How to Drive More Traffic to Your Site and Boost Rankings by Updating Old Content (A Complete Guide to Content Pruning in 2020)

February 2, 2020

It’s 2020. Do you know where your zombie pages are?

Despite the fact that SEO experts, content marketers, and even Google have sung its praises as a key ingredient in the recipe for content marketing success, content pruning is an oft overlooked and undervalued strategy. But with 2020 upon us, content marketers everywhere need to be testing low-effort, high-impact tactics that will maximize the return on your content investment. Between the looming threat of zero-click searches, deteriorating organic click-through rates, and the catapulting advancements in AI and machine learning, we can all agree that 2020 will come with its own set of challenges.

However, while you’ve likely focused the bulk of your 2020 content strategy around creating new high-quality content, you may have let an equally important tactic fall through the cracks: identifying and improving underperforming content.

In this complete guide to content pruning, we’ll cover what content pruning is, why you need to clean up low-quality content for SEO success in 2020 and how to quickly identify and improve your underperforming content.

What is Content Pruning?

Content pruning is the process of auditing your website content, evaluating performance, analyzing underperforming pages and improving, moving, or removing that content to boost rankings and drive more traffic to your site.

Need more proof that content pruning is a good investment? Take it from Google:

Let’s dive into the step-by-step process for finding and improving your outdated content.

Step 1: Audit

The first step is to organize an inventory of all the content assets available to you on your site, because in order to understand what we need to do, we need to know what we have.

As a data-driven marketer, I always start with the data and let the numbers tell the story – even if I’m launching a project I’ve done a hundred times before. The reason is simple: the content that you find interesting or valuable is not necessarily what your audience finds interesting or valuable. The only way to know with absolutely certainty that your content is resonating (or failing) is to look at the performance data.

And as is the case with any big SEO project, the difference between making decisions based on assumptions, past experience or visual cues and using data-backed insights to inform your strategy can make or break your content cleanup campaign.

So, the first step I take during a content audit is always to start exporting data from Google Analytics and Google Search Console to gather performance metrics like:

  • Sessions
  • Bounce Rate
  • Time on Site
  • Clicks
  • Impressions
  • Average CTR
  • Average Position
  • Conversions

Step 2: Analyze

Next, we need to analyze the authority of each page. Head to your favorite link intelligence tool (Majestic, Ahrefs) and pull these link metrics at the URL-level:

  • Number of inbound links
  • Number of referring domains
  • Nofollow vs. Dofollow Links
  • Trust Flow
  • Citation Flow

Step 3: Evaluate

Now that you have a full picture of the assets available on your site, it’s time to evaluate your content to determine whether each page helps you, hurts you, or does absolutely nothing for you.

The content evaluation process varies from expert to expert, so feel free to follow your favorite process – my only requirement is that you end up with a clear picture of what content you have, and what you need to do with that content.

It’s here where things get a little more complicated as there are a few potential actions to take:

  1. Repeat it
  2. Refresh it
  3. Remove it
  4. Redirect it
  5. Rewrite it
  6. Repurpose it

1. Repeat it. Leave as is.

If a page does drive organic traffic and has a low bounce rate and high conversion rate, leave that page alone. Similarly, any pages that serve specific purposes, like navigational pages or archives, should not be candidates for pruning.
If a page does drive some organic traffic or has earned valuable backlinks but has a high bounce rate or low conversion rate, you’ll need to review that page for content quality. In this evaluation process, you will determine whether to refresh it, remove it, redirect it, repurpose it into a new format, or rewrite the content to improve it.

Examples of on-page elements that may be helping or hurting performance:

  • Content quality
  • Originality
  • Formatting
  • In-depth analysis
  • Presentation
  • Author trust

2. Refresh it. Light optimization of on-page elements.

If a page ranks well and has decent organic visibility, but has a high bounce rate or low CTR, we may be able to improve this content with a quick page optimization. Sometimes, content that has grown old or out of date simply needs a refresh. Review all the key on-page factors like your title tag, meta description, header tags, internal links, outbound links, keyword targeting and URL structure to identify areas of improvement.

