How to do it the right way
Is low-quality content dragging down your website’s “reputation of knowledge“?
It could be.
Could older or outdated content be to blame?
But low-quality content isn’t defined as “the date it was published.” Nothing is that simple – there are many other factors at play. Google repeatedly emphasized this after CNET deleted thousands of old pages.
Pruning content for SEO in bulk isn’t a magic fix that guarantees a rankings boost for all the remaining pages.
Older content on your website shouldn’t harm your SEO performance as long as it’s of good quality. Look no further than The New York Times.
Read on to find out how to assess the quality of your content from an SEO perspective and how to decide whether you should improve or remove that content.
What is quality content?
Quality content comprehensively answers questions, solves problems or otherwise satisfies the group of people Avinash Kaushik would call your “largest addressable qualified audience,” in his See/Think/Do/Care model.
Other attributes of quality content:
- Accurate (i.e., trustworthy)
- Easy to consume
Not every piece of content will have all of these attributes. But great content should incorporate as many of these attributes as possible.
Google has also provided insights into what it considers quality content in Creating helpful, reliable, people-first content. It provides specific questions you should ask yourself when self-assessing the quality of your content:
- Does the content provide original information, reporting, research, or analysis?
- Does the content provide a substantial, complete, or comprehensive description of the topic?
- Does the content provide insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond the obvious?
- If the content draws on other sources, does it avoid simply copying or rewriting those sources, and instead provide substantial additional value and originality?
- Does the main heading or page title provide a descriptive, helpful summary of the content?
- Does the main heading or page title avoid exaggerating or being shocking in nature?
- Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
- Would you expect to see this content in or referenced by a printed magazine, encyclopedia, or book?
- Does the content provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
- Does the content have any spelling or stylistic issues?
- Is the content produced well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
- Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?
Also, you should be familiar with E-E-A-T and have read Google’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines PDF.
Dig deeper: What is quality content
Define your key content metrics
All of these attributes are nice in theory. But how do you turn the concept of “quality content” into something you can measure?
Here are five possible ways to measure “quality”:
- Pageviews: Traffic can be a great indicator of success – the more reads, the better.
- Organic traffic: Rankings have never been as important to me as actual organic traffic (people on my website). I don’t care if I rank in Position 1 for a term that drives little or no relevant/valuable traffic to my site.
- Links: Look at internal links and links to your content from external sites. Quality matters more than quantity (e.g., one link from a relevant, quality site may be better than 100 links from 100 bad/mediocre domains). Evaluate the value of all your links.
- Conversions: What matters for you? Newsletter signups? Subscriptions? Sales? Revenue? Your content should be a part of the buyer’s journey, contributing to business goals and the SEO strategy.
- Engagement: If you value longer time-on-site, that could be one form of engagement to factor in your assessment. Or maybe it’s scroll depth. The point here is you’re looking for something beyond just “traffic” – as traffic alone is meaningless without some other form of engagement.
Tailor your metrics to your unique situation.
Getting started: Content elements to examine
What content do you have? Do a content audit to find out.
This process will help you evaluate whether your content needs to be updated or removed.
Create a spreadsheet with information about your content for some directional guidance. This is what I’ve found to be most useful to me (you may want to include more or other elements):
- Title: Is it accurate? Could it be better optimized? Does it have a clear reader benefit?
- URL: Is it SEO friendly? Does it need to change (e.g., does the URL contain a year)?
- Author: Did a subject matter expert or authority write it? Does the person who wrote it still work with/for your company (or do you still have a relationship)? Are you able to contact the writer?
- Publication date: This is more important to know for content types that can/should be updated (i.e., not news).
- Pageviews (historic vs. recent): What I’m looking for here is the worst-performing content or any content that used to get lots of traffic but no longer does.
- Word count: Lower word counts could be an indicator of quality issues.
- Links: Has your content earned links from other sites? How many internal links have you built to the content?
- Trust Flow and Citation Flow: These Majestic metrics can indicate link quality and equity. Higher scores are better.
A couple of quick points about word count: Google has said word count doesn’t matter for SEO and I believe there is no best/perfect word count for SEO. At this stage, I’m looking for symptoms of low quality – word count could indicate issues, though it won’t always be the cause. As with everything, you need to investigate further.
