range of topics, like “productivity”: 

pinterest pin on productivity.

While that design seems pretty simple, the image gathered 25k impressions in roughly 30 days. 

Here’s another simple execution that got close to 200 clicks in 25 days:

pin about clean homes.

Keep in mind that both Pins were done in a couple of minutes and started driving traffic from the day they were posted.

A major benefit of Pinterest is that it allows you to test multiple titles for one pin, helping you discover which headline for your content performs best. In my experience running multiple Pinterest pages for brands, five pins per post is enough for you to determine the winner. 

Even industries like finance can gain traction on Pinterest. Since finance is one of the most competitive and expensive niches on Google Ads, it’s a unique—if challenging—opportunity on Pinterest. But it can be done.

For example, runs an active Pinterest page with over 1.1 million monthly viewers. They did it by:

  1. Focusing on personal finance, which allows them to showcase moving stories of individuals.
  2. Positioning their solutions to these financial challenges effectively. 

Dollarsprout offers financial services, investing, and support for those making money on the side. But their Pinterest profile doesn’t promote basic, overused content on topics such as “How to invest”, “Money management apps,” etc. 

Instead, they tailor their Pinterest content for the platform’s audience:

  • “5 Tips To Make Money From Home”;
  • “Can You Really Make Money On The Side With ABC Service?”;
  • “7 Saving Tips Stay-At-Home Moms Should Know!”

Over-the-top and borderline clickbait titles may work elsewhere, but Pinterest copy should be much more relatable (e.g., “One Tool That Helped Me Pay For My Vacation”).  

Here are some examples of their pins: 

example of pins from dollarsprout.

By combining personal finance with daily problems, Dollarsprout was able to drive 1 million views a month. The added benefit is that Pins are 100x more “viral” than tweets, so you continue to gain traffic months after someone pins your content. 

For some of my personal Pinterest pages, the pins that I reuse I have an average click-through rate (CTR) of 2%. Based on that experience, Dollarsprout could be looking at up to 20,000 clicks a month.  

So how do you get that type of visibility for your site?

1. Research Pinterest trends.

Pinterest recently launched Pinterest Trends, which is very similar to Google Trends. Although it currently shares only U.S. trends, it can help spot relevant content opportunities that transcend national boundaries. 

For example, here are some of the trends they highlighted in June: 

pinterest trends screenshot.

Seasonality is big on Pinterest—holidays and in-the-moment fashion trends draw high search volume. For example, pins related to fall clothing peak in October:

example of seasonality of pinterest trend on fall fashion.

You may be surprised to discover, however, that the trend begins to uptick in June. (It also differs from the peak interest on Google Trends, which occurs in September.)

This presents a huge opportunity to create content related to established trends before the competition increases. Cosmopolitan is already creating content around fashion in the fall, and we’re only in July:

example of july pin from cosmo about fall fashion.

If you’re planning a campaign related to a particular day or season, start creating pins at least two months in advance. Why? 

  1. Pins are going to “settle” in search results.
  2. You’ll have time to see which pin/content/title combination works best. (You can promote the most successful pins heavily.)

Don’t publish all 10 pins at once. Schedule them (with a tool such as Tailwind). Ten pins on 10 boards (your own or group boards) is 100 pins, which is a good amount of volume when getting started. 

2. Analyze your competition.

Company or product research

Let’s say you’re selling insurance, a highly competitive product. If you search for “insurance” on Pinterest, you get pins such as these:

example of popular pins about insurance.

Say that these have about a 1% CTR. The challenge, if you’re in the industry, is that the overall search volume is low—Pinterest trends doesn’t even have a trend graph for it. 

While the populated search suggestions give you an idea of the long-tail interests of Pinterest users, they don’t tell the full story.

search suggestions on pinterest about insurance.

For example, the Progressive Insurance Pinterest profile continues to dominate insurance search terms, with more than 10 million monthly viewers.

They undoubtedly benefit from huge brand awareness, but they focus on indirect promotion, creating relevant content around topics related to insurance. That content includes Life Lanes, where they share tips on travel, household, adventures, and life’s turning points—tying it all back to travel, home, and life insurance.

sample pins from progressive.

It’s a similar pattern to other content marketing plays. Start by adding value on relevant topics, then encourage future clicks to product-focused content:

  1. Create a Pinterest friendly pin to get clicks on the site. In the case of Progressive Insurance, they walk backward from a product (e.g., car insurance) to where they can provide related value (e.g., “how to wash a classic car”).
  2. Engage users with related content. If you click on the “classic car” pin, you get an in-depth article describing how to take care of your vehicle. 
  3. Sell the product. At the end of the article, there’s a call to action, “And the cleanest of cars still needs coverage. Check out more here,” which takes you to classic car insurance products. 