Bring new life to the page by adding more quality content and double-checking all your technical SEO elements. You can also try to boost the page’s performance by pointing more internal links to it from higher-up in your website navigation, adding outbound links to authoritative resources, or earning backlinks from trustworthy areas of the web.

Examples of optimization techniques to improve content quality:

  • Highlight value in meta data. Consider what your target audience will get out of your product or service and clearly communicate that benefit.
  • Use words that evoke emotion and communicate excitement or humor while still being genuine, trustworthy and consistent in your ability to answer questions and solve problems.
  • Focus on keywords your audience is searching for, then include them in your meta data, headline and on-page copy, close the beginning or the end.
  • Keep meta data short and succinct (under 60 characters) so it’s not truncated in the SERPs and – bonus – it’s under the character count limit, see you then.
  • Sprinkle in internal links with optimized, keyword-focus anchor text. A well-executed internal linking strategy is extremely powerful due to its dual purpose: 1) Internal links can help search engines identify the site’s most important pages and provide context. Variations of your target keyword can be used as anchor text on other pages that link to your target content. 2) Most importantly, internal links improve UX by helping your readers and directing them to relevant sources to explore the topic further.

Once your optimization is complete, monitor the page’s performance in the SERPs and watch for improvement over the next few months. If performance doesn’t improve, you may need to take one of the more time-intensive actions we cover next. 

3. Remove it.

If a page has no organic traffic and no backlinks, it has little value to your site. You should manually review it to confirm the content has no value (and will never have value), then “remove” it by 301 redirecting the URL to the closest version of the content. Remember to audit your site for any legacy links to the page and update those destination URLs so your UX remains seamless.

Questions to ask yourself before removing content and permanently redirecting it to a topically relevant page:

  • Is the content earning any traffic (organic or paid)?
  • Is it ranking (high) on Page 1 or featured in any SERP integrations?
  • Does the page have any link equity?
  • Will anyone miss it if it’s gone/does it provide any inherent value?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, then removing content could be dangerous. But if you answer “no,” it’s time to remove and redirect it.

4. Redirect it. Take valuable parts of each page and merge it into one high-value, comprehensive piece.

If a page has no organic traffic but does have backlinks, it’s possible you’re accidentally cannibalizing your own site by publishing multiple pieces of thin content targeting the same topic. Preserve link equity and consolidate authority by first determining which page you want to rank for the keyword. Next, salvage any worthy content from the other pages and use it to build out the preferred page, effectively creating a stronger, more comprehensive resource. Finally, implement a 301 redirect to permanently point the thin URL(s) to the preferred page.

Keyword cannibalization is a major issue that can have a detrimental effect on search engine rankings. Keyword cannibalization is when a single website unintentionally targets the same keyword across multiple posts or pages, causing them to compete against one another. Search engines are then forced to make a choice as to which page they should display in search results, and their choice may not be the one you want. If you are already suffering from cannibalization issues, follow the steps outlined above – or hire an experienced professional to handle the heavy-lifting for you.

Here are a few signs you should consolidate or merge content:

  • Multiple articles on one topic
  • Two pages cannibalizing each other in the SERPs for the same keyword
  • Wrong page ranking for a target query
  • Posts that are useful, but too thin/short to satisfy search intent and fail to cover the topic thoroughly, from different angles, to provide the best answer (consolidate individual, related blog posts into chapters in an in-depth guide)

5. Rewrite or repurpose it.

If a page has some organic traffic, but has a low conversion rate and/or high bounce rate, you’ll want to review for relevancy and determine whether to simply rewrite it (if content quality is the problem), or repurpose it into a different content format – say, restructuring a text-heavy blog post into a clean ordered list or converting text into eye-catching data visualizations.

Usually, content that needs a rewrite has a useful, relevant, or helpful topic, but the writing is poor/low-quality. But sometimes, pages that typically see high organic traffic can plateau or simply become stale over time. As a brand, you want to make sure you’re putting your best foot forward regarding the content you publish. Instead of completely rewriting the content due to poor quality, it might make more sense to add substantial updates to the content based on any number of factors.

