My day-to-day work involves writing blog posts based on current news stories, or just informational posts that may link to them as a source. The Globe and Mail used to be one of my favourite Canadian sites to link to, but when it introduced a paywall, I had to stop linking to it. I would encourage others who write posts for a living to do the same, not out of any grudge for paywalls, but because it just doesn’t work from a usability perspective.
1. Readers Will Abandon Your Post If They Can’t Read the Story
If you’re writing a post based on a current news item, you should be giving a summary of the news in the blog post itself and providing a link to the full story if your readers want more. As a constant blog reader, I almost always follow the more in-depth link if I’m interested in the subject matter, and if I can’t find it, I’ll abandon the original post. I suspect others do the same.
2. Sites With Free Subscriptions
Marketing Profs is a site I love and read religiously after it was recommended to me a few years back by a colleague. However, if I try to link to a post on MarketingProfs, it asks the user to sign up for a free subscription. Many people are gunshy of doing this because they don’t want their inbox being flooded with spam, and rightly so. No matter how good the site is, a link to it could have the same reader abandonment effect on your post as linking to a site with a paywall.
3. Does a Paywall Link Hurt SEO?
Technically, a link to a paywall site does not hurt your SEO since the link is not leading to a 404 (page not found) error. It’s just a usability issue. If you have a site with lots of external links and you have WordPress, you may want to consider installing a Broken Links Checker plugin to ensure that broken links are automatically removed from your site, since Google does list broken links as a factor that they’ll penalize a site for.
4. Optimizing for Mobile Another Reason To Avoid Linking to Paywalls
Readers at home on their couch have a little more patience for a paywall link than a user on a mobile phone. These people have things to do, and putting up with your paywall linking shenanigans is not one of them. This is important since the percentage of users accessing the Internet from a mobile device is steadily climbing. It jumped in the last quarter of 2012 to 23.1% and shows no signs of slowing down. There are more important things to consider when writing for this audience, such as keeping copy shorter and clearer than you ever have before. Long, sales-letter style copy will definitely spook mobile users. If they can’t find what they’re looking for right away, you’re history.
5. Some Paywall Sites Have Free Article Limits; Does This Make it OK?
No. You have to assume that your reader has already blown through the article limits.
6. So What Can I Link To?
If you’re writing about a current news story, there are always going to be free media sites you can link to that are running the same story. Personally, I avoid linking to Huffington Post pieces because I don’t believe that anyone writing for free can be doing serious journalism. There’s nothing wrong with writing for it to promote yourself as an expert, but their news coverage leaves something to be desired.
There are endless posts and articles arguing the pros and cons of paywalls. I don’t pretend to know the advertising model of a major media site well enough to offer an authoritative opinion either way, but I wonder if the paywalls will make up for lost online ad revenue. Only time will tell if they’re viable for the media sites that have chosen to implement them.
TL;DR: Don’t link to paywall sites. You’ll lose your readers.