Content marketing strategies can be relentlessly linear: The only question asked and answered is “What’s next?” What’s past, however, is equally important.
Every comprehensive content marketing strategy should increase the density, not just the quantity, of quality content.
Most sites depend on search engines for content visibility. Content pruning rids a site of what’s not working and reduces algorithmic drag on successful content. The benefits, however, extend beyond SEO, especially as search engine and user interests continue to align.
Increasing the density of quality content benefits users—they enjoy a richer on-site experience. Pages of thin or mediocre content undermine trust for first-time visitors, and expose a website built to serve SEO rather than consumer needs.
For search engines, measuring website quality is as vital and esoteric as measuring trust. Content length is an easy proxy for quality (i.e. longer is better). It makes sense—we expect to learn more from a book than a blog post. Identification of other quality signals is more challenging; I doubt we’re getting bonus points for that semicolon.
This continues to inspire both sensible and superficial one-upmanship:
- Sensible: Comprehensive guides that consolidate diffuse information
- Superficial: Ambling introductions to “optimize” for one-line question-and-answer pages
Google continues to reiterate that not all content must be long form to rank well:
But content length remains a ranking signal that webmasters control—far more so than off-page factors like domain authority that, on-page signals being equal, tend to disadvantage small businesses and emerging websites.
Still, the editorial cost of publishing best-in-class information continues to increase. Pruning content is far cheaper than large-scale investment in content production. For some sites, it’s enough to reach or exceed year-long content marketing goals.
How sites become candidates
For years, even poor-quality content helped sites rank for important terms and drive visitors. How could bad content help? Well, search engines rewarded topical breadth more than depth. Further, their inability to recognize synonyms burdened webmasters with tedious optimizations for equivalent terms such as “doctor” and “physician.”
Google’s Panda algorithm, released in February 2011, sought to break webmasters’ worst habits—especially scraping or duplicating content from other websites. Ostensibly, Panda elevated sites with “high-quality” content over those with “low-quality” information.
Today, outdated tactics or shady agencies aren’t the only culprits. Here are the five causes of low-quality content:
1. Site size
Low-quality content can be either an editorial or technical failure. With large sites, it’s often the latter. Common culprits include automatically generated tag, category, and author pages. Large sites are also more likely to have neglected sections—created by a human or CMS—in need of pruning.
2. Site age
Websites are natural hoarders. Older sites often contain relics of content marketing initiatives from earlier years. (Remember that industry glossary someone started and abandoned seven years ago?) Company mergers also lead to sites with combined posts and pages full of near-duplicate and outdated content.
Historical content marketing efforts may no longer reflect your company tone or values, or may reveal the gradual, painful evolution of publishing standards within your organization.
3. Outdated tactics
As noted above, plenty of businesses have paid low-end agencies to produce dozens of blog posts or other resources in pre-Panda times. Back then, those tactics drove real traffic and revenue. Now, they’re a liability. We’ve seen clients with entire blogs that merely rewrite others' work or fully duplicate content shopped by sub-par vendors from client to client.
4. Lack of editorial strategy
A strong content hub that targets a few topics is better positioned for search engine success than a blog laden with scattershot posts. The search engine evolution from keywords to topics offers added value to webmasters who define and adhere to a focused content marketing strategy.
In our experience, few sites hit this goal, and as a result unrelated topics dilute signals to search engines and users about why the site exists and where it is authoritative.
5. Poor measurement, goal setting
Arbitrary topic selection is easy when measurement is haphazard or nonexistent. Establishing content marketing goals for acquisition, engagement, and conversion helps justify up- or down-votes on topics based on their ability to reach stated goals.
Without measurement of outcomes, the default metric is often production, which leads down a Teflonic slope of low content density.
Identifying Content for Pruning
Creating a content inventory with every user- and search engine–facing page on the site is the first step toward identifying content to prune.
Identify through crawl. Screaming Frog is our crawler of choice. An initial site crawl should reveal the most relevant URLs on a site.
Cross check with Google Analytics. Export all pages with visits and cross check that list against the one compiled from the crawl. I like to go back a full year, though be warned: doing so can surface URLs that are no longer live.
Crawling the list of URLs exported from Analytics in Screaming Frog’s List Mode can identify outdated URLs. If any previously high-performing content has been redirected or removed, find out why.
Assessing content is about more than organic search performance. Just because a page doesn’t drive organic traffic doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. Too many content audits focus on a single channel (organic) or content marketing goal (acquisition), leading to misguided recommendations.
Answer these questions to determine whether content is valuable:
Does content generate site visitors? Use URL Profiler to pull landing page metrics from Google Analytics.
Does it generate organic visitors? Use URL Profiler to pull organic landing page metrics from Google Analytics.
Does it have the potential to generate organic traffic? If pages don’t generate traffic, do they generate impressions in Google Search Console—a sign of organic potential? The solution may be keyword retargeting or content expansion, rather than pruning.
Is it popular among site visitors? Not all useful content generates new visits. Use URL Profiler to pull pageview metrics from Analytics to find pages to which users navigate after arriving on the site, or return to regularly, which signals authority and visibility for that content.