Here are a few examples of updates you might want to consider for your content.

  • Up-to-date references or research – If you’re citing old data that has since been updated, make sure the blog post is linking to the most relevant and accurate information available.
  • Answer more questions – Given the rise of no-click searches, the People Also Ask functionality is a great place to evaluate potential ideas for updating your content. Any given keyword can have hundreds of questions that users are also likely curious about.
  • Add more depth – Although long-form content can sometimes overwhelm the reader, place an index on the top of the post so users can read through the parts that interest them. By adding more information to an existing blog post, you can help your post gain authority and trust over other content.
  • Make it seasonal – If you’re a retailer, you can update a blog post to make it relevant for the holidays instead of writing a brand-new post. Another example would be for a B2B brand to update a blog post for an upcoming trade show. Seasonal content is relevant to every industry, but since it tends to be cyclical, it might be more beneficial to update a post that’s already performing well.
  • Newsjacking – Responding to current events keeps your brand relevant and makes content more interesting. Chances are that you might have a blog post that could be tied to a topic that’s already trending. If you can make the tie between current events and a piece of content you’ve written, update the post so it references whatever is trending in the news. Just make sure it’s done in good taste.
  • Narrow the audience – In the age of personalization, your content can often get better engagement by making it more niche. The most common ways of narrowing the audience are either specifying an industry or type of customer you’re targeting. Another strategy for doing so is making the content localized to a region, state, or even city. Just make sure the content is relevant to that target audience and you’re not simply changing the headline.

Repurposing content is best suited for situations where your content fails to match the content formats you see ranking in the SERPs for your target keyword(s). Here are a few ways you can repurpose some of your past content:

  • Convert your blog post into a video (and try some newer video formats)
    1. Screen recording — Cover main points in blog and record your screen.
    2. SlideShare video – Take the blog post and convert it into a PowerPoint template or slide deck. Add photos to the slides and record the presentation as a video.
    3. Turn the blog into a presentation on camera (think Moz’s Whiteboard Friday series)
    4. Do a Facebook Live recap of the post and save the recording
  • Make the blog post into an infographic, like we did with this post!
  • Convert into a SlideShare presentation (and embed the deck in the original post)
  • Make it into a podcast
  • Consolidate thin content around the same topic into chapters in a comprehensive e-book
  • Repurpose the content into a webinar

Once you’ve repurposed your blog into a video (in this example) and the video has been uploaded to all available platforms (YouTube, Vimeo, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr), don’t make the mistake of assuming the repurposing process is complete. Here’s where the true value comes into play:

  • Embed the video on the original, text-based blog post to improve the page quality and value of the content. Adding multimedia is also a proven way to improve time on site and reduce bounce rate.
  • Run ads for the video and the blog post on YouTube and Facebook – and slice the video up into a 10-second bite-sized promotable video asset to use in ads.
  • Send out an email blast to subscribers and warm prospects, promoting the new video and updated blog post

Tips for Maximizing the Success of Your Content Pruning Campaign

Whether you consolidate into one high-EAT landing page, rewrite low-quality content, or do a light refresh of outdated content – don’t forget to promote your new page by sharing it on owned channels and adding it to your link building/email outreach campaign. (Tip: Ego bait – e.g. quoting or citing well-known experts and influencers in your industry – not only improves the quality of your content, but is also more likely to be linked-to or shared by the experts you mention).

Remember, there are several variables that can influence why your content succeeds or fails (competition, seasonality, technical issues, etc.). Use your best judgement when evaluating your content. This project isn’t about following a cookie cutter process. This is a strategy that requires you to think. To analyze. To be creative when crafting content that clicks, but technical in your ability to quickly pull powerful insights from the data to drive your campaign forward. If you’re looking for a quick and easy win, or a set it and forget it campaign, this isn’t for you. But if you’re willing to put in the time it takes to execute a successful content pruning campaign, you won’t be disappointed.

Remember to share your results in a comment, we’d love to hear from you!

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