Next comes the hard part: reviewing your content and determining what action to take. This part will require human judgment calls from the people who are experts in the subject matter and those who understand SEO. And remember: many variables influence the success of your content.
Circling back to the key metrics, I typically evaluate whether to improve or remove content based on whether it is:
- SEO positive: These are your unicorns/rock stars – they are helping you achieve goals.
- SEO neutral: Some content just exists – neither helping nor hurting. This type of content is basically useless.
- SEO negative: Thin, outdated and unhelpful content – anything that can negatively impact your performance.
Content to leave alone
Before we discuss improving or removing content, we have to talk about a special type of content that needs no changes.
There is a rare form of content that needs no changes (for now) because it:
- Is thoroughly helpful – all the information is accurate and up to date, or it has historical value.
- Consistently gets good traffic and engagement.
- Has attracted many quality links.
- Ranks in Position 1-3.
- Generates conversions.
Leave it alone. (For now.)
Once you’ve earned Position 1 in the organic search results, where will you go? Not up.
No major changes are needed. Just make sure to do routine maintenance on it. Focus your efforts on all the other content that isn’t in this position.
Get the daily newsletter search marketers rely on.
Why you should improve content
In more recent years, Google has advised against removing content and suggested making “thin” content “thick” (i.e., better) while also adding more high-quality content. “…don’t remove content someone might find useful,” according to Google’s Gary Illyes.
Likewise, Mueller said “improving it is probably the best thing to do in general”
- “…if you can improve your content that’s probably the best approach possible because then you have something really useful on your website you’re providing something useful for the web in general.”
How to improve content
Improving content is more about making a few quick changes and updating your publication date.
You need to assess every detail of your content – and compare it against the content ranking from your competitors. That includes:
- Alignment with audience/search/user intent.
- Call to action.
- Grammar and spelling.
- Missing information.
- Multimedia (videos, images, audio).
- Tone of voice / writing style.
An update typically requires the least amount of time investment. At most, about 20-25% of the content needs to be changed.
Your content needs to be rewritten if the following apply:
- Traffic (or rankings) declines, especially near a Google core update.
- Attracting fewer/no links.
- Engagement is decreasing.
- It ranks in the top 5-10 and going higher is realistic by putting in the needed work.
- Conversions are declining.
This is the more extreme form of content update – where up to 100% of the content needs to be written.
Your content needs to be rewritten if:
- It currently gets little or no traffic.
- It no longer attracts new links.
- Engagement is bad or non-existent.
- It doesn’t rank in top 10.
- It’s no longer indexed.
- It’s not driving any conversions.
Sometimes, you have a piece of content on a useful, relevant or helpful topic, but it was just written poorly. To address that, make sure to:
- Start content from scratch.
- Update information so it is accurate.
- 301 redirect old to new post on a new (optimized) URL.
Google can forward full PageRank through 301 redirects. However, you get the most value when the new page is as close to a 1:1 match with the topic of the old page.
Consolidate and redirect
Here are the reasons why you might want to consider consolidating your content:
- You have multiple articles on one topic.
- One page gets an insignificant amount of traffic; others get even less or none.
- None of the articles attract any new links or get any engagement.
- The article is not ranking in the top 10 positions, or…
- The wrong page ranks.
- Two pages are competing on the same SERP.
Combining content when needed gets the approval of Google’s John Mueller. He said of the topic:
- “Probably. I think that’s something that generally… we see if you take two or three or four kind of weaker pages and merge them into one, even within the same site or externally, then that’s something where we can say that this is a stronger page.
- We can see that… more parts of the site are referring to this one single piece of content so it’s probably more relevant than those individual small pieces that you had before.“
Here’s how to do it:
- Create one awesome and helpful piece of content.
- Start from scratch, writing on the topic from today’s perspective, but reuse/repurpose any existing relevant content.
- Make it better than your competitors.
- 301 redirect to new (optimized) URL.
Why you should remove content
Low-quality content is bad for users. And what’s bad for users is bad for SEO.
