What is content pruning, and why do I need to do it?
READ TIME: 11 MINUTES
Calendly, March 01, 2020
Content pruning is the practice of removing outdated, under-performing or non-valuable content from your website. It's a counterintuitive concept to many people, especially when "content creation" gets so much attention in the digital marketing world. The trouble is that when you create too much, you end up with more quantity than quality.
At that point, it's time to start trimming.
The basics of content pruning
Content pruning is a lot like pruning a tree or bush. It’s not just about trimming back the dead material — it’s about making room for new growth. With content pruning, cutting out the dead weight is only the first step. You’ll also be optimizing, reorganizing and restructuring content that isn’t doing well but could be doing better.
When you prune content on your blog or website, you refine the effectiveness of the whole by making sure each part is performing well. There are two parallel tasks here:
Cleaning up content on a piece-by-piece basis, deciding whether low-performing content needs to disappear or be revamped
Mapping out your content as part of a strategy, making sure that there are clear tracks of high-quality material with effective links and no gaps
When you do these things well, you can improve the user experience and gain more traffic.
How does content pruning work?
When content isn’t pulling its weight — meaning that it isn’t building audience relationships or improving your SEO — it’s hurting the overall quality, effectiveness and ranking of your website.
Think of your low-quality content as dead branches on your prize lilac bush. At best, they take away from the overall aesthetic. At worst, they can attract diseases and insects that infect the rest of the plant. Bad content is similar. If an article isn't getting traffic and/or ranking for selected keywords, it’s not just taking up space, it’s negatively impacting your SEO.
First of all, search engines allocate limited resources to indexing each website. If low-quality pages drain those resources, it reduces the ability of your high-quality pages to rank. The more serious problem, though, is that multiple indexed pages end up competing against each other to rank for the same keywords and search queries. It’s called keyword cannibalization and it means that you’re stealing your own traffic.
That might sound like a good thing, but it isn’t. When two or more of your pages are competing, you’re splitting results among them. Each one is getting fewer clicks and less interaction, which means Google sees each page as less authoritative.
Content pruning can help you to get rid of the unnecessary and low-quality pages that are cannibalizing your clicks, giving you fewer pages that are more authoritative and possibly more successful.
What content should you prune?
So which posts and articles are hurting you? Here are three major red flags.
1. Duplicate content
Google penalizes duplicate content, which it defines as any “substantive blocks of content… that either completely match other content or are appreciably similar.”
It’s easier than you might think to end up with this kind of content. Maybe there was a topic that was trending two years ago and you wrote an article on it. Then, when the topic came back into the spotlight this year, you created a brand-new article. If these pages are similar enough, they could harm your SEO.
2. Outdated content
Older content is more likely to be lower-value and lower-ranking than newer content. Search engine algorithms change frequently, so older posts were likely made based on SEO rules that are no longer relevant.
The content itself can also make a piece outdated. If your information is obsolete or if your title is something like “7 SEO Tips for 2017” or “Projections for Q2,” you’re going to find that those pieces are weighing your site down.
3. Under-performing content
Your content should be working for you. If it’s not driving traffic, earning conversions and receiving backlinks, it’s not doing its job. Some of this content you’ll want to prune completely, but some you can update or optimize.
What can you do with low-quality content?
Don’t assume that pruning means you’ll be deleting every under-performing piece of content on your site. While that’s certainly the fastest way to get rid of content that might be dragging you down, it’s also dangerous.
You might end up deleting content that you’ll need in the future. You could also end up breaking a link chain and hurting the SEO of other articles that link to that deleted article.
That’s not to say that you should never delete content, just that you have to be careful when you do it. Often, it’s better to fix up the article and give it new life.
De-indexing a page is almost like deleting it from an SEO perspective, in that search engine crawlers won’t be able to find it. It’s an effective solution if your main problem is too much content, and it’s ideal for those pages that might still have some value.
The simplest way to de-index a page is with a 410 Gone or 404 Page Not Found message. These may not be the best strategies in all situations, though, so check in with your developers to see if another strategy might be better. You can use the following chart as a starting point:
When you have multiple articles competing for search results and views, the easiest and most effective solution is usually to redirect the lower-performing pieces into the one that has the best performance and quality.
You can do this by setting up a 301 redirect, which tells the browser that the page has permanently moved. Visitors will automatically get redirected to the target page, which will then get all of the page ranking from both the old and the new sites.
