There comes a time in our life when some things need to be changed or refreshed. The same happens in the life of content. It might get outdated or irrelevant and that’s when content pruning comes to the rescue.
By its nature, pruning means cutting off dead branches or stems, especially to encourage growth. Content pruning was born from the same desire, to remove old or poor quality articles, to get rid of the clutter not to damage the quality of the overall website. But does content pruning bring any results? Does it improve rankings and traffic? Below you can read our well-documented findings, based on illustrative case studies and expert opinions.
In short, we’ll let you know if cutting off the dead weight of your content will improve your website’s overall traffic and rankings.
- Content Audit First and Content Pruning Second
- The cognitiveSEO Content Pruning Story
- Experts’ Opinion on Content Pruning + Case Studies
- Everett Sizemore Experienced a 31% Increase in Organic Traffic
- Dan Kern Boosted Organic Traffic with over 2,500 Visitors
- Charlie Whitworth Improved The SEO Visibility for Multiple Websites
- Derek Gleason Reduced Low-Performing Pages by 50% to Improve Traffic on Site
- Patrick Coombe Increased Search Visibility by 300%
- What Does Google Say About Pruning Your Content for SEO Purposes
1. Content Audit First and Content Pruning Second
Content pruning can be a life jacket for lots of large websites that have a lot of content. To put it simply, content pruning means taking low quality pages and removing them from a site’s index in Google and other search engines. You can see an example of low quality content that could be pruned in the next screenshot:
Too many low-quality pages indexed in SERP can weigh harder and offer under-performing results, ending up offering a bad user experience.
We all know Google doesn’t like it when pages fail to offer what it’s promised to the user, meaning high-quality content, relevant information to the specific search query and trustworthy websites. Failing to offer that can lead to downgrading the website from the search results.
If you find yourself in this situation, then there is a need for a change, which implies a content audit. Even if this will lower the process of creating fresh content, it will bring lots of benefits later on because you can cut off the heavy part of bad content that can lower your rankings and traffic.
In one of our previous blog posts we talked already about how to perform a content audit, whether you’re a search engine optimization beginner or a pro. Firstly, you need to perform such an audit because it will give you valuable information on which pages need improvement and which of them must be deindexed. You won’t believe what you can find hidden under the rug.
A content audit can come in handy for multiple strategies you want to apply to your website and it will give you directions to lead towards the best decision.
Alexander Kesler, an experienced entrepreneur in digital marketing, explained through a post how important is to have a clean website and how to gain a competitive advantage.
|Keeping your website fresh and up-to-date is crucial in order to keep your competitive edge and steadily climb the search engine results pages. The underperforming content indexed by Google is pulling your entire website down. The most important reason for periodically pruning your content is reputation. Removing or at least revising underperforming content is the least you can do to welcome your online customers.|
|Entrepreneur and President of inSegment / @alexanderkesler|
Pruning for SEO involves the removal of pages from Google’s index, in the worst case. Content pruning, just like any other decision that can heavily affect your website, has proved to be a contradictory topic. Even the opinions of Google’s representatives differ remarkably. After we talked with a few SEO experts, we saw that they have intriguing opinions, too, based on their experiences.
On top of them all, we throw our case study based on what happened with our website’s rankings and traffic.
Make sure you conduct technical audits to identify the pages that truly can be pruned, and those that should not, due to healthy SEO guidelines (white-hat strategies).
Our recommendation for pruning content for SEO purposes is to look at the following metrics for each page:
- Search traffic for the last year;
- Bounce rate for the last year;
- Engagement (Total clicks, Impressions and Average CTR) ;
- Ranking position
Once you’ve collected all the data in one place for your content, you should get rid of the pages that don’t have traffic and have a high bounce rate, a low number of clicks, a high average position.
2. The cognitiveSEO Content Pruning Story
After documenting a lot on the content pruning strategy, we decided to implement such a strategy ourselves, on the current cognitiveSEO blog.
The need for this content strategy took birth when we found some articles that didn’t trigger any traction or bring traffic to the site. Therefore, we started working on it.
