What Is a Paywall? Demystifying the Barrier Between Free and Premium Content

Last updated on

September 25, 2023

Denis Graur

Have you ever been excited to read an online article, only to find out you can't get past the first few lines without paying? That's called a paywall, and you're definitely not alone if it's left you scratching your head. In this guide, we'll dive into what a paywall is, why websites use them, and what you can do when you come across one.

Table of Contents

  1. What Is a Paywall?
  2. Types of Paywalls
  3. Why Do Websites Use Paywalls?
  4. How Do Paywalls Work?
  5. Pros and Cons of Paywalls
  6. Popular Examples
  7. How to Choose a Paywall Model: Tips for Publishers
  8. Alternatives to Paywalls
  9. Future Trends

What Is a Paywall?

A paywall is like a digital gatekeeper that stands between you and the content you want to access. In simpler terms, it's a tool that websites use to limit how much you can see or read unless you pay money.

Types of Paywalls

Not all paywalls are created equal. In fact, there are different types you might run into:

Hard Paywalls

These are the strictest kind. The moment you land on a page with a hard paywall, you'll find out that you can't read anything unless you subscribe or log in.

Financial Times paywall

Soft Paywalls

A bit more lenient, soft paywalls allow you to read some articles or parts of articles for free. You'll hit the wall, though, if you try to go beyond that limit.

New York Times paywall

Freemium Paywalls

These paywalls give you access to basic content for free, but you'll need to pay to read or watch anything considered "premium."

Metered Paywalls

Here, the website tracks how many articles you've read in a given period — often a month — and puts up a paywall after you've reached that limit.

Harvard Business Review paywall

Why Do Websites Use Paywalls?

You might be wondering why websites decide to put their content behind a paywall in the first place. Here are some of the main reasons:

  • To Make Money. Let's be honest: running a website isn't free. There are costs for hosting, creating content, and all sorts of other things. A paywall helps cover those costs by asking users to pay for what they consume.
  • To Support Quality Content. Ever notice how some of the best articles are often behind a paywall? That's because those websites can afford to pay writers and researchers for high-quality work, thanks to the money they get from subscriptions.
  • To Build a Loyal Audience. When people pay for something, they're more likely to value it. By using a paywall, websites aim to build a community of dedicated readers who are more engaged and likely to return.

How Do Paywalls Work?

So you click on a link to read an article and boom! You're stopped by a message asking you to pay or subscribe. Ever wonder what's going on behind the scenes?

Here's a quick rundown:

  1. Landing on the Website. The first thing that happens is that the website identifies you, often through cookies, to see if you've visited before or if you're a new user.
  2. Reading Some Content. Depending on the type of paywall, you might be able to read part of the article or even several articles for free. This is where soft and metered paywalls come into play.
  3. The Paywall Prompt. After you've reached your limit, a message will pop up asking you to pay for a subscription or log in if you're already a subscriber.
  4. Your Choices. When you hit a paywall, you generally have a few options:
    • Subscribe: Sign up for regular access to the website's content.
    • Purchase Individual Articles: Some websites offer the option to buy just the article you want to read.
    • Move On: Of course, you can always choose to not pay and look for similar content elsewhere.
Harvard Business Review pricing

Pros and Cons of Paywalls

Like anything in life, paywalls have their good sides and their not-so-good sides. Here's a quick look at the pros and cons for both the people who put up these paywalls and for those who encounter them.

For Publishers


  • Steady Cash: Having a paywall can provide a reliable source of income.
  • Quality Over Quantity: A paywall can encourage the creation of high-quality content.
  • Loyal Users: People who pay are often more engaged and loyal.


  • Smaller Audience: A paywall can turn away potential readers who don't want to pay.
  • Costs: Setting up and managing a paywall isn't free.
  • Ethical Questions: Some argue that putting important information behind a paywall isn't fair.

For Users


  • Better Content: You often get what you pay for, including well-researched articles.
  • Fewer Ads: Paid content usually has fewer ads, making for a better reading experience.


  • The Cost: Subscriptions can add up, especially if you follow multiple paywall websites.
  • Limited Access: You might not be able to read everything you're interested in without paying.

