Organic Search and the Password Paradox

Timely, comprehensive content indexing is at the core of a successful search marketing campaign. Search engine rankings, click-through, and conversions follow closely behind, but they’re moot without content that’s easily found and consumed by search engine spiders.

Yet many sites’ financial model is at odds with the indexing model, because the content is behind a log-in barrier. Sometimes payment is required, but sometimes the only cost is personal information supplied during the sign-up process. Either way, engines can’t get to that valuable content. This creates an interesting paradox: no indexing means content won’t be found by search engines. No search engine rankings means a significant marketing channel is closed off to bringing in new customers — customers who often contribute to creating the content that’s valuable in the first place.

I’m a member and a big fan of Angie’s List, a service that allows members to review local businesses and benefit from other members’ reviews when they search for contractors, roofers, carpet cleaners, and so on. I happily pay a yearly fee because I believe this barrier to entry, as well as the human moderation it pays for, greatly increases the signal-to-noise ratio and cuts down on rash or spammy entries from angry consumers and overzealous businesses. The site is an example of a subscription-based business that must work to overcome the password paradox.

News Sites Don’t Help

This conundrum really doesn’t apply to news sites. Engines have worked especially hard to make news content available to readers by using techniques that don’t apply to non-news sites. Under its First Click Free program, for example, Google can crawl a newspaper’s site, even if it’s password protected and offer visitors a look at one article before the subscription screen is activated. This is an ideal solution for many publishers as it allows users to sample content but doesn’t provide unfettered access.

Yet programs like this currently aren’t available to non-news sites. Sites offering everything from gambling tips to hard-to-find corporate intelligence need not apply, no matter how valuable their information is.

What’s a Site to Do?

Even if you can’t offer full content access to users and engines without compromising your business model, you can effectively engage engines to index critical content components. Frequently, this is the 5 percent of the content that sells the remaining 95 percent.

Abstracting is one significant method. Distilling a 3,000-word report down to a 200-word summary can be tedious when you have thousands of reports to offer, but when those 200 words thoroughly explain why you need the other 2,800 and won’t find them anywhere else, chances are your page (when equipped with proper titling and meta description elements) will contain the essentials for pulling in the proper audience. Add these elements to an effective call to action, and sales will increase without giving away your intellectual property.

Angie’s List takes abstracting in a slightly different direction. Instead of giving a brief summary of each local business’s reviews (which, in essence, is the site’s product), the site has unique pages for each geographic area served, each business type within that market, and each individual business within that business type. The reviews section and report card are left vacant, but users can see the methods by which companies are rated, even though the ratings aren’t there. For example, drilling down shows that reviews exist for about 20 real estate appraisers in the Pittsburgh area, and access to the pros and cons of each are just a subscription away.


Even with these techniques, getting potential users to part with their personal information — let alone a yearly membership fee — for the mere promise of quality content can be quite difficult. Frequently, such an online conversion requires an offline component.

Consider this: I joined Angie’s List because many friends and relatives recommended it and because the company’s an incessant advertiser on NPR. Even then, it took over a year for me to make the plunge. This shouldn’t be construed as a shortcoming of Angie’s List’s online initiatives, but recognition that in addition to online drives, the company’s effective at old-fashioned word-of-mouth buzz generation. Creating a reputation as a refuge for weary consumers has worked in favor of Angie’s List, which it uses to complement its organic search program.

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