Open access and content visibility

I work for CIPD, a membership organisation for HR and Learning and Development (L&D) professionals. And as a membership organisation we provide certain benefits to our members. One of which is privileged access to some content, whereas other content is free to all.

Gated content is invisibleBut there’s a big issue with gated content: it’s invisible. Gated content can’t be found and so isn’t shared. Content whose purpose is to build brand awareness and authority should be free to access.

Search engine ‘spiders’ (the programs that ‘crawl’ and index web pages) cannot reach gated content. Spiders aren’t CIPD members and they don’t have logins! (Registration walls are just as much of a barrier to spiders in this respect.) At CIPD we try to get around this by including a short summary, a sample quote and a brief contents list in HTML on the landing page (i.e. in front of the barrier).

However, this offers insufficient keyword density for optimal page ranking.

By gating content we prevent access to a huge potential audience (and potential membership base). Thought leaders in the Business world who aren’t members can’t access (or share) gated content. Similarly international HR Professionals who aren’t members, negatively impacting our international reach.

Gated content is not disseminated by the news media. The pinnacle of success is when a journalist includes a link to your content. But they are unlikely to do this if the content is for members only.

When non-members look elsewhere for knowledge that they could source from us, but that sits behind a wall, there’s a real risk that another provider will emerge.

Gated content is rarely shared.Gated content is rarely shared on social media. No one will publish a link to a logon screen page. By restricting access to content, you reduce its value to virtually nil.
Mathewson et. al, Audience, Relevance and Search

Research by our in house SEO team confirmed this – open access content has the most shares on social media by some margin.

Fewer links to content harms its PageRank. ‘PageRank is an algorithm used by Google Search to rank websites in their search engine results’ (Wikipedia). Google’s search algorithm takes two primary factors into account when assessing a site’s relevance to a user’s search term. The first is relevance (related to how keywords appear on a page) the second is its PageRank.

On the web, the value of content is directly proportional to how many links point to it.

Audience, Relevance and Search, Mathewson et. al

Google uses external links to a page as its main contextual cue to determining PageRank. Content that is not shared, particularly from other authoritative sites (i.e. with high PageRanks of their own) will not rank well (if at all) on Google’s results pages. On the Internet, such content is invisible.

So, consider carefully what content (if any) you lock behind digital bars. Content behind a paywall or other kind of gateway needs sufficiently rich ‘teaser’ information in front of the wall to entice people in and to make it visible on the web. And to truly maximise relevance and reach, set your content free.