Your blog is an attic. It’s an old storage unit, filled with dozens of articles that no one’s touched in ages. Cluttered and dusty, it’s time to clean house.
Or is it?
I had this debate with Amanda Gant, our Marketing Director. Amanda is a tidy person who knows everything about content marketing and Analytics, so I always take her advice. But this topic triggered a feisty debate.
The other day, she tells me she’s auditing all of our content cleaning out some old, useless pages. The plan was to delete the blog posts with no traffic and no links. Then redirect that URL to the most similar page.
My response was, why bother?
After our short debate, she (cleverly) moved the conversation to LinkedIn to get input from some top content pros and SEOs. We quickly discovered that a lot of people have a lot of advice about pruning content. Some shared experience and examples of results.
What would Marie Kondo do if she was a content strategist?
This post will try to answer that question. We’ll explain the when, why and how to prune content for SEO. You’ll find the views of the experts shared throughout and at the end, I’ll add my contrarian view.
People prune pages for several reasons. Ask an expert and you’ll hear things like “reduce bloat” and “maximize link equity.” But what are the benefits of pruning? What’s the impact on results?
Here’s why they say you should delete old, non-performing pages:
That’s basically the idea.
Note: In this case, pruning content is not about streamlining navigation, consolidating categories or improving design. We’re not talking about UX because there is no debate on that topic. Always do anything that improves the experience of visitors!
It’s reckless to delete a URL (or even change a URL) without checking a few things first. Ask these two questions to help you decide if that page sparks any digital joy:
Actually, if the page has zero visits, it won’t appear in Google Analytics, so those who purge content either use other tools to crawl their site or they purge ultra-low traffic pages.
Here are some more specific reasons from the experts, reminding us to consider the content’s purpose.
|“Are these extra pages unnecessarily mucking up your onsite search results? Like, when you search and you get a big ol’ list of stupidly irrelevant pages? If they’re showing up in that list, get rid of them.” – Kristina Halvorson, Brain Traffic|
|“The reason is link equity flow. Would you rather have 1000 external links distributed amongst 700 pages or 500? The answer is the latter and why it’s so important to cut low performing pages.” – Ross Hudgens, Siege Media|
|“According to the published PageRank algorithm, the more links it takes to get to your good stuff (through paginated date/category archives), the more times the damping factor gets applied to every one of those links.” – Corey Northcutt, Northcutt SEO|
If it ranks well and you delete it, you’ll hurt its traffic. If it’s been linked to and you delete it, you’ll break those links. Here are three options to clean house responsibly.
Create a 301 redirect to the closest corresponding page and you’ll avoid ever sending a visitor or Googlebot to your ‘404 page not found’ page.
Leave the page alone, but tell the search engines to ignore it. Add a the noindex meta tag, usually possible through your content management system or a plugin. It adds this code to the page:
<meta name=”robots” content=”noindex” />
And if you have an entire directory of pages you want to keep out of Google, you can “disallow” them from your robots.txt file.
Keep in mind that this option won’t keep them out of your internal site search. They may still be mucking up your site search results.
Don’t trash it. Recycle. Keep the URL but rewrite the page.
It’s the most work but has the greatest rewards. Updating old content is one of our most effective tactics. Our friend Dana DiTomaso suggests combining several weak posts into one strong one, rather than rewriting.
|“Sometimes you’ll find several blog posts on the same topic but they’re all mediocre, so none of them rank. If the content is still something you want to keep, then combine them into a much better post and redirect the old posts to the new one.” – Dana DiTomaso, KickPoint|
We asked our experts to tell us about their experience with pruning and to report the results if possible. Unfortunately, it’s not usually possible.
When content marketers and SEOs delete pages, it’s usually part of a bigger content marketing audit. Rather than pruning and measuring in isolation, they’re changing a bunch of other stuff at the same time.
Q: Did cleaning out your garage make you happy?
A: Yes, but we were moving anyway. Now we live in a new house and we love it.
So we can’t say that the happiness was from the garage. Here are the reported results.
“The problem is that these projects are also done in conjunction with technical fixes, rewrites to titles/metas, etc — so I don’t have a screenshot of just content fixes in isolation. I can say that we’ve seen traffic gains of anywhere from 30% to 150% when everything is done well.”
“A recent content audit we ran involved pruning over 3,000 pages, which resulted in organic traffic improvements. Outdated and low performing pages were removed from the site toward the end of April 2018.
The number of pages pruned was equal to roughly 15% of the entire site at the current time. Organic traffic after the project went up about 50% and has sustained itself since then, helping provide evidence of the benefits of a proper content audit and content pruning.”
“We did this a few years ago on our recipe and food site, RecipeLion.com. It had 1000 or so recipes that had seen less than 10 page views in the last two years. A lot of this content was VERY thin. It didn’t follow general guidelines for best practices and often had less than 100 words of text on the page.