Popular Examples

Paywalls aren't just for news sites; you'll find them in all kinds of places online. Here are some popular examples to give you an idea:

  • News Websites. Many well-known news outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post have metered paywalls that let you read a few articles for free before asking for a subscription.
  • Academic Journals. Websites like JSTOR or ScienceDirect often have hard paywalls, requiring institutional or personal subscriptions for access.
  • Streaming Services. While not traditional paywalls, services like Netflix or Hulu require subscriptions to access their library of content.
  • Specialized Content Providers. Websites offering niche content, like financial analyses or in-depth tech reviews, often use a combination of freemium and hard paywalls.

By looking at these examples, you can see that paywalls are pretty common across different types of online content.

How to Choose a Paywall Model: Tips for Publishers

Choosing the right paywall can be a bit like picking the right pair of shoes; it's all about fit. Here are some factors to think about:

  • Know Your Audience. The first thing to consider is who your readers are and what they're willing to pay for. For example, specialized or niche content may be more suited for a hard paywall, while general news might work better with a metered or soft paywall.
  • Content Quality and Type. Next, think about what you're offering. High-quality, exclusive content could justify a stricter paywall, whereas more general articles might not.
  • Business Goals. Are you aiming for more subscribers? A steady income stream? Your business goals will heavily influence the type of paywall you should choose.

Pros and Cons

Each type of paywall comes with its own benefits and drawbacks:

  • Revenue Potential: Hard paywalls generally yield more revenue per user but may limit your audience size.
  • User Engagement: Soft and metered paywalls can drive more engagement but might generate less revenue per user.
  • Ease of Implementation: Freemium models can be easier to set up but might require frequent updates to keep the premium content attractive.

Real-World Examples

  • A well-known news site might use a metered paywall to balance free access and paid subscriptions.
  • A specialized science journal could go for a hard paywall to monetize its niche content.

Alternatives to Paywalls

Paywalls are just one way to make money from online content. But what if you don't want to go that route? Here are some alternatives:

  • Donation Models. Websites like Wikipedia rely on donations from users to keep running. They often have fundraising drives to encourage people to contribute.
  • One-Time Purchase Options. Some sites offer the option to buy individual pieces of content. This is great for users who are interested in only one or two articles.
  • Ad-Supported Models. Many websites use ads as their primary source of income. This allows users to access content for free but often results in a cluttered browsing experience.

Future Trends

Paywalls are here to stay, but they're also changing all the time. Here's what we might see in the near future:

  • Evolving Technologies. New tech like blockchain could make paywalls more secure and easier to manage, benefiting both publishers and users.
  • Personalized Paywalls. Imagine a paywall that knows what you like to read and offers custom subscription packages. This could make paywalls more user-friendly.
  • Role in Changing Media Landscape. As people continue to consume more digital content, paywalls might adapt to offer different kinds of subscription models that better suit user needs.

It's an exciting time for paywalls, and it'll be interesting to see how they change in the years to come.


Are paywalls illegal?

No, paywalls are legal and are commonly used as a method for websites to monetize content.

Is removing paywalls illegal?

Circumventing a paywall without permission could be a violation of the website's terms of service and potentially illegal.

Are paywalls bad?

Paywalls are not inherently bad; they help support content creators. However, they can limit access to information, which some people find problematic.

How do I avoid paywalls?

There are ethical ways to avoid paywalls, like using multiple devices or clearing cookies, but the most straightforward way is to pay for a subscription.

How much does a paywall cost?

The cost of implementing a paywall varies widely, depending on the technology used and the specific needs of the website.

Are paywalls ethical?

Opinions vary. Paywalls support quality journalism but can also restrict access to information, raising ethical considerations.

Are paywalls successful?

Success depends on various factors including content quality and audience willingness to pay. Some publishers have found significant success with paywalls.

Do paywalls hurt SEO?

Paywalls can limit the number of pages indexed by search engines, potentially affecting SEO. However, many search engines have algorithms that account for paywalled content.


We've covered a lot of ground, from understanding what a paywall is and the different types you might encounter, to why they're used and what alternatives exist. Paywalls have become a big part of how we interact with online content. They help publishers make money and often lead to higher-quality content, but they also come with challenges like limiting access and raising ethical questions.

So, the next time you bump into a paywall, you'll have a better understanding of what's happening and why. And who knows? Maybe you'll even decide that what's behind that paywall is worth the price.

Image by jcomp on Freepik