Despite the fact that many people balk at the site of a login page, gated content can generate more leads than ungated content if it is well written, unique and valuable to the reader. However, the emotional aversion many people have to login walls and the SEO implications of closing a website to crawlers make search and marketing leaders hesitant to recommend it.

We decided to address these hesitations by investigating the impact of gated content on a website’s SEO stature. We analyzed the search traffic and conversions of several luxury e-commerce platforms, including a completely public, ungated website (Net-A-Porter), two semi-gated websites (Gilt and Zulily) and one fully gated e-commerce website (Nordstrom’s HauteLook). By comparing the search traffic and conversions of these discount luxury e-commerce websites, each with varying levels of gated content, we’re hoping to demystify the disadvantages of the gate.

SEO and Gates: Comparing Zulily, Gilt, Net-A-Porter and HauteLook

The first step in assessing the impact of gated content on website SEO is to look into the proportion of the website’s search traffic out of its overall traffic. A quick Jumpshot Competitive Analysis report comparing the four luxury e-commerce websites reveals that gated content harms SEO. Here’s how we came to that conclusion.

HauteLook, a 100% gated e-commerce website that requires consumers to register to browse the inventory, has a very low search traffic volume: a mere 3.65 percent of the website’s traffic originates from search. This extremely low proportion of search traffic is explained by the fact that HauteLook’s gate is also keeping search engine crawlers away, resulting in only six pages indexed and virtually no way for new, unregistered consumers to discover their products.

Gilt left a couple of holes in its gate for humans and search engines alike (for instance, product pages can be reached through the footer links) and allows consumers to view at least one product before they are forced to register to the website. As a result, Gilt is a little better off than HauteLook with over half a million pages indexed, but still has a low proportion of search traffic – just under 7 percent.

Zulily also leaves its footer links open, but goes one step further in allowing its visitors, especially those originating from search, to view at least two product pages before they bring down the gate. This additional access allows search engines to index roughly 600K pages, making Zulily’s search traffic proportion more than twice that of Gilt’s (15.3 percent of the site’s overall traffic).

Last but not least, the 100% public Net-A-Porter brings in the gold for SEO with nearly 5 million pages indexed, accounting for roughly 23 percent of its overall traffic. These differences in the amount of pages indexed, which directly result in the different proportions of organic search, traffic prove that gated content has a negative impact on SEO.

Using the Jumpshot Keywords Research tool, we can further reinforce this conclusion by determining the organic versus paid distribution of inbound search traffic to these websites. While all four websites invest in paid search advertising, Zulily sees the most ROI with 60 percent of its search traffic coming from search ads. Gilt is surprisingly the winner for organic traffic, with 68 percent of its search traffic coming from organic search engine results, likely due to its semi-gated strategy and small proportion of search traffic.  

Organic and Paid Search Traffic to Luxury Retail Websites

Consumer Keywords Driving Traffic and Sales to Zulily and Net-A-Porter

Our keyword report lets us see the exact search phrases entered by consumers that drove traffic to these websites. We filtered out the company branded keywords to compare the top shopping keywords leading consumers to the two leaders in search traffic, Zulily and Net-A-Porter. While both websites bring in relatively the same amount of paid search traffic, Zulily’s SEM efforts focused on child-related keywords, such as “educational toys for 5-6 year olds” and “crocs toddler lined minnie mouse”, while Net-A-Porter’s paid search keyword strategy focuses on designer brand keywords, such as “isabel marant etoile” and “christian louboutin shoes”. Paid search brings in roughly 12 percent of Zulily’s paid traffic and more than 30 percent of its conversions from non-branded paid keywords, supporting previous findings indicating the site attracts the desirable millennial mom demographic.

As for conversions, Zulily generated more than 3.5 times the amount of conversions from search traffic, with a conversion rate over 4 times that of Net-A-Porter, indicating that it knows how to push search traffic down the conversion funnel. Additionally, both sites rely heavily on long-tail keywords. The majority of conversions from organic and paid search on both sites is attributed to keywords containing over three words. These keywords generated three quarters of Net-A-Porter’s organic conversions and more than two thirds of Zulily’s.

Organic Keywords Driving Conversions on E-commerce Website by Keyword Length

Paid conversions showed similar results with long-tail keywords accounting for nearly 60 percent of Net-A-Porter’s paid conversions and 40 percent of Zulily’s.

Paid Keywords Driving Conversion to E-commerce Websites by Keyword Length

Zulily’s focus on child-themed keywords and Net-A-Porter’s focus on designer branded keywords can explain the differences in keyword length, as keywords that contain designer names tend to be longer – think Yves Saint Laurent and Oscar de la Renta.

Our keyword data indicates that overall Zulily is better geared for conversions from search traffic, as it has more than one leading keyword length driving sales from SEO (keywords containing four or six words) and SEM (keywords containing two or four words) and enjoys the highest conversion rate from search. Zulily clearly knows how to convert a search generated browser into a paying customer. The ungated Net-A-Porter may be in the lead for search traffic, but Zulily wins for conversions from search. This just goes to show that there is no clear-cut solution for generating traffic and leads, and that customization and testing are crucial to finding a desirable balance between lead generation and search traffic.

Bottom line: Gated content is a popular lead generation tool that comes at a price. The higher your gate the more your website’s SEO stature will suffer, diminishing the amount of pages indexing and inbound search traffic. Our keyword data proves this is indeed the case. The more you close your website off from the public, the more difficult it is for web searchers to find you. However, opening up the gates all the way does not necessarily mean you will dominate the market, as traffic does not equate to sales. It may sound cliché, but there’s always a balance to be found, between SEO, lead generation and user experience to optimize conversions and ROI.