Step 1. We Identified the Low-Performance Articles
We gathered all of our articles and started collecting information for each of them regarding:
- Average search traffic per month in the last year;
- Number of new users gathered in the previous month;
- Bounce rate for the previous month;
- The ranking position on the previous month;
- Engagement (clicks and impressions for the previous month).
Step 2. We Decided on the Content That Needs to Be Pruned
We got to the point where the pages with low traffic, meaning those with no more than 180 organic traffic per month, few users per month and poor engagement, were redirected to other pieces of content on the blog. For all the pages in that situation, we searched for relevant content to redirect it. For the content where we didn’t find a relevant correspondent, we redirected it to the homepage. It was better to redirect them, rather than have broken pages and lose lots of links, leading to a bad user experience.
We had some other strategies applied, besides the redirect. For the ones we kept, we thought of two possibilities and applied the following tags: leave it as it is or a quality review.
If you take a look at the chart below you can see the article stats for our case study.
- 88 articles – 301 redirect;
- 63 articles – to leave them as they were;
- 80 articles – we had to do a quality review.
If you’re asking how we decided on these 3 types of strategies for the articles we kept, things are quite clear. Everyone that knows their business very well can apply a similar strategy, but it depends solely on them to decide what “much” or “little” traffic means to them. Once you decided that, you know which content must be pruned.
All the articles that had the “leave as it is” tag were about product related launches, or penalties, case studies and things that had an importance for the brand and user and which would never be obsolete.
The last type of tag, “quality review”, was applied to articles with good traffic and overall metrics but whose information needs to be dusted off. Besides that, we did link building for some articles, we performed a re-optimization for getting 10x content, the best content there is on that topic on the web and improving the content performance score. This strategy was separate from the content pruning process, as part of a massive transformation.
Step 3. We Performed Redirect and Deindexation. Monitored the Results
It is important to specify that we didn’t delete any page. We just deindexed some.
|While you should always approach content pruning strategically and with due diligence top of mind, don’t be afraid of deleting or deindexing your content. It’s less getting rid of beloved content and more letting go of dead weight.|
|Content Writer at Sprout Social / ericswendt|
It all started in May 2017 and after we performed the content pruning strategy for our website we wanted to see the SEO visibility. Was our strategy a good one? Did it really boost our blog or was it just a fancy way to spend time with no significant outcome?
If you look at the following screenshot, you can see that rankings started to improve on 2nd of July and have grown smoothly ever since. It was definitely a step forward, giving it a lift in rankings. In the end, the results were great, but that was due to other facts, too. We don’t know for sure if it was entirely due to the content pruning campaign. At the same time, we launched our Keyword and Content Assistant tool and also published quality content on a regular basis. Content optimization also had a major factor in the search visibility. All in all, content pruning was just one of many other strategies that helped our website rank better.
It is important to remember that while we performed content pruning we managed to publish new content on the blog on a regular basis, just like we had before the pruning.
3. Experts’ Opinion on Content Pruning and Case Studies
After we’ve experienced our method of improving the quality of our website by pruning the content for SEO purposes, we started asking some experts in content audits and pruning to see their opinion. We wanted to see what others have experienced and what their results were, compared to ours.
While each expert might have a different approach because each client and each situation might differ, their opinion regarding content pruning is positive. It can help your website and increase revenue.
3.1. Everett Sizemore Experienced a 31% Increase in Organic Traffic
Everett Sizemore is currently a Digital Marketing Director at Boundless Immigration and he has experience in content audit and pruning, among other things. When we worked at Inflow, an eCommerce marketing agency, he did a lot of content audits and pruning services for his clients, which had a high success.
One example that we talked about was for a company named Auto Body Toolmart that sells tools and equipment. The company saw a sharp decline in revenue and organic traffic over the summer of 2015.
The experts at Inflow started with a content audit to see exactly where the problem was. There were thousands of pages that had not driven any organic traffic Year to Date (YTD) by the end of September.