Some articles and blog posts are relatively evergreen, save for a few outdated data points or SEO techniques. These are content pieces that you won’t want to cut completely. They can be made useful again with just a few simple tweaks, such as:
Replacing old research with new data
Adding content that fills in the time gap (“Since then, the Google algorithm has…”)
Checking the relevance of your keywords and change them if necessary
Getting a few newer backlinks
Some articles will need more of an extensive renovation. In that case, your best bet may be to completely rewrite it. This takes more time, so consider passing these articles on to guest posters.
You’ll get a fresher perspective and can even get some more authority behind the post, especially if you choose a guest blogger who’s an expert in the field. This can boost your SEO significantly if your original post was from a less authoritative source.
The average length of a blog post or article has been increasing over the years. The average blog was just 808 words in 2014 and 1,150 words in 2018, but recent HubSpot data suggests that the ideal length for a blog in 2020 is 2,100 to 2,400 words.
This trend is good news for content pruners. It means that if you have older, shorter articles that aren’t getting traffic, you can consolidate them into one longer updated piece.
Before you can decide what to do with a piece of content, though, you have to know what content you have and how it’s doing.
How do you prune content?
It’s important to go about your content pruning process methodically. Just like you wouldn’t want to hack off a healthy tree branch, you don’t want to risk deleting a post that’s performing well just because it’s older or similar to another post you have. Follow these steps to be sure that you're pruning strategically.
Step 1: Inventory and audit your content
The first thing you need is a complete list of your content including the name, URL, publication date and author of each article. You can get this information from your web publisher.
From there, identify the goals of each content piece. Is the article there to drive traffic to the website? Does it help potential customers learn about the product or your industry? This information will be important later when you’re deciding whether to prune or repurpose a piece of content.
Next, audit each content piece to see how it’s performing against your goals. Choose a web analytics tool and gather data for the past 12 months, including the number of:
Visits and conversions, overall and from organic search
Shares and likes on social media
Clickthroughs from social media
Internal and external backlinks
You’ll also want to check the content itself for outdated information, low word count and duplication.
Step 2: Decide on a cutoff
You’ll probably finish your content audit with a large volume of data. The next step is to decide how you’re going to use this data to choose which content to prune.
The easiest and most effective strategy is to choose your most relevant data points and select a cutoff. Anything performing below that point you’ll cut or optimize.
For example, if one of the primary goals of your content is to drive traffic to your product pages, look at the average clickthrough rate for your content overall. If your average is 3%, then for this first round, you might choose to prune anything with a CTR of 2.5% or below.
Be careful not to be too strict with your first round of cutoffs. Think of your articles like hopefuls for a high school football team — you’ll cut the lowest performers in the first round, and then if you still need to shed dead weight, you can choose a stricter cutoff or a different metric the second time around.
Step 3: Fix or prune
Once you have a list of articles to prune, you have to decide what to do with each one. Go back and look at the other data you collected—the information that you didn’t use to set your cutoff this time.
Let’s say that you have an article with a CTR of 2% that’s on your shortlist for pruning. Your other data will probably offer insights into why it’s not performing well, and you can use that information to choose the article’s fate.
For instance, if the publication date is 2015, look at whether the content needs updating. Maybe you just need to add a few paragraphs addressing industry trends since then. Or perhaps you did a series of short articles on related topics and you can easily blend them into a new, longer piece.
There will be times when an article is unsalvageable, though. In that case, it’s okay to delete it. Just remember to save the content itself for future use.
Step 4: Track results
As with any content strategy, you want to track key metrics and see whether your strategy worked. Start by evaluating based on the same metrics as you used to make your cuts. If you measured CTR to choose content to prune, see if there are any changes in your average CTR after the fact.
One of the main goals of content pruning is to improve your SEO, so keep an eye on your overall traffic, ranking and conversion metrics. These should go up after a major content pruning. If things are trending in the right direction but you want to do even better, schedule another round of cuts.
Content pruning isn’t a one-and-done strategy. You’ll want to review your traffic and rankings every six months or so, perhaps more often if you have a large site with thousands of pages.
Meanwhile, work on creating content that won’t expire as quickly. Craft evergreen content and make your time-bound articles as easy to update as possible. Have regular meetings with your content creation and marketing teams so that their work aligns with your pruning strategy, and keep them involved when you have brush-up pruning in the future.
The more you make pruning a team effort, the more effective it will be in helping you to reach audiences and improve your SEO.
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