The SEO Implications of Gating Content

This article was originally posted on on 4/25/2017

Recently, I came across a question on ASAE Collaborate about the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) impacts of embedded content from third-party sites. An example for associations might involve directly embedding content from your AMS site into a page in your CMS site. Generally, this type of scenario doesn’t negatively impact SEO, but what if the embedded content is from behind a member wall?

With that, the conversation quickly veered into the territory of gated content and “member value”. Locking away high-value content has always made me feel uneasy, but I understand the rationale. Much of the discussion in the past few years around gated content has focused on the rise of social media, and the proliferation of alternate channels for potential association members to collaborate and share information.

However, the SEO implications of gating content can also create serious consequences for associations. How do you preserve revenue streams from high-value content, reports, and publications and still rank highly in Google for those items, if Google can’t actually index the content?

In my work within associations and at various agencies, I’ve always advocated making as much content as possible open to public (non-logged-in) site visitors. It’s a more welcoming posture for an organization to take and allows a potential member to get a more complete sense of the association’s contributions to the field.

An acceptable compromise is to at least feature well-structured, publicly viewable marketing pages for locked items, complete with text summaries that don’t require logging in or downloading a PDF. But these recommendations were usually made in the midst of large redesign projects that often didn’t include the budget for comprehensive SEO audits and strategies. It was time to get more hard evidence for these recommendations.

To get to the bottom of this issue, I sat down with valued SEO partner Eric Werner of Werner Knows, with whom we’ve collaborated on several projects, and dug deeper on association-specific SEO concerns regarding gated content:

Q. What are some important considerations that are worthwhile to review before deciding to gate content?

Where do you stand in search presently? One set of questions deals directly with how you currently rank for the specific content that you have gated or intend to gate. Do you currently rank in the top 3 positions in Google for that content regardless of whether content is gated or not? Are there keywords for which you don’t currently rank that are important to your audience? If you already rank despite having gated content on the subject, or if you are able to rank with a summary or an excerpt of the content, that takes one consideration off the table. If you don’t rank for the keyword phrase — and it is important and represents something that your audience would search for — then you might consider making some high-quality content public-facing so that the search engines can see it. Order a ranking report from an SEO firm, or better yet monitor the rankings of your keywords on an ongoing basis to assist with decisions like this.

Q. That makes sense, but what about the ability to share content? Doesn’t Google value shares highly?

This is referred to as “content amplification”. Ask yourself, would someone share this content? Is this something that an influential person would be likely to share on social media or share with their team? Would someone be likely to share this content with their audience in their newsletter? If so, you might think carefully about whether to gate the content, since the value of the shares could be substantial. Most of the time people will not share a link to a gated content page in social media even if there is a fairly strong publicly viewable excerpt, perhaps because they will not want to disappoint their followers who may not have access to the full content.

Q. OK, that will definitely affect how our recommendations around creating excerpts.

We often conduct a social media research engagement for a client’s particular industry, to get an idea of how often the subject matter gets shared in social, what type of influencers tend to share content for the industry, and who their audiences consist of. This helps in making gating decisions and balances the value of the shares vs. other considerations.

Q. Okay. What about traditional inbound links from other websites?

This is the other type of content amplification to consider. Is this the kind of content that a publisher would be likely to link to? This is a very important question if organic search traffic is important to your organization [GW: Organic search refers to visitors entering queries in Google and then clicking the “organic” (non-advertising) result links]. If a piece of content were to get a lot of strong links, that could strengthen the authority for other pages of the site and the site overall. A link is also a vote of confidence in your content. It may result in direct visitors from another site, and it is still one of the main factors that Google will consider when deciding how your site should rank. So, is someone likely to link to this content? How high tier of a site would be likely to link to this content? One thing that we like to do for stakeholders in this situation is to evaluate the current link profile of the website and look for “lost authority” — rankings that the site used to have before a significant change (redesign, unpublished content, etc.) that could be re-acquired with simple changes like implementing redirects or re-writing certain pieces of content. Lost authority can represent significant low hanging fruit that might help make the decision to gate the content easier.

Ultimately with regard to amplification, do you think that it would spread like wildfire if it wasn’t behind a gate, or is it something that is somewhat abstruse and not likely to be shared or linked?

Q. I can imagine that certain niche publications or reports are worth a lot to a very select constituency, but might never be shared widely. What if you are part of a coalition, partnership, or have content that is relevant across sister associations/organizations?

This is generally called “content partnerships”. With gated content, it can be extremely challenging to create collaborative content experiences. Creating collaborative content experiences with the best and brightest in your industry often means that you have the opportunity to reach a new audience (their followers or their email list) you get to be associated with their brand.

Q. So, those content experiences and content partnerships should always be public if possible. What else should associations be considering?

They should be evaluating how difficult it is to create the “best” content for their industry. If your organization is the absolute authority on your subject area, then it should be easy to create an excerpt or teaser that is better than anything currently available for free on the web. If you can find that balance for individual topics and ensure that your teasers, summaries, or otherwise free content are better than what is currently available, then you shouldn’t have much trouble maintaining organic search rankings as long as your house is otherwise in order.

If it sounds challenging at all to find that balance — or if you feel like you can’t share too much because you would be giving away the farm — then there is the possibility that the content behind your site’s pay-wall is not as valuable as you might think. That sets you up for potentially disappointing your customers when they pay to see the content and are not amazed by the value that is there.

The idea of “best” content and an association’s authority within their profession — both real and perceived — is the part of this conversation that sticks with me the most. It brings to mind two examples: first, the point at which, perhaps ten years ago, the American Diabetes Association chose to embrace its secondary patient/caregiver audience, rebrand as “”, and promote its high-value recipe content.

Associations are often the face of an industry or subject, and their digital presence offers an incredible opportunity to truly claim the space. Secondly, I had a beloved boss at a former association that frequently cited research showing that the decision to purchase a membership in one’s professional association represents a commitment — a pledge, if you will — to one’s profession and one’s career path. It’s much less often about getting access to resources or discounts on conferences. We would all do well to keep this in mind as we make strategic decisions about what to make publicly available, and what to sell.

In summary, I’d recommend a few guiding principles:

  • Make publicly available as much of your association’s high-value content as possible, within the guidelines of your organization’s overall strategy. This will increase your organization’s SEO rankings.
  • For any for-sale or locked content, create a public HTML summary or excerpts of that content, but note that this may not be enough (see “sharing” implications above). Consider only selling/locking certain formats, such as polished, designed reports, physical books, etc.
  • Keep in mind that your members might not be purchasing a membership for access to content.
  • Putting content behind a member wall often backfires: it can be seen as a hostile organizational posture, and at worst encourages fragmentation of a profession and the dilution of an association’s perceived value. However, it can be appropriate in select cases, as we note above.
  • Always, always, always pay attention to the SEO implications of gating content! SEO affects your organization’s perceived authority, and will lead to downstream revenue implications — let’s make those implications positive ones!