When people think about content and SEO, they’re always focused on creating new content. But people forget about their existing content and what impact it has on their website’s SEO performance.
While it may feel contradictory, your rankings may very well improve after removing content. Over the past few years, it’s become clear that the adage “less is more” also applies to content in SEO.
What is Content Pruning?
Content Pruning involves updating or removing content that’s weighing down a website, preventing it from performing as well as it could. By removing that dead weight, you increase its overall health.
It’s very similar to pruning a tree: by removing dead branches and leaves, you increase the tree’s overall health, and you make sure all of its energy goes towards the parts you want to grow.
Conceptually that makes sense—but what type of content is considered dead weight?
The answer: content that has lost its usefulness and value and that contains potentially harmful advice.
Examples of content that is typically pruned:
- Pages with outdated information
- Pages that aren’t getting, and never will get, traffic or engagement
- Pages with duplicate content or thin content
The goal of content pruning is twofold: to clean up content that could be doing harm to your website’s rankings because it is low quality, and to reorganize your content into content lanes that make sense while condensing pieces that are too similar into one piece that is easier to rank and share with potential customers on their buying journey.
To do that there are three things to do to prune your content:
- First, if you are pruning content for SEO then you can use your tracked keywords (or start tracking them in order to see where your ranking issues lie) to identify pages that are hurting your rankings that can then be included in the reorganization.
- Second, go to your buyer’s journey and see where your content gaps exist and how you can take the content you already have in order to rework it into those areas of your funnel.
- Third, make sure that when you delete content you are also redirecting the now-defunct URLs to the new content so that you do not lose link equity for SEO purposes or send your customers to a broken page.
Why should you care about Content Pruning?
You want your website to contain content that contributes to its overall quality and usefulness. Why?
For four reasons:
- Better overall quality: by pruning content that doesn’t add any value, you increase your content’s overall quality.
- Better distribution of link authority: by pruning content that doesn’t add any value, you’re making sure your link authority is only flowing to pages that have potential.
- Better user experience: this leads to a good user experience for your visitors—which has increasingly become more important for search engines as well.
- Wiser crawl budget spending: you want search-engine crawlers to spend your crawl budget on pages that really matter for your website’s SEO performance (this mostly applies to websites of 10,000 pages and more).
We know Google more frequently crawls the URLs they consider important. We believe that a higher crawled page correlates with better performance in organic results. So, it only makes sense that cutting thin, under-performing pages can help Google spend their time on your other more important pages. This is a different approach than we took in the past, in which we’d have tons of landing pages for a ton of different keyword targets. But with this approach, it’s more about consolidating fragmented (and paginated) content into more holistic and authoritative pieces. It’s better for your readers.
Is Content Pruning only useful for large websites?
While content pruning is particularly important for larger websites (10,000 pages and more), it’s also recommended for small websites. No matter what your website’s size, you always want your visitors to find up-to-date and useful information there.
Preventing Content Pruning by thinking ahead
By carefully planning your content marketing efforts and thinking ahead you can limit the need for content pruning. For example, really think twice before adding a year into a URL. If you know the content is going to be updated next year, you don’t want to have
something-something-2018 in there. As a golden rule of thumb: don’t use a year in the URL when you could see yourself appending 20XX to the page title, meta description or H1 heading in the years to come. If you do add the year, you’re practically adding an expiration date to your content.
How often should you prune your content?
Content pruning should be done continuously—and it’s something you’ll never be done with.
It should be a part of the list of tasks that you perform on a monthly basis. Why? Because when you’ll be working on your content anyway, you may as well keep a watchful eye on its state and performance.
It’s better to do regular pruning rather than just having massive pruning exercises once or twice a year. These massive pruning exercises are useful, but it’s important not to rely on those alone, because there’s a lot to gain from pruning content. Don’t go for a big bang. Instead, go for regular pruning combined with full content pruning exercises.
As a rule of thumb, we recommend assessing what content can be pruned once every 6 months for websites up to 1,000 pages. We recommend doing this every 3 months for larger websites. Use these guidelines as a starting point to fit this into your workflow.
To be able to do content pruning on a monthly basis, you first need to go through one full content pruning cycle, as described below.