Does content generate backlinks? Identify links to content marketing pieces using Ahrefs. Cross check Ahrefs data with links identified in Google Search Console. Don’t be surprised if there’s not much overlap. The Internet’s a big place.
3. Social shares
Has content generated social shares? BuzzSumo pulls social sharing data from the past year. This excludes older content that may have earned shares in prior years. (URL Profiler also pulls social shares, but I’ve been underwhelmed by its data quality.) Cross check BuzzSumo data with referral traffic from social media sites.
Note: Backlinks and social sharing reflect inherent reach and outreach investment as much as content quality. Media sites often dominate social sharing because they’re media sites that have a loyal audience and invest in content promotion—not because their work reflects the best coverage of a topic.
Identify root cause.
Low-performing content is not synonymous with low-quality content. Once you’ve identified low-performing content, it’s time to identify the cause.
Are pages set to noindex? That’s a problem. Are they blocked by robots.txt? Also a problem. Can search engines render the content as it appears to users? Does site structure support a logical hierarchy?
Technical SEO audits answer these questions. Apply foundational SEO checks to content marketing efforts. (Based on project scope, a full-scale SEO audit may not be possible, even if some issues—like robots.txt—can affect all pages on a site.)
Bad content is bad content. Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines define high-quality content through the E-A-T principle (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness). Google’s algorithm tries to reward pages with high levels of E-A-T.
While bad content is easy to spot, mediocre content can be more difficult to identify. Ask yourself:
- Does content answer every question a user may have?
- Is it derivative—a mash-up of the first few results on Google?
- Does it contain information or analysis not found elsewhere?
- Is it visually appealing?
- Is it well written and edited?
- Given any available source, would you choose this page to learn about the topic?
Targeting issues appear on both sides of the equation:
- Some content answers questions that users aren’t asking. This wastes efforts to attract new visitors through search.
- Alternatively, many sites attempt to rank for incredibly competitive topics—too often with short, derivative content. For businesses that sell in a specific city, state, or region, slant content to the local community to draw in a relevant audience and reduce topical competition.
Irrelevant content often makes its way into content marketing efforts. Blogs assume that everything a business speaks about should live in the same folder (/blog/), which is rarely true. But if you house all content marketing within a single section, narrow your focus to create a topical hub. Outlier topics can find homes elsewhere (more below).
Without an alternate distribution strategy like Digital PR, paid seeding, or email marketing, content depends on search engines for distribution. Any of the first three issues noted above can quickly undermine organic visibility. Establishing clear distribution channels for content is the most overlooked component of content marketing.
Content Pruning, and Other Fixes for Low-Performing Content
So what should you do with low-performing content?
1. Improve it.
Update outdated articles. While you’re at it, figure out how you can revise content to limit the need for updates. Work toward evergreen or near-evergreen content.
Combine related articles. This is an efficient way to improve content density and organic potential. Combine niche articles into an in-depth version of a broader topic.
Expand stub articles. If an article covers a relevant, lucrative topic, invest the resources to expand it and make it more competitive. “Expanding” can mean more than ballooning word count; it may add multimedia or restructure information.
2. Get rid of it.
Deindex. Add “noindex” tags to content that has value to users but not search engines. Dozens of short answers about your business process may be useful to potential clients but low quality to search engines.
Redirect. Redirect content with search engine value that no longer serves a purpose for users. This migrates useful search signals to the content that better serves user needs.
Delete. If content has no value to search engines or users, delete it. Fetch and Render the 404’d or 410’d page to expedite removal from the index.
3. Shop it elsewhere.
Just because something doesn’t fit on your site doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist. Third-party websites like Medium offer better inherent reach and can be a good place for commentary that falls outside the core purpose of on-site content marketing.
LinkedIn can be especially useful when seeking to migrate CEO commentaries or other outlier content that builds a personal brand, something better suited to social media.
Proof this works
In December 2016, we recommended substantial pruning of a small client website. Their resources section was filled with news, press releases, commentaries, and a handful of high-quality, high-value posts on their niche within the software industry.
First, we removed 74 short press releases that highlighted new business. Then, we compiled a list of prominent companies from those releases and created a single “Our Clients” page. It achieved the same goal far more efficiently and persuasively—a wall of recognizable logos that replaced dozens of deeply buried, single-paragraph clippings.
We also consolidated 33 industry-focused posts of varying depth into nine comprehensive, stand-alone resources. We retargeted each to match high-value keywords.
In all, we reduced the size of the site by more than 50%—the present site has only 43 pages. The results were clear in a matter of weeks:
Pruning existing content was a quick and inexpensive tactic that also helped repurpose client resources for a high-end downloadable. The new stream of top-of-funnel visitors became a source for leads—with the downloadable content serving as a tempting call-to-action.
There’s a final, enduring benefit to content pruning: Benchmarking content quality for the future.
Clients frequently ask for an objective definition of “good” content—how long, how many images, etc. Nothing provides a holistic definition of quality like a recently pruned site.