- Subscription publishers could find their paywall implementations negatively impact their search rankings and traffic thanks to Google’s Page Experience update.
Google’s Page Experience update began rolling out in mid-June this year, meaning sites that load slowly or otherwise offer a poor user experience could now see lower rankings and less traffic from the search engine.
The page speed update applies to all sites, but there are a handful of considerations specific to paywalled content that publishers with subscription products should be aware of.
Most significantly, three new “Core Web Vitals” benchmarks will now be used by Google to help determine rankings on search results pages and, as a result, how much organic search traffic it sends to publishers’ sites.
What are Core Web Vitals?
As part of its “Page Experience” update, Google will now begin measuring and tracking three “Core Web Vitals” benchmarks that it believes reflect sites that provide a good user experience. These benchmarks or scores will then be factored into Google’s ranking algorithm by the end of August, meaning sites with low Core Web Vitals scores could find themselves ranking lower in search results and receiving less traffic from Google.
The three Core Web Vitals are:
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): How quickly website content loads. Users understandably tend to appreciate and engage more with fast-loading sites.
- First Input Delay (FID): How quickly a website becomes responsive. If a user attempts to interact with something they see on the page but are met with long delays because their browser is still busy downloading other page elements, their experience can be negatively impacted.
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): This measures the visual stability of a site and quantifies unexpected or delayed layout shifts. Website elements such as paywalls moving around the page or causing other parts of the page to move around them as a user attempts to interact can understandably result in a frustrating experience. Google now wants to promote more stable sites.
What Core Web Vitals mean for subscription publishers
Although Core Web Vitals apply to all websites and publishers, subscription publishers should be aware that paywalls specifically could negatively impact CWV scores depending on the technology being used and how it’s implemented. Examples might include:
- Paywalls moving page elements around and obscuring content in a manner that could contribute to significant increases in Cumulative Layout Shift scores. For example, a paywall that is injected dynamically within body copy in a way that results in an unstable page for the user. (This consideration may be more prevalent for sites with a client-side paywall implementation.)
- Calls to third-party technologies to load resources and check users’ subscription statuses and permissions before loading content into the page, which could contribute to longer page loading times and high Largest Contentful Paint scores.
- Poor CWV performance could limit exposure in Google’s Top Stories carousel. As part of the page experience update, all publisher pages will now be eligible to appear in the carousel, provided they comply with Google News content policies. While poor CWV performance will not remove eligibility for the carousel, Google has clearly implied sites that offer a strong CWV performance may receive greater exposure in — and traffic from — the carousel.
The list above is by no means exhaustive, but is intended to provide examples of the ways in which paywalls might negatively impact Core Web Vitals scores and, as a result, Google search rankings and inbound search traffic.
The impact of paywalls on specific publishers’ Core Web Vitals scores will depend entirely on the technologies powering them and how they’re implemented across their properties. Publishers are encouraged to examine their specific sites for CWV performance and evaluate if changes to their paywall setups and technology are necessary.
For more insights and detailed practical guidance on how publishers can run successful subscription products and businesses, see the Subscription Publishing Toolkit.