We deactivated 1,156 articles over the course of several months. As a reference, there are about 36k active URLs on the site right now. So, at the time, these URLs comprised of about 3-4% of our URLs.
I’ll be honest at the time I braced for impact, but literally, nothing changed. I don’t think it hurt or helped anything.”
“When we updated our site we grouped the content by category then redirected them to content that was more thorough or was some of our higher ranking stuff. It really simplified our site, cut down on the number of articles, and just made life a lot better for us.
We redirected about 950 older posts to better performing, more up-to-date, more relevant content. TBH we didn’t see much of anything happen.”
“We did a pretty lengthy removal on our site last fall and trimmed hundreds of pages. Unfortunately, we also did our https conversion AND switched from .net to .com soon after. So that basically ruined any sort of analysis. Honestly, it was somewhat therapeutic.
My biggest thought about it is more in line with the overall concept of putting your best foot forward. Do I think pruning content on your website has a positive SEO benefit? Yes. Was I able to do a proper test? Unfortunately no. But I’m also OK with 100% bounce rate and a 100% conversion rate. A better foot forward can improve conversions and create better conversations and we can ignore the SEO part!”
“We had a client that had about 5,000 product pages on an ecommerce site and wanted to focus on some core products. We let about 4,000 product pages simply 404. Poof …gone, just like that. The site I mentioned is now less than 1,000 pages and performing great after chopping ~80% of it.
After about a month, existing pages were ranking higher, sales increased, and UX metrics improved drastically.”
“Using Google Search Console I found roughly 5k news/blog pages on our root domain (about 50% of all indexed pages) that were driving less than 20 impressions or less every quarter. These pages USED to generate traffic back in the heyday of content marketing, but are now undoubtedly categorized as “thin.”
I used a set of metrics to help filter down the list to the least valuable content, narrowing down the greatest offenders to roughly 1,100 indexed pages. Here was the filtering criteria:
Rather than doing this manually, or team built a script that imports a no-index tag on all these pages. Traffic more than doubled after the first prune.
But it’s important to note that this was NOT done in isolation. I also started a fairly robust blogging technique a few months prior. So correlation may not imply causation when observing these results. But I can say for sure that the content was razor thin and drove next to zero visibility.”
There’s more to life than Analytics. Sometimes, the benefits are more emotional. I respect that. Rondeau said deleting old content “just made life a lot better for us” and Cimala called it “somewhat therapeutic.”
Cleanliness is a virtue, right? Dan makes this point beautifully.
|“Sometimes there’s just the ‘right thing to do’ Forget about SEO and metrics for a moment. It just FEELS better to clear out the clutter like a nice spring cleaning. You and your team may just feel more excited to move forward with new content if you trim out the stuff that just doesn’t feel good anymore.” – Dan Sure, Evolving SEO|
Emotion is motivation and motivation is important too.
Unless you have a large website with 10,000+ pages I do not recommend pruning content. I recommend hoarding.
Because digital content is not like physical stuff. It’s just data in a database somewhere. It’s not clutter if no one sees it. So generally, the benefit of deleting is zero.
Assuming the content doesn’t affect the experience of your visitors, the main SEO case for pruning is crawl budget. But that’s a factor only for very large websites. Here’s Gary Illyes explaining on Google Webmaster Blog:
|“First, we’d like to emphasize that crawl budget is not something most publishers have to worry about… If a site has fewer than a few thousand URLs, most of the time it will be crawled efficiently.” – Gary Illyes, Webmaster Trends Analyst, Google|
This is how the debate usually ends. It can’t hurt. So marketing teams, content strategists and SEOs proceed with the project. They run the reports, review pages, make decisions, delete old pages and set up the redirects.
Suppose it takes just one day to do that work. What is the benefit? It didn’t hurt. But what was the opportunity cost of that time?
Here’s a list of 10 things I can do in a day:
Imagine your competitor does one of these things while you clean out your attic. Who gets the bigger benefit?
Right now, as you read this sentence, there are visitors on your website. Think of the pages they’re visiting. Think of your top pages. Improving those pages will give you benefits now, today.
The problem with digital marketing is that there are so many things we can do with our time. And they all look important. The key to content strategy is prioritization. I recommend prioritizing the things that are working well. Don’t purge.
Have you ever pruned content? If so, can you share results? With screenshots of your Analytics please?
Interesting points in this post, thanks for writing it!
In my experience, Google often prioritize more niched websites, and that might be interesting to bring into the debate.
So, if you cover many different topics on your website, it could be dragging down your overall rankings, because it’s difficult for Google to figure out where your authority lies.
In this sense, de-cluttering also has the benefit of removing content that doesn’t exactly fit in on your website, increasing relevancy.