Dan Kern and Tim Hampton, Inflow strategists, are responsible for cleaning the website and getting things moving forward for Auto Body Toolmart. Dan Kern was responsible for AutoBodyToolmart and other pruning projects while at Inflow and led the audits/pruning in collaboration with team members. They were also were rewriting duplicate content on their top product pages. Rick Ramos executed Google Update Analysis to help identify content quality issues in relation to a particular Google algorithm update in different projects.
The collected data was divided into:
- 1,300 top performing product pages marked for improvement right now;
- ~ 8,000 pages that could be improved later on.
They created a content audit for the product pages since that was the goal. If you take a look at the next screenshot, you can see how the process was conducted:
In April 2015, some bad links were disavowed. The pruning happened in mid-September 2015. The company had 20k+ product pages, and 11k+ did not get any organic traffic and they experienced a drop in traffic in the summer.
Inflow started to improve the product pages that were good. So, Inflow experts set the pages with no traffic to “noindex” via meta robots tags. A few weeks later they saw a lift in organic traffic per article. Then they began planning to rewrite the top product pages (1,300), which started 1-2 months after the pruning and continued for months. It was wrapped up somewhere in June 2016.
The “noindex, follow” tag tells the robot to noindex, but the user can still access it they know the link through the follow tag. The results were impressive. For the rewritten product pages, the company saw:
- Organic search traffic: +35,668 visits
- Organic search transactions: +112 transactions
- Organic search revenue: +$40,421.87 revenue
Overall, the website saw a 31% increase in organic traffic and 28% increase in revenue YOY.
We checked the search visibility, to see the effect it had on the website’s rankings. We selected February – November 2015, so you can see clearly the evolution that started somewhere in April (when the disavow file was submitted) and continuing through June 2016 (when the process ended). If you look at the following screen, you can see that the site started to see a steady and smooth growth, which can only mean pruning for SEO purposes was a success.
The drop they experienced in January was recovered immediately, showing the fact that the site was well optimized and has quality content.
After we saw the results, we asked him to find out his opinion on content pruning and if it’s a technique of the future or something to rely on.
|Content pruning is like pruning anything else. Let’s take a tree, for example. If you prune too heavily you will harm the tree. If you prune the wrong branches you will harm the tree. If you prune the right amount of the right branches, the tree will thrive. I have seen a lot of SEOs over-pruning lately. It is vital that you do the content audit research first to determine what to prune out of Google’s index, and how to implement for that page type.|
|Digital Marketing Strategist & Technical SEO Expert esizemore.com|
He also has an accurate representation of how content pruning should be implemented. It can be used by all businesses that need to remove the weight given by the cruft.
3.2. Dan Kern Performed Content Pruning and Content Optimization to Boost Organic Traffic with over 2,500 Visitors
Dan Kern started his own consulting practice in June 2016, Kern Media.
A Kern Media Content Audit was conducted for Customer Communications Group, a CRM Agency who had over 2,000+ “indexable” URLs visible to Google (as discovered in our crawl), many of which contained content protected by a login, but the URLs were still indexable. Google was reporting just under 500 URLs indexed per Google Search Console’s “Index Status” report near the time of their migration to a new website with much fewer indexable URLs. The site had just over 300 URLs in their XML sitemap, and Google had just over 200 indexed pages.
When the new site launched in late December 2016, the Sitemap URL count was 50-70 indexable URLs. This was a dramatic drop.
The team pruned them down to under 100 pages and optimized them. The client has been creating and publishing approximately 4 new content pages per month, following an Editorial Calendar based on keyword-researched topics. Dan has given on-page optimization reviews to every piece of content since the launch of the current site (14 months at the time of this writing), and their indexation has slowly grown over the past year or so.
As you can see in the two-year organic search traffic graph below, their traffic did NOT decline after pruning 85% of the site from Google’s index (note: seasonality caused the temporary decline). That’s always the first goal. In this client’s case, we did not see a positive impact very quickly, but we did see positive growth in as little as 60 days. It took six months for the organic traffic to begin to grow, however. This growth was largely influenced by the SEO focus given to the new content on the new website plus all new content published since the launch.