Content Pruning Process
The content pruning process involves a three-step process:
- Content Inventory—creating an overview of all of your content
- Content Audit—evaluating the performance of your content
- Deciding on your content’s fate —decide what to do with the underperforming content. There are more options than just removing it (more on this later)
Step 1: Content Inventory
During the content inventory, you make a complete list of all of your content using an application such as ContentKing.
Important: Don’t forget to also include images, videos, and PDF files!
Supplement this list with an export from your CMS, with data from your web analytics tool, Google Search Console, and Bing Webmaster Tools, and with backlink data from a tool such as Ahrefs. There’s going to be a lot of duplicates, so make sure to filter those out.
You’ll end up with an overview of all of your content, consisting of unique URLs only.
For each line, fill in:
- The goal(s) you want to achieve through it
- Its target audience
- The search queries it should be ranking for
This will come in handy in the next step: the content audit.
With respect to Marie Kondo, before I touch any on-page content, I like to ask myself first: “Does this spark joy in the mind of a prospective reader?”
But seriously, the first thing I always do is assess the intent of the article’s theme and compare it to the website’s main reason for existence. Is the article relevant to the brand? Does it speak to the business needs, the information that a reader is looking for to make an informed decision, or guide the reader into understanding our business and our values?
Most importantly, have we already discussed this topic before? This can be determined by simply performing a site:search for the terms that the article seeks visibility for, and from there, we can:
- Produce an article - Do we have a content gap?
- Merge duplicated articles together - Are we speaking about the same topic multiple times, but covering different vital aspects of the same general theme?
- Repurpose an existing article - Does the content’s message fall short of the original intended topic, but we have opportunities to try something different?
- Remove duplicated articles after a strong review - Is it safe to simply let the dud pages 404?
Regardless of our choices, we then clean up internal linking and provide necessary redirects once we add, merge, repurpose, swap, or remove an article and provide readers with an easier experience.
Step 2: Content Audit
During content auditing, you’re scoring how well your content is performing.
Take the content inventory list from step 1, and add:
- General performance (visits and conversions from the past 12 months)
For pages, you’ll find the amount of traffic and conversions in your web analytics tool. For downloadable images and PDFs, you will only find this if you’re tracking clicks on links, and if you’re using embedded videos, you’ll find this in the platform you’re using to embed the videos. If you’re not tracking clicks on links, or hosting videos yourself, you can use your server logs to determine the performance of these content types.
- Organic performance (visits and conversions from the past 12 months)
For pages, you’ll find the number of visits and the conversion numbers in your web analytics tool and in Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools, for all content types (pages, images, videos, and PDFs).
- The number of internal links and external domains linking in
You can easily find the number of internal links to a URL in ContentKing or in Google Search Console under
Top linked pages---internally. The number of external domains linking in to a URL can be found using for instance Ahrefs.
- Social performance (shares, visits, and conversions from the past 12 months)
You can find the number of shares and likes in a tool such as BuzzSumo. As for visits and conversions, you’ll find these in your web analytics tool.
- Whether or not it contains outdated information
Initially, you need to check this for all your content. To make your life easier, you can use smart search queries in Google to find mentions of previous years. Check out this example query.
- Whether or not it contains thin content
You can find thin content by crawling the URLs with Screaming Frog and looking for pages with a low word count.
- Whether or not it’s cannibalizing other content
You can find cannibalizing content by looking at pages that are ranking for the same queries, and by looking for pages that don’t have unique title tags, meta descriptions, and H1 headings.
Pro-tip: a lot of the information you’ll need comes from Google Analytics and Google Search Console. If you have these hooked up to your ContentKing account, you can automatically pull URLs’ organic traffic and total traffic, saving you a lot of time.
Typically you’ll learn that you have content that serves no purpose—some pairs of pages are actually telling the same story, and for some pages, the only traffic is tumbleweeds.
And you’ll also encounter pages that are over-optimized to the point where they’re barely readable for humans.
Use ContentKing to speed up the Content Auditing step and inform you of low performing content moving forward!
