If you run a subscription based web site, it is against Google’s terms to let Googlebot see all of the “hidden” content but only provide the visitor access to it after registering. This practice is called “cloaking” and can result in Google Webmaster penalties.
Who is Google to dictate how we run our site? They are the highest trafficked site in the world and the #1 search engine. Plus, if you think about it, they are laying out these “rules” to provide the best experience for searchers on their site. If Google’s users then become ours too then great. And we would want the best experience for our users as well.
The *Evil* “You Must Subscriber To Gain Access” Box
I remember when I used to do research several years back in regards to nutrition and health and I would often see mercola.com in the search results. The snippet suggested a promising result but after clicking I was asked to “sign up” before getting access to the content. I eventually skipped over the mercola.com results in the SERPS. It was frustrating.
I’m sure that he gained a lot of subscribers with that approach but I’m also sure he got lots of bum emails (unless he was using double opt-in before providing access). This is the same reason why the lightbox opt-in forms do so well. In a lot of cases, people think they need to opt-in to gain access to the content.
There Are Lots Of Reasons To Hide Your Content
Truthfully I’m not against hiding content and providing access to it only with a subscription. I think that’s a viable business model, one I am 90% through implementing myself on one of my sites.
I think though, like Google, that if it seems you will get full access before clicking over, then you should get full access. If the visitor can’t gain access to hidden content, Google shouldn’t be able to either.
In the Google News results, you may have noticed, that content requiring membership access, is labelled “subscription.” In this case, Google is aware of the content and that it requires a subscription. Google will only display the provided content excerpt in the search results.
But like I said, if you set it so that googlebot gets full access to content so that it is indexed appropriately then visitors shouldn’t be prompted to subscribe to access it. Google allows a First Click Free system and will not give out penalities when this is in place.
Therefore, any user coming from *.google.* should be allowed to see at least 5 pages of normally hidden content without having to subscribe. This is something that can be configured in your membership software in most cases, or a custom solution can be put in place.
In this way, there are no fustrated visitors, you are in compliance with Google, and more of your content can be visible in the search results.
Now, you might be wondering why this even matters since Google only displays an “excerpt” either way. Yes, that is true, but despite what some SEO advice states, the excerpt isn’t static. It is dynamic and may display a snippet of content from a different portion of the article if it relates to the search query, a portion of the article Google may not have otherwise had access to. Didn’t know that? Mr. Cutts told me. It isn’t always the meta description or the first paragraph that is pulled into the snippet. Google’s smarter than that and wants to provide a better experience for everyone involved. I love me some Google.