When researching competitors, always check where a particular pin leads. The most successful pins rarely link to a specific product or service page. In some cases, however, it does make sense.

Lowe’s has a variety of boards centered on home upkeep and gardening. They can get promotional—Pinterest and home decorating go hand-in-hand, so featuring attractive products can link Pinterest users straight to a product page:

product pins by lowes.

But while Lowe’s promotes their products directly, they don’t neglect more “Pinterest friendly” pins, partnering with Bobby Berk (a TV host and interior designer) to give Pinterest audience tips on how to create a successful backyard, DIY wedding:

pins with tips for backyard weddings from lowes.

DIY is one of the hottest topics on Pinterest, and when combined with a wedding (especially backyard wedding) and properly pinned before the summer season, Lowe’s taps into native interest.

Those backyard weddings and similar content—not the overtly promotional product pins—are key sources of their 10 million+ monthly audience (and, of course, their strong brand). But they provide a pathway for users to discover the relevant Lowe’s products to help realize their vision.

Here’s how the flow looks on Pinterest:

  • When you click on the link, you’re taken to Lowe’s Stories, where they give you tips on how to plan a backyard wedding. They also go over several styles and do’s and don’ts. Again, throughout the entire process, they offer value. 
  • Then, in the middle of the post is a product placement directly connected to the styles they’re promoting:
example of lowe's cta to products in article.

Pins research

Chasing Foxes is a lifestyle blog that generates over 10 million monthly views from their Pinterest content. There’s plenty to learn from their success. 

Because they generate most of their revenue from ads with Mediavine, their main objective is article views; Pinterest helps distribute their content. It’s no surprise then, that Chasing Foxes pins over 50 times a day. 

example of pins from chasing foxes.

They post a similar design over and over again—many times each day. Take note: If a Pinterest account with over 10 million monthly views is posting a particular pin (design and title) repeatedly, it probably means that the design is working for them. 

You shouldn’t copy the designs, but they can be a useful starting point if you’re not familiar with Pinterest. Even after you’ve run campaigns, keep an eye on what your direct and indirect competition does. 

3. Design engaging pins.

This simple yet effective design got nearly 400 clicks in one day. Total impressions reached 95,000 in 30 days, adding another 600 or so clicks.

pin on healthy habits.

What made it successful? Four things.

  1. Lots of users searching for the topic. As with Google, auto-populated search suggestions can give you a good idea of what users search for. That said, there’s plenty of successful content ideas that don’t auto populate in search. This piece likely did well because it was one of the most common “habits of…” searches. 
"habits of" search suggestion on pinterest.
  1. Tailored title as pin name. Pinterest reads the title and places you in search results accordingly.
  2. Keyword title on the pin itself. Pinterest also reads the text on the pin—the pin title and actual keywords in the pin matter.
  3. Pin description. The title matters most, but never ignore the description. Add keywords both in text and hashtags. Pinterest’s own research of 21,000 users found that clear wording significantly increases conversions. That applies to the text on the pin, the title, and the description. 
  4. Colorful design. Most of the results for the “habits of healthy people” are comparatively bland and easy to ignore. 
example of pins that are too busy or blend in.

Use bright colors or notable contrast—make sure that the title “pops.” Colors that fade into the background image or titles that are difficult to read will have a much lower CTR (as with any other visual ad). 

Another thing to consider: Pinterest is a predominantly mobile search platform (85% use Pinterest from their mobile devices), so your pins should be 1000 x 1500 pixels (2:3 aspect ratio). 

Experiment with different designs. Changing a couple of words is not enough. Pinterest values new content—variety is key.

Create 5–10 pins per post to promote on Pinterest. Switch titles, colors, pictures, etc. Usually, one or two of those 10 will be a clear winner. (This should also be the pin you use if you run paid ads.)

4. Start with best practices, then adjust.

How many pins per day? While Chasing Foxes pins 50 times a day, you probably won’t reach that volume. That’s fine. Pinning too much can actually hurt your reach.

But you should try to hit at least 10 pins per day; I usually pin 15–25 times, depending on the amount of content available.

When to pin? Evenings and nights (from 7 p.m. to midnight) are usually the best times to pin. But add a couple of pins before everyone goes to work in the morning and a few pins around lunch

See what works for your audience—keep timezones in mind if you have international reach. 

How to pin? Posting high volumes of pins manually is incredibly time consuming, which is why tools like Tailwind can be helpful. Tailwind is an official Pinterest content marketing partner and can provide actionable data on how to improve your Pinterest efforts.

While automation is helpful, it may not get the same results that thoughtful, manual pinning can achieve (as with other social platforms). 

Should you pin exclusively your own content? No. Pinterest is about sharing. While Elle, Vogue, or BMW won’t repin a random pin from somebody else, you should do it from time to time.