However, there was clear incremental growth within the first 60 days of launch. It’s also plausible to think that this client may not have seen the same growth in 2017 if they still had the previous indexation bloat/quality issues in light of Google’s ongoing quality-related algorithm updates.
On a final note, the content marketing strategy followed by the Kern Media team brought consistent organic traffic growth through the year and no organic traffic loss when they pruned heavily for the new site launch in December 2016.
Dan describes the notion of content pruning very well and how he usually performs content audits.
|I always look for index bloat. Fixing it lays the foundation for future content improvements that you will make and new content that you will add. Think of how a garden needs nutrient-rich soil and occasional pruning for future vegetation to prosper. You need to improve the quality of your foundation before new content and existing content improvements can have maximum organic search impact (and weather the storm of algorithm updates).|
|Founder & Principal Consultant at Kern Media / @kernmedia|
3.3 Charlie Whitworth Improved SEO Visibility for Multiple Websites
Charlie Whitworth considers that you have to prune your content at a specific moment.
|Content pruning should be carried out once we have our crawl bloat under control, ensuring we only index content that has these strong engagement metrics we have already mentioned. By auditing regularly and noindexing poor content, we are able to promote the way the search engines see our content.|
|SEO Director of Banc Media / @WhitworthSEO|
Charlie performed lots of content audits and he gave a few example of websites where the SEO visibility improved after pruning and improving the content, following an approach that he has refined and perfected over the year.
Gazprom-energy.co.uk is one of them. The site started to have a beautiful growth at the beginning of June 2017 and continued with a pattern of having some ups and downs.
Scenic.co.uk is the second example Charlie mentioned. As you can see in the following screenshot, the site is having a smooth rise and trying to keep a constant visibility in search.
3.4. Derek Gleason Reduced Low-Performing Pages by 50% to Improve Traffic on Site
Another interesting case study we’ve encountered was from Derek Gleason, Content Marketing Strategist at Workshop Digital and expert in the pruning technique. He considers that content pruning can reduce algorithmic drag on successful content.
|Content pruning rids a site of what’s not working and reduces algorithmic drag on successful content. The benefits extend beyond SEO, especially as search engine and user interests continue to align. Pages of thin or mediocre content undermine trust for first-time visitors, and expose a website built to serve SEO rather than consumer needs.|
|Content Marketing Strategist at Workshop Digital / @derek_gleason|
He started doing a substantial volume of content pruning for one of his clients, back in December 2016. The pages included in the evaluation were filled with news, press releases, commentaries, and a handful of high-quality posts.
Their process was pretty straight-forward, just like in any other case. They began with a content audit and afterward performed the pruning. These were the steps that the company followed in their pruning process:
- Removed 74 press releases.
- Created a page named “Our clients” with a list of high-profile companies from those releases which fulfilled the goal more efficiently.
- Transformed the content of 33 posts about topics in the industry into 9 comprehensive and high-value resources. Re-optimization and adding new information was included in the transformation.
In the end, the site’s content was lowered by 50%, cutting and re-optimizing the pages included in the audit, remaining with only 43 pages.
As you can see in the next screenshot, the results came quickly into the number of sessions for the website just in a few weeks:
The SEO pruning was a real success, even Derek acknowledges:
|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.|
|Content Marketing Strategist at Workshop Digital / @derek_gleason|
3.5. Patrick Coombe Increased Search Visibility by 300%
|I define content cruft as not only poor / shoddy content, but content with low engagement rates as well. For instance, you might have a really short article that is poorly written, but it gets a lot of views and engagements. That isn’t necessarily crufty because it is still somewhat popular. The same goes for really well thought out content, 5000 words in length with lots of references. Even though it took a long time to produce, it still could be considered content cruft.|
|Founder and CEO of Elite Strategies / @pmkoom|
He started a content clean-up when he saw lots of irrelevant searches for his websites and lots of low-ranking pages through 2016. At first, he found the crufty pages, by looking at the number of clicks and bounce rate for 2016. All the pages that had a small number of entrances on websites with a high bounce rate were included in the crufty category, and the rest were included in the process.