Step 3: Deciding upon your content’s fate
Now that you’ve gauged your content, go through the spreadsheet and mark all the content that:
- isn’t getting any traffic in general
- isn’t getting any organic traffic
- has few internal and external links
- has poor social media performance
- provides old information
- contains thin content
- is cannibalizing other content
All of these are potential pruning candidates. But before reaching for your garden trimmers, remember that there are alternatives to removal: improving the content, or making it non-indexable.
Improving the content
Not all of your content is beyond saving; you may be able to get it back into shape by doing some basic on-page SEO such as reworking the title, meta description, and/or headings, by adding a few sections around recent developments, and by removing outdated sections.
Pruning is often a great idea, but I do recommend trying some alternatives before deleting content altogether. For example, make content more accessible using category pages, hubs and spokes, links roundups or improved navigation. Sometimes content doesn’t get read because it’s buried deep within your site.
When you’re ready to prune, make a detailed checklist of your entire process. Every URL should be redirected and every broken link should be fixed. Overlooking the little things can create problems that will have an impact on your traffic.
Trimming, updating, and moving the content
You can also repurpose content by trimming it, updating it, and moving it to a FAQ section for instance. Or you can merge content around one topic into a single strong page, rather than several weaker ones.
If the content is outdated, but still useful to keep, make sure it clearly tells visitors when it was last updated and includes a disclaimer that it may contain outdated information. If you have resources that are more up-to-date, link to them.
Example: an article about a Google update from 2010 may still be a useful resource if it still holds true, but an article about meta keyword recommendations from 2007 would not.
People often think about content pruning as content deletion only, but there are many other options for underperforming content.
Content consolidation can help turn four or five pieces of underperforming content into one singular in-depth piece or as additional sections of an already well-performing guide or blog post.
Alternatively, if there’s no room these articles within other pages nor as a consolidated piece itself; consider using them for outreach work, freshing them up and sending them out to publishers (should the angles no-longer work for your business).
Making content non-indexable
There are situations in which content is useless for search engines, but useful for visitors. Take for instance blog tags: when used correctly, these provide a useful way of navigating around a website, while the pages themselves add no value from an SEO point of view.
You may also find pages and PDF files with the same content, in that case you can choose to canonicalize the PDF file to the page using a canonical in the HTTP header.
Back when I worked at Atlassian, we used content pruning very successfully. An important lesson I learned was to roll out changes in stages to get the biggest benefit from the smallest effort.
After you did you audit, you have a list of pages/documents to prune. However, you don’t want to prune all of those pages right away but categorize them by severity. You should start with about 3 buckets of pages and first fix/improve those that are in the worst condition. Then you want to wait for 1-3 weeks and see if any improvements happen. Then, you roll out fixes and improvements for the next bucket.
You find the optimal categorization by combining all factors: traffic, backlinks, engagement signals, etc. For example, one bucket contains pages with little or no traffic but some backlinks. Another contains pages that have no backlinks and no traffic at all, etc.
A note on removing content
Keep in mind that remove low-performing content your organic traffic can still take a hit. As with disavowing links, be careful and don’t remove everything in one go. Make it a staged process, focusing on the content that’s performing worst first. Then wait a few weeks to see what happens, before continuing with pruning.
Use content pruning for trivial, non-business essential content creation arguments.
Not all content battles have to be fought. You don’t always have to say: “you’re doing this wrong from an SEO perspective.” I’ve told content creators on many occasions to create whatever they want and add that content to a list of things to revisit later in the year as I bid my time- to pull that 0 monthly traffic chart and convince them that it needs to be pruned.
Keep track of content that will become outdated
Keep track of content that’s definitely going to become outdated and schedule updates for it. You can just set a reminder in your calendar, but as the number of reminders increase and the size of your time increases too, you want to put this in a central place: a content calendar.
What kind of content becomes outdated?
Let’s take for example Times Higher Education’s list of best universities, which is updated yearly. They know in advance that there will be content changes coming up, and so they—and also other parties that always reference their lists—can prepare changes well in advance.
Some final words on Content Pruning
If you want a healthy tree, you need to prune it regularly. You need to remove dead branches and leaves to keep it healthy. That ensures that all of its energy goes towards the branches and leaves that need to grow.
The same goes for your website: it needs maintenance too. You might say that “content maintenance” is just another way to say content pruning. Maintain your website well, and you’ll reap the rewards.