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Scott Malthouse

Senior Online PR Executive

It has become a cliché to tout the slogan 'Print is dead!' when it comes to newspapers and magazines, but for better or worse,000000 it’s true. Treeware is fading into history of ink-smudged fingertips and being replaced with slick digital interfaces and those new-fangled ‘hyperlinks’. As a journalism graduate who works on a digital magazine in his spare time, I’m not going to mourn the loss of those wedges of paper, but I realise it’s hard for online newspapers to keep a flowing revenue while being free-to-browse. So in recent times some news outlets, namely the Murdoch rags, have set up paywalls: subscriptions to access the sites’ content. While being annoying for frequent-but-tight readers of said periodical, paywalls have had an adverse effect: backlink death.

It has become a cliché to tout the slogan 'Print is dead!' when it comes to newspapers and magazines, but for better or worse,000000 it’s true. Treeware is fading into history of ink-smudged fingertips and being replaced with slick digital interfaces and those new-fangled ‘hyperlinks’. As a journalism graduate who works on a digital magazine in his spare time, I’m not going to mourn the loss of those wedges of paper, but I realise it’s hard for online newspapers to keep a flowing revenue while being free-to-browse. So in recent times some news outlets, namely the Murdoch rags, have set up paywalls: subscriptions to access the sites’ content. While being annoying for frequent-but-tight readers of said periodical, paywalls have had an adverse effect: backlink death.

Trusted news outlets are powerhouses for links, hence why we try so hard to get them to pick up on quality content we make. When one slaps up a barrier to their readers like The Times and Wall Street Journal have done, only the subscribers are going to see content to link to and so the reader-base is slashed considerably. Of course, there are a few varying online subscription models used by different publications and each has a different effect on both incoming links and overall business performance. Let’s take a look at a couple of these models and how the paywall has affected their backlink profiles:

The Strict Barrier Model

Here you can see that backlinks for The Times site, which went through a design overhaul in May 2010, faced a drop in June – the same month the paywall went live. Since then, despite a spike in early 2011, backlinks have dried out considerably for the paper. This is due to an incredibly strict model that redirects readers to a subscription page when you try to access an article. Obviously this means that only the 100,000 + subscriber-base is able to link to content. This model has an even more devastating side-effect on the SERPS. When I enter a big story like “Gaddafi killed” into the search query, The Times is nowhere to be seen in the results. On the first five pages all the major news sites can be found except The Times, because Google can’t index its pages. Search engine seppuku? Right now, it seems that way.

The ‘Freemium’ Model

Similarly, The New York Times went behind a paywall in March 2011. Again, we see a gradual drop, but not to the same lows as The Times. This is likely due to the fact that the NYT has a more porous paywall model where people can access 20 articles a month for free.  Also, unlike The Times, the NYT allows indexing, so at least it will rank for articles. It’s also worth noting that this model is similar to the one that the Financial Times has been using for a decade, allowing the reader to view five articles before having to subscribe. It’s clear for SEO purposes the NYT’s model is more successful than erecting a strict barrier against the reader. While backlinks are slowed, they don’t face the catastrophic meltdown that The Times has recently faced. It’s also obvious that blocking Google from your content will mean people won’t be finding your site on the SERPs anytime soon. What are your thoughts on paywalls? -@scottmalt