SEO Question: We are considering shifting our site from offering free content to a paid only model which just offers a brief introduction into each area. How long will it take for Google and other engines to rank our site worse for changing our business model?
SEO Answer: Many sites flip from legitimate quality content sites to lead generation forms and continue to rank well for years. How long your site will survive on its current authority largely depends on
- how authoritative your site and brand are,
- how competitive your marketplace is, and
- what business strategies competitors will use.
Just by having free content accessible early in the development of a market that can be enough to establish an insurmountable lead in a market. Look at sites like SeoToday ranking in Google in spite of not being updated in a year. But the only way that site will still outrank me a year for now is if I get banned for spamming, destroy my brand, or neglect this site. Over time markets shift, and the search results will have to shift with them if they want to be seen as credible.
If your free content gets many links then you are cutting off significant forward authority by making your site much harder to link at. Put another way, compare how often you see the Wikipedia referenced in a blog post or in the search results compared to encyclopedia Britannica or other encyclopedias that only want to give away a snippet here or there. Wikipedia beat out Britannica by allowing users to become editors and evangelists, while selling the concept of free and open.
Any long tail searches that match your current page content will no longer send traffic to your site when that page content no longer exists. You should notice that drop in traffic probably within about a month of converting your site to paid only model, but your rankings for short tail keywords may stick much longer because those are more reliant on link equity. Link equity typically dies off slowly and it will still take competitors some finite amount of time to replicate your link reputation.
Instead of moving to an entirely paid model I bet you could do better by slicing and dicing up your current content, which could help your business the following ways:
- allow you to have pages and content relevant for many targeted search queries
- make it less convenient to work through all of your online content (and thus make your packaged for sale information offerings seem more useful, appealing, and valuable)
- the different format and slight differentiation than the content you are selling will prevent customers from feeling angry for seeing the same stuff free and paid
I don't just advocate those ideas, that is sorta what I do with this site. Who wants to read thousands of blog posts if many of them are going to be outdated? Why not just buy an up to date guide instead? Of course this model works best if you are selling an information product that covers a broad range of ideas or a field that is rapidly changing.
People are not paying for the value of your product. They are paying for their perception of value. A large amount of that perception is based on removing uncertainty by building trust with free content. Put another way, I think the value of knowing someone found and is reading an article of mine based on a recommendation is probably worth at least twenty times as much as them clicking one of my ads. If my ads cost 25 cents each then each recommended article read might be worth something like $5.00.
Another option might be to leave last year's content available online, and use it to sell current information. When search seems to be picking up more and more momentum and even MIT is giving away free course material I would be hesitant to go to a paid only model. Especially if you consider that sites with lots of content are going to be easy to identify with for many people (and thus be well read and well cited and well ranked in the search results) and what Clay Shirky wrote in Fame vs Fortune: Micropayments and Free Content:
The act of buying anything, even if the price is very small, creates what Nick Szabo calls mental transaction costs, the energy required to decide whether something is worth buying or not, regardless of price. ... The fact that digital content can be distributed for no additional cost does not explain the huge number of creative people who make their work available for free. After all, they are still investing their time without being paid back. Why?
The answer is simple: creators are not publishers, and putting the power to publish directly into their hands does not make them publishers. It makes them artists with printing presses. This matters because creative people crave attention in a way publishers do not.
Each additional user of the web is a potential link source and a potential competitor. As more artists and other passionate people enter your market some of them will compete with you, and few of them will be talking about you if you make it hard to interact with you (ie: require payment prior to them receiving any value).
By sharing content it makes it easier to learn how people may perceive your ideas prior to packaging and marketing them. In a sense, it can give you a target trusted market willing to help you improve your ideas and then help you market them.
Look how much value Google delivers for free, and look how easy they make it for people to talk about them - from passionate people with health problems, to those fighting against inequality, and for the environment, right on through to people aligned with educational systems and other powerful longstanding institutions.
All those links from the last paragraph were announcements in the last week! If you are doing things that make people identify with you and feature you as content you don't have to buy too many ads.
Many people who relied on one page salesletters were only successful with them because there was so little content competing for attention. In a world where more people and content are coming online each day, a paid only content business model is a quick track to irrelevancy.
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