Pinterest has hinted that pinning only your own content may reduce how it scores your content. Make sure to share the content of others, but always prioritize your own. 

How do you design pins? Any picture editor will do. I use Adobe Photoshop, but Canva and Picmonkey are popular tools among Pinterest users. They have all the templates you’ll ever need, and you can create pins with a couple of clicks.

Don’t neglect font choice—for visual impact or readability.  Many are accessible in Canva, or you can download them to Adobe.

5. Get started—and rank—quickly. 

Three things can help you get more visibility and traffic:

  1. Make sure you have a business profile with rich pins enabled. Your domain must be verified. Fill out all the profile details with the core keywords you’re going for. 
  2. Create 10 boards. Fill the boards with keyword-rich descriptions. Make sure that the boards are relevant to your topic and that the names of the boards match search suggestions in Pinterest. Fill each board with 10 relevant pins.
  3. Join quality group boards. Search for group boards in your niche with a healthy ratio of followers to saves/repin. Per 1,000 followers, 10–20 repins is a great number. Join the group boards and build a relationship with their owners. 

The Golden Rule of Pinterest is “quality pins on quality boards.” Check the performance of your boards every month. Quit boards with a low virality score (which you can check in Tailwind).

A good pin can’t rescue a bad board. The more of your pins that are ignored, the less Pinterest will promote your other pins. For more detailed information, check out this video.

The goal is to have your pins (as many as possible) saved, clicked for close-up, and repined. High engagement and virality of your pins will increase the quality of your profile, which will result in more virality of your pins, and so on.  

Should you pay for Pinterest ads?

Pinterest can drive a lot of organic traffic. Paid ads can supplement it. 

Price comparison

Let’s take a couple of campaigns I did for a web hosting company, traditionally a fiercely competitive and expensive niche for ads. 

After testing a few creative options, the resulting CPC was as low as $0.597. (To put things into perspective, I had a campaign on fashion and leadership that generated clicks for as little as $0.10.) These three ads were the best performers:

example of pinterest ads.

At the same time, I had a campaign running on Google Ads. For the purpose of this (very small and non-scientific) experiment, the title on the Google Ads was nearly the same: “30+ Web Hosting Services, Guide, Pricing, and Comparison.” After some refinement, the CPC was $0.881, about 48% higher than clicks on Pinterest. 

However, on Pinterest, the CTR averaged around 1%; on Google Ads, it was up to 4.56%. So, yes, clicks were cheaper, but they were harder to come by. Nor are all clicks created equal—Pinterest can help increase awareness, but don’t expect clicks to be as close to conversion.

Your results will certainly vary—perhaps for the better, perhaps not. Pinterest ads, do, however, have other benefits. 

Paid pins, repins, and shares 

On Google, you create an ad, and that ad is seen when you pay for it. After you stop paying for it, it disappears. 

Pinterest offers an additional incentive. A percentage of the total clicks on your ad will be “saves,” when someone saves your pin to one of their Pinterest boards. 

One of the pins from the hosting campaign above had 120% more saves than clicks. You pay only for clicks, but users who like your design and content and save your pin expose it to their followers—giving you the chance for repins and additional saves at no cost. 

As a quick test, I ran a campaign on a post on “leadership qualities.” After two days and a $5 daily budget, I got 108 clicks and 42 saves. In the next three days, I won an additional 25 clicks without repining the pin—simply as a result of the sharing that occurred during the paid campaign.

You may also gain followers as a result of the paid exposure, increasing your organic reach. For every 10 clicks on my web hosting campaign, I averaged 1 new follower. That symbiotic relationship between paid and organic reach doesn’t exist on every platform. 

Pinterest limitations

Keep in mind that Pinterest’s audience is narrower than on other platforms. It skews female (71%) and “young professional” (83% between 25 and 54). If you’re trying to reach college-age men, it won’t be a primary source of leads or sales.

In the past, Pinterest has also faced massive spam issues, which have since been resolved. As a result of those changes, Pinterest won’t promote the same pins that have been posted several times per day.


On Pinterest, organic opportunities are available from Day 1—without any need for technical SEO, link building, or lengthy wait times compared to search. When using Pinterest ads, you’re getting cheaper but less conversion-focused traffic than other channels.

What may take longer is figuring out how to turn visibility on Pinterest into leads and sales. But the opportunities on Pinterest are open to more than just B2C fashion and food brands. Regardless of your industry, Pinterest warrants a thorough look. 

The post Where Does Pinterest Fit in Your Marketing Mix? 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 ( and Australia (

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 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, is still #1 on 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.


“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.


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 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:

302s to
example of irish times lead-in and paywall.

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

<link rel="amphtml" href="">

…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 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). 


“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.’”

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