The second stage concluded with the division of the cruft articles into 4 categories as you can see in the next screenshot:
They went through each row of each table and deleted anything that could be deleted, doing a full backup.
Besides all this work with the article, Patrick put a lot of effort into cleaning the website of poor information:
- Old videos and pages related to those;
- WordPress tags;
- Old/Outdated category pages;
- No-indexed and no-followed all category pages;
- Case studies clean-up.
All their efforts concluded with a full database optimization and a menu remake.
The results appeared with no hesitation, as you can see in the next screenshot:
The experts at Elite Strategies started the pruning in January 2017. In July – December 2016 Patrick saw a lot of weird keywords his website was ranking for. If we take a look at the screenshot below we can see that the visibility is very low in that period.
Somewhere around the end of January and the beginning of February, the website started to show a rough growth in search visibility. We took all the search visibility scores for July – December 2016 and those for January – June 2017. We compared the results for those two periods and saw the search visibility increase by 300%.
4. What Does Google Say About Pruning Your Content for SEO Purposes
“What’s the best approach for low-quality content?” That’s the question Glenn Gabe popped into one Google Webmaster Central office-hours hangout.
John Mueller said that there had been multiple hangouts where we said one thing, and then in conferences, we said something else. It can be a bit confusing and a little hard to understand what the best approach is. This concerns the statement Gary Illyes from Google made on pruning content.
Gary Illyes said that content pruning is not a good strategy to improve overall site quality.
John Mueller, on the other side, said that both improving content and pruning content are valid strategies.
You can check the whole conversation in the next video.
The best approach, from Google’s perspective (based on the video above), is to improve the quality of the website rather than cleaning your website of bad content. In case there is nothing you can do to improve the quality of your website for that pages, then you’d better get rid of them.
If you ever get to the point where you need to prune your content for SEO purposes, you need to know what options you have. Pruning by definition means getting away from what is bad, but there are soft options that don’t include deindexing and deleting the whole content. Otherwise, you can have broken pages and that’s a problem.
Content pruning allows you to save what is good and cut the dead content before it’s not too late.
The important step after you created a content audit is deciding the fate of your content.
- Should you deindex it?
- Do you need to delete it?
- Or maybe find a way to repurpose (redirect) it?
You have 3 situations in your sleeve you from which you have to choose for further decisions on your content:
- You have content that performs poorly and yet serves a purpose to your users. In this situation, you want to deindex the content. You need to apply noindex meta tag and search engines won’t let that content get indexed. Therefore, it won’t show up in search results yet users will still be able to access it.
- In the second situation, if you have a piece of content that brings no value information to the user and is performing badly, deleting it would be the right decision. There are lots of reasons why a piece of content doesn’t perform well. Maybe it is low quality or maybe you’ve applied some black hat strategies for it. Maybe you just tackled a topic that is of no interest for the user or, on the contrary, it is a highly competitive niche and you don’t have that 10x content and therefore, you can’t attract the user.
- If you decide to delete the page, then you have to redirect the content or repurpose it. It is crucial to redirect the traffic and users to a relevant piece of content so you don’t have broken pages and lose a lot of links. In this manner, you can repurpose the deleted pages.
Repurposing content is a highly appreciated white hat strategy. Adding fresh content to make it the best there is, re-optimizing the content for multiple keywords might help your website’s rankings and increase its value.
|Content pruning can be advantageous for your SEO and overall rankings. However, you want to be careful that you aren’t getting rid of content that has technical value you might not see without conducting an audit. Things, like deleting a page you might not find relevant anymore but has a very healthy link portfolio, can do more harm than good to your website.|
|Account Director at Brafton|
Having quality content is a must in SEO. And “releasing” your website off the bad one is one of the first steps. Pruning your website is one way to do it. Google, on one hand, says to use it if there is an absolute need and experts, on the other hand, say it is good to use it, giving their experiences and the fact they improved the search visibility and website traffic.
Content audit experts showed through their case studies that in most cases the website increased the traffic, evidently, after they pruned the low-quality content. That only urges you to try and help your website increase its rankings by getting rid of the underperforming content and low ranking pages that pull your entire site down.