We’ve had some good results for clients where we’ve pruned content. Usually as a part of a bigger task of improving the structure and the technical qualities of a website. I also like the concept of pursuing a sitewide quality score by showing your cleanest and most organized parts, so that it’s easier for both search engines and users to udnerstand. But I see your point too and I like the list of 10 alternative things at the end. My take after reading this is that we’ll continue pruning content for clients when it may be harder to execute on the more creative alternatives.
This is very really unique helpful information. keep it up. Thank you so much!
This was a very enlightening read. As a business student, it’s relevant information to know whether or not to “prune” old content that may or may not be relevant. This article gave great insight into why one might delete old pages (increasing search engine relevance, maintaining domain authority, and reducing the amount of keywords that search engines can mix up regarding your page), and ways to correctly do it (redirecting to a similar page or indexing but not allowing it show up in searches) or avoid doing it (rewriting the content with the same URL).
I agree that keeping those old pages may still be beneficial. Some pages may have criteria that may still be relevant to those who need older information, bare basics on a topic, etc. I feel this could go either way as there are valid points on each side and hard to measure. I have found that de-cluttering my personal social media accounts made me feel better, but that’s different from a business account. Although, I believe I would keep those older pages if I find my business successful after I graduate from my Business and Technology degree. Thank you for the enlightening blog! It has opened a new can of questions and debates in my current classes.
Andy–Thank you for this in-depth approach to content pruning.
While I’ve read and found Marie Kondo useful for decluttering objects, her method works less well for content including personal papers, photographs and digital files. In fact, it can be time-consuming.
I prefer to improve most content except time-sensitive information that was created for a past event that’s no longer relevant. That said, before you hit delete or re-route, check whether the URL still remains relevant to your current business and focus.
That said, your 10 tips are great, especially #10 be happy! There’s more to life than getting on the first page of Google.
Heidi Cohen – Actionable Marketing Guide
I once pruned old content, a few years ago. My site is small and I probably pruned around 5-10% of blog posts. They were old posts with no clear target keyphrase, some of them were possibly cannibalizing other content. I simply pressed delete.
I saw a traffic increase of 30%+ after a few weeks. I hadn’t done any other SEO work so it’s possible that the increase was due to the pruning but you never know.
Thanks for sharing your results, Henneke!
I’m with you, Andy. I’d much rather update old content than get rid of it.
We did a podcast on this exact topic a few weeks back,might be interesting to your readers https://therecipeforseosuccess.com/konmari-your-site-structure-with-marieke-van-de-rakt/
I wrestle with this subject often – glad to know I’m not alone! Thank you for sharing your research and posting this great article.
Thanks for exploring this very relevant question, and there’s nothing wrong with your recommendation to hoard – with the appropriate caveats, of course. Nothing in our modern lives is every simple, so few questions have clear yes/no answers – it’s usually “it depends.” And in the case of content, I think it really depends on whether the creator wants/needs to show their evolution. But the more important question is to stay true to the reason the content was created in the first place. To educate? To entertain? To attract and engage? If the content is no longer fulfilling its original purpose, then I’d suggest finding a way to archive it.
My thought comes from a very recent trip to Europe, where I noticed how many of the museums display early sketches from the masters along side the masterpiece that resulted. In so doing, it shows why they are considered masterpieces, and it also reveals the process of creating a masterpiece from a simple idea or vision. Many museums also show the early works of the masters, which showcases the evolution of the artist, which is valuable for aspiring artists as well as society’s general knowledge. Of course, that would not be possible if the artist (or collectors) did not save the sketches and earlier works. So – if the content no longer serves its original purpose, could someone learn from it? If yes, I’d say keep hoarding. If the answer to both of those is no, then I’d get rid of it and move on to creating new content.
As always, thank you for the great article. As for now, I will be keeping all content, but this article has reminded me to reevaluate the site using the Google Search Console and today will be spent prioritizing next steps for improvement.
Thanks, Sue. Yes, hold on to those old pages! They’re not hurting anything…
Nice article – I prefer to keep content myself, but my sites are not huge/bloated. Is the Share This button not working? (I was going to share it).
Great Article. I strongly agree with de-cluttering, Dan’s point about ‘cleanliness’ and just ‘feeling better’ resonates well with me. Keep it tidy and it makes your life a whole lot easier.
It’s good to feel good. I completely understand this. Not everything has to have an impact on SEO or Analytics. But if you’re stretched for time, this probably shouldn’t be a priority.
Thanks for the comment, Lily!
I hear what you are saying Andy, but as a Certified Feng Shui Consultant in my former life, I have to vote for decluttering. If it doesn’t ‘spark joy’ get rid of it. It’s an energy thing, if you believe in that.
Website feng shui. I’ll have to think about that.
My old articles from 2008 don’t spark joy, but they aren’t bothering me. I haven’t thought about them in years …until now. Maybe I should take a look.
What would Marie Kondo say about the Wayback Machine?
What are your thoughts?