The Price You Pay Google for Paywalls

Have you heard of Reid Reviews? Until this week I hadn’t either. The quality photography review site is nearly invisible to Google search. Paywall is almost certainly the major reason. Photographer Sean Reid charges a yearly subscription of $32.95. The price he charges readers carries a hidden cost: Google search visibility.

In August 2009, I asked: “Can You Charge For News? Ask Google“. In that post, I looked at different online publications, including Advertising Age and Wall Street Journal Online, to assess their Google visibility and effectiveness of their paywalls.

I found that sites establishing true paywalls largely disappeared from Google search. In summary:

If your business is content and selling online advertising around it, you must pay homage to the great Google algorithm. As was with previous age’s deities, the minions must make their sacrifices before the great Google god. To receive its blessings, they must do Google’s bidding—quite literally on keywords—and give away all their worldly possessions (e.g., content, for free). But can they give to Lord Google and keep something for themselves, too?…

Yes and no. For the true worshippers, those willing to make their offerings to the Google god, the answer is yes. Whether they can subsist on that economy is topic of another post. For others, paywalls will come at a price, in terms of traffic, pageviews and incoming links.

I stumbled across Reid Reviews quite accidentally. I am looking to purchase a large sensor, compact camera with fixed (e.g., prime) lens. Two new digicams top my list of choices: Leica X1 and Sigma DP2s. The DP2s costs considerably less than the X1, but based on early reviews the Leica compact performs much matter in low-light situations. Low-light/high ISO shooting is a priority for me. But I’m also a fan of Sigma’s Foveon sensor and the color it produces. So I Googled “Leica X1 vs Sigma DP2s,” which pulled up a Digital Photography Review forums comment with link to Reid Reviews.

Reid Reviews has exactly the kind of information I want, but it was hard to find because of the paywall. The $32.95 a year seems reasonable enough to me, but what good is the fee if it stands between the searcher and dominant search engine Google? News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch talks big about erecting paywalls, but even Wall Street Journal Online lets through a limited number of free reads from Google search. It’s his offering to the Great Google god to bless the news site with visibility.

What happens to those daring not to pay homage? Googling “Sean Reid” leads to his publicly available reviews at Luminous Landscape or recaps at other sites. A Google site search of Reid Reviews for “Leica” brings up the landing and index pages and two older posts from 2006. The landing and index pages are not behind the paywall, which establishes a search cloak of invisibility from Google.

By comparison, Digital Photography Review site search for “Leica” brings up tens of thousands of pages, many from the forums. There is no paywall.

As mentioned earlier in the post, I’ve observed this phenomenon before: When there is a true paywall, Google search is shut out. It’s the price certain content providers pay for putting up paywalls. I differentiate between a true paywall where the only access is through a lock and key and the looser kind used by Wall Street Journal Online. Please refer to the aforementioned August 2009 post for clear case studies exploring the different degrees of paywalls in action.

As for Reid Reviews, I’m contemplating paying that $32.95 yearly fee. If a rangefinder camera owner, I would immediately pay up. Would you pay, or look elsewhere for free content?

Photo Credit: David Woo

Do you have a fee-or-free online content that you’d like told? Please email Joe Wilcox: joewilcox at gmail dot com.