After Google launched Panda, we learned from Google that content pruning could help rankings for higher-quality content emphasis mine):
“In addition, it’s important for webmasters to know that low quality content on part of a site can impact a site’s ranking as a whole. For this reason, if you believe you’ve been impacted by this change you should evaluate all the content on your site and do your best to improve the overall quality of the pages on your domain. Removing low quality pages or moving them to a different domain could help your rankings for the higher quality content.”
Note the emphasis here is on low-quality content, not old content. That said, old content typically tends to be lower quality. Things break (links, images) and information changes.
While Panda has long been incorporated into Google’s core algorithm, Google’s newer helpful content system is a sitewide algorithm, meaning that “if Google determines your site is producing a relatively high amount of unhelpful content, primarily written for ranking in search, then your whole site will be impacted.”
Google told us that “removing unhelpful content could help the rankings of your other content.”
Same advice, different algorithms. Just replace “low-quality” with “unhelpful”.
Let’s make it simple. Just ask yourself a simple question:
- Am I embarrassed by the content on this page?
Here are four ways you can go about answering that question for your content:
- Is your content relevant to your target audience? In the chase for revenue and growth, be careful not to lose sight of your core audience in favor of publishing content about anything and everything. Stay true to your identity and your audience.
- Is your content helping achieve a goal? This will tie back to your key metrics (e.g., is the content helping you rank, attracting links, driving conversions).
- Is your content optimized (for keywords and user intent)? Analyzing Google’s SERPs will give you critical insights into specific keywords you’re targeting, such as what content is ranking and what searchers want or need from your content.
- Is your content unsuccessful? Go back to how Google and this article have defined quality (plus your own unbiased judgment). Does it meet your quality standards? Look at your key metrics, whether that’s traffic, engagement, links, conversions, shares or something else.
What else could negatively impact you? Google has told us via the Search Quality Rater Guidelines:
- E-E-A-T is inadequate.
- Main content quality is low.
- Amount of main content is unsatisfying.
- Title is exaggerated or shocking (a.k.a., clickbait).
- Ads or supporting content distracts from the main content.
- Information about the website or content creator is unsatisfying.
- The website or content creator has a mildly negative reputation.
Types of content to consider culling:
- Thin content. This is often a vague term. I’ve historically defined “thin” content as content that is:
- Poorly written. Anything riddled with spelling and grammatical issues. Or it may just feel generally incomplete or thoroughly unsatisfying because it doesn’t deliver on its promise or answer your question.
- Off-topic. You can publish content about any topic you want, but you should focus your resources on the most relevant topics and subtopics and any adjacent topics that make sense for your brand or business.
- No historical significance. If you published content about an event, person, idea, or some other thing that is no longer important – especially if it failed to gain any long-term traction. This is very much a judgment call. You know your audience best.
- Very low number of pageviews in the past year. Anything with zero pageviews should be looked at first. From there, it’s a judgment call – you have to determine what level of traffic makes a page worthy of retaining.
Bottom line: Will anybody miss the content if it’s gone? If your answer is no, it’s time to remove it. This flowchart may be helpful:
How to remove content
If the content can’t be updated in any of the above ways, it’s time to decide whether to remove it – either blocking it from search engines or deleting it from your site.
In cases where you want to keep the content on your site, but not have it appear in search results, blocking the URL is probably your best bet. You can do that by adding the noindex meta tag.
One other alternative is to require a password to view the content.
Remove it from your site.
It doesn’t matter to Google whether that page has a 410 or 404 status, Mueller said in a 2018 Webmaster Hangout:
“From our point of view, in the mid term/long term, a 404 is the same as a 410 for us. So in both of these cases, we drop those URLs from our index.
We generally reduce crawling a little bit of those URLs so that we don’t spend too much time crawling things that we know don’t exist.
The subtle difference here is that a 410 will sometimes fall out a little bit faster than a 404. But usually, we’re talking on the order of a couple days or so.
So if you’re just removing content naturally, then that’s perfectly fine to use either one. If you’ve already removed this content long ago, then it’s already not indexed so it doesn’t matter for us if you use a 404 or 410.”
Keep ‘building out your reputation of knowledge’
Improving, removing and consolidating content is good SEO.
It’s hard work – and it’s not quick. Done right, it’s absolutely worth it in the long term.