So you want to publish your user manuals on the Web, but don’t want everyone to see them

We often hear from Technical Authors who say they (or their bosses) have concerns about publishing their user guides on the Web. They are worried their competitors might read them, the manuals might stop a prospect from buying the product, or that a client might not buy a support contract.

On the other hand, there are many reasons for publishing user documentation on the Web and having it indexed by the Search Engines. Apart from a better “after sales experience” for customers, it’s great for improving a company’s Search Engine rankings, as Google loves information-rich content.

The good news is that Google does offer a possible solution for these two opposing pressures to be resolved, called “First click free“. According to Google:

While the first article can be seen without subscribing, all clicks on the article page are “trapped.” This means that if users click anywhere else on that page, they’ll be prompted to sign up. This allows our users to view the article of interest while also exposing them to your site, encouraging an actual subscription.

However, it might not be perfect for you. People can potentially go back to Google, find another article from the same site, click to it from Google and read that.

Google is offering additional options for content appearing in Google News search (called Subscription and Preview), but these aren’t available in the main Google Search Engine. Whether they will be added as options for non-news content is unknown.

You can also have content on your Web site that is hidden from Search Engines. Google’s Robots Exclusion Protocol options (robots.txt files or the meta robots tag) offer automatic exclusion from indexing by Search Engines. You can also hide content behind a login screen.

For more information, see Josh Cohen Of Google News On Paywalls, Partnerships & Working With Publishers.


Peter A

“They are worried their competitors might read them”… rather than their competitors buying your product and reading the manuals that way?

“the manuals might stop a prospect from buying the product”… doesn’t fill you with confidence about the quality of the manuals (or the product)

“a client might not buy a support contract”… do you have to buy support instead of the manuals, or are they part of support?

Are there other reasons why product managers don’t want docs on the web?


I’m always slightly suspicious when documentation ends up behind a paywall. It may not strictly speaking be fair, but I do wonder how trustworthy a company is, if they’re intent on monetizing every last ounce of user interaction to that extent.

It might just be because I’m a tech comms type, but documentation is also one of the first places I look if I’m thinking about buying software. In that sense, folks maybe should be worried about documentation visibility, since if your docs are good, and visible, and your product’s a shonky heap of junk, it’ll be rapidly visible.

Either way, non-public docs make me suspicious. The First Click Free idea is an interesting one, though. I was talking to a guy a while back who had a similar idea for a big, content rich site, and was initially sceptical. It’ll be intriguing to see how well this works for users.

Shoshana Kleiman

My company was formed around the idea that companies deliver pdfs with their product – as part of the product. Publishing the manuals online in a print on demand environment allows the companies to buy the printed material, something that is not supplied with the product. Publishing to the web is a brilliant idea.

Marc Achtelig

Here in Germany I have experienced exactly the same concerns, especially the fear that competitors might steal some new ideas and will be able to copy new features more quickly. As a result, documentation is often downloadable only by registered users. The idea to understand documentation as part of the company’s SEO and marketing strategy is clearly less important, but I think slowly it is becoming more popular over here, too.

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