- There are effectively two methods for paywalling web-based content from a technical perspective: Server-side, and client/browser-side.
- The server-side method makes it harder for visitors without permission to gain access to paywalled content, but it can also negatively impact the ability of Google and other search engines to index and rank sites.
- Choosing between the two approaches requires careful consideration of the pros and cons of each.
One important challenge for any publisher selling access to content on a subscription or membership basis is how best to ensure it’s only made available to paying customers. No publisher likes the idea of visitors “hacking” their way around a paywall to access premium content for free.
The vast majority of publishers and paywall technology providers currently employ one of two technical approaches to paywalling web-based content: the “server-side” method, or the “client-side” method. (The client-side method is often also referred to as “browser-side”)
Each comes with its own set of advantages and drawbacks, which should be understood and evaluated to determine which approach is best for a product based on goals, content, business model and other variables.
What are client-side and server-side paywalls?
Both server-side and client-side approaches can be used to hide content from website visitors, but each achieves that outcome differently and with different results:
When a visitor attempts to access a piece of paywalled content from a site with a client-side paywall, the site will do the following, in order:
- Deliver paywalled content in its entirety to the reader’s browser.
- Check if the visitor has permission to view the content.
- Attempt to hide paywalled content from the reader’s view if they don’t have permission to view it.
Sites with server-side paywalls do things a little differently. When a reader attempts to access a piece of paywalled content, the site will:
- Check first to establish if the visitor has permission to view the content.
- Deliver paywalled content to the visitor’s browser only if they have permission to view it.
The server-side method is often considered more secure because paywalled content is only delivered to those visitors who have permission to view it, and is not present in a webpage’s underlying code for those who don’t.
The downside of client-side paywalls
The primary downside or “risk” of client-side protection is simple: One way or another, visitors will technically be able to gain access to paywalled content without signing in and/or paying for access to it.
A simple Google search will surface posts and videos describing how to circumvent client-side paywalls on many popular sites, and browser plugins and other software are also available to help. Some publishers intermittently change their paywall implementations in an effort to temporarily combat and mitigate the efficacy of these tactics.
The advantage of client-side paywalls
Despite the security risks outlined above, client-side paywalls have one major advantage over server-side ones: They can help increase inbound traffic from search engines by allowing Google and others to more effectively index and rank content.
The drawback of the server-side approach is that search engine crawlers — like human visitors — cannot get access to paywalled content to “read” and evaluate it. They’re limited to analyzing shorter snippets and teasers of content that exist outside of the paywall, rather than full versions.
As a result, sites with client-side paywalls may find themselves ranking higher in search results pages and receiving more organic traffic from search engines than they might with a server-side approach.
Which approach is best?
Ultimately there are advantages and disadvantages to each, and deciding which is most suitable for a product depends on strategy, goals, content, business model and other variables.
Broadly speaking, proponents of client-side paywalls will often argue:
- There’s no strong evidence that paywall circumvention results in significant revenue loss.
- The search benefits of a client-side approach will outweigh the downside of a few people hacking their way around a paywall for free.
- Relatively few visitors will be technically capable of circumventing a client-side paywall, and those who are are unlikely to go to the effort anyway.
- Visitors who do go to the effort of circumventing a paywall are highly unlikely to pay anyway, and should therefore be effectively written off.
- Even with a more “secure” server-side implementation, users can always share login credentials anyway.
- “Piracy” of content can ultimately lead to audience and revenue growth by exposing new users to its value.
On the other side of the coin, arguments against client-side paywalls include:
- Visitors accessing paywalled content for free inevitably results in lost sales and revenue, and there’s no strong evidence to prove that loss is insignificant.
- Search benefits are hard to quantify, and therefore difficult to weight versus potential lost revenue.
- Once visitors learn they can hack their way around a paywall, that knowledge will spread and the behavior will become more commonplace.
- Visitors who go to the effort of circumventing a paywall are willing to do so because they see great value in the content.
- Password sharing is less prevalent and more cumbersome than circumventing a paywall.
A note on Core Web Vitals: The introduction of Google’s page experience update in June of 2021 has added additional search engine optimization considerations for subscription publishers in the form of “Core Web Vitals” — a set of benchmarks that measure the speed and user experience of webpages, and which Google now factors into its decisions when ranking websites in search results. By “hiding” content or moving it around the page with client-side paywall approaches, publishers risk slowing down their sites and contributing to poor Core Web Vitals scores.
Key questions to consider when evaluating paywall methods
Owing to the various pros and cons for each method and a lack of any clear best-practices, deciding which paywall approach is best for a specific website or product is not an easy task, and depends on a range of variables. Key questions to consider include:
- Is there a metered paywall? Metered paywalls that offer access to X pieces of content in a given period are inherently more “porous” than hard paywalls. Metered content is typically passed around more readily; users can simply wait for their meter limit to renew before accessing content they’re interested in, and can often effectively “reset” their limits by using incognito browser windows or different devices. As a result, many publishers opt for a client-side paywall for metered content, believing the search gains may outweigh the risk of any revenue loss.
- How valuable are individual pieces of content? For some publishers, the value in their subscription products lies in unlimited access to many pieces of content rather than a select few. A news publisher, for example, might expect a visitor to be interested in multiple pieces of content a day and for the visitor, circumventing a paywall every time they wish to read an article might prove less appealing than simply paying for access. That publisher might assume the hassle of repeatedly circumventing a paywall is reason enough to pay for a subscription alone, and opt for a client-side approach with its added search benefits. For publishers that place greater value on single pieces of content — such as highly-valuable reporting, unique data or long-form reports — they might instead opt for a more secure server-side approach to help minimize access by non-paying visitors.
- What’s the nature of the audience? Some audiences are simply more likely to attempt to circumvent a paywall than others, based on a variety of factors. For example, tech-savvy readers spending their own money are perhaps more likely to circumvent a paywall than tech-savvy readers who can easily place a subscription on a corporate credit card. Meanwhile, relatively non-technical readers may not even be aware that bypassing a paywall is possible. Audience makeup and likely behavior is an important factor in deciding which approach to use.
- How important is search traffic? If a site relies primarily on search engines to direct traffic to it, a client-side approach may be preferable in order to realize potential search gains it may offer. By contrast, if a site relies mostly on traffic from advertising, negatively impacting search performance might be less of a concern. Of course, potential search benefits must also be weighed against the other points above. For example, a site with highly-valuable individual pieces of content might have a hard time balancing the security of a server-side approach with the potential search uplift of a client-side one.
- What development resources are available? Server-side paywalls often require more development and closer integration with content management systems and other technologies to work effectively. By contrast, client-side paywalls are often more easy to implement.
For more insights and detailed practical guidance on how publishers can run successful subscription products and businesses, see the Subscriptions Toolkit.