In a recent newsletter here at Digital Strike, we covered a few topics that made headlines in 2019 and are guaranteed to continue to trend as we move into 2020.
Among them was the burning question of how to best tackle thin content on your site that could be labeled quality, outdated, mediocre, or just plain crappy.
As Google’s algorithm evolve with new updates (like the Google Panda update, Fred, BERT, etc.) to weed out content the search engine giant feels offers no benefit to the end user, it has become increasingly more important that publishers consistently audit their sites to make sure they’re keeping up.
Content quality is important not only to the searcher, but also to the search engine. An additional benefit is that high quality content often is shared on social media like Facebook and Twitter.
Even for seasoned professionals, this task can seem daunting, let alone for the average website owner. Today, we’ll discuss how you can audit your site on a page-by-page basis to more easily determine exactly what needs to be done with its existing content to satisfy Google — and grow your Web presence.
As we’ll see, there are more options available than what you might think.
Let’s dive in.
Option No. 1: Improve
Making A Case for Content Improvement
Everyone wants better content, but what improvements actually make it better? Furthermore, how should you determine what pages need to be improved?
Enter BERT and E-A-T.
Google’s two-newest cutesy acronyms, BERT and E-A-T are two topics you’ll hear a lot about in 2020 and beyond – and for good reason. Together, the two will play a critical role in determining how fondly Google feels about your site’s content.
BERT, short for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, is an algorithm developed by Google to assist computers in better understanding language as humans do. Meanwhile, E-A-T stands for Expertise, Authority, and Trust, which are the three criteria Google has instructed its human reviewers use when evaluating content on websites.
Both BERT and E-A-T should be at the forefront of your content auditing efforts.
If not, we can guarantee that your competition is — or has found someone that will do it for them.
Example of Successful Content Improvement
Earlier this year, Junto Digital, a digital marketing agency based in Denver, updated the results of its ongoing partnership with Ridester, a B2C website that provides detailed guides for those interested in the gig economy, particularly rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft.
Ridester came to Junto more than two years ago, at a time when as much as 11% of its organic traffic — which made up a whopping 87% of its total traffic – was declining month over month, despite the company producing long-form, evergreen content consistently.
In addition to some technical SEO fixes and backlink outreach efforts, Junto determined that one of the best ways to stem the tide was to improve Ridester’s underperforming content. Junto identified content that was failing to generate significant traffic despite first-page Google rankings and tweaked it, using optimization techniques that included implementing “semantically-relevant keyword phrases” to speak directly to the natural language of potential visitors.
When it was all said and done, Ridester experienced first-page improvement for 51 keywords with more than 450 searches per month, leading to an increase in organic traffic by more than 485% over the span of 20 months.
The method of improving existing content, as the Ridester example shows, is not about reinventing the wheel, by any means. Rather, it’s about making relatively minor tweaks to what you already have in order to better align with how your prospective customers are searching online.
The skyscraper technique is commonly used by publishers to improve their content. It entails evaluating competing content that is currently ranking well on the first page of Google for a given keyword and then identifying ways to improve upon it to gain an advantage.
When Brian Dean, head of the popular marketing blog Backlinko, wrote a post on how to use an SEO checklist to increase organic traffic in 2016, the content went gangbusters, garnering tons of traffic, shares, and inbound links almost immediately. Within weeks, the post was ranking on the first page of Google for Dean’s target keyword, “SEO checklist,” a highly competitive term.
In his mind, Dean had written the perfect piece of content. And you can’t improve perfection.
And then, out of nowhere, nearly as quickly as Dean’s post had gained acclaim, it all disappeared: the traffic, the shares, the rankings — everything.
A year after being published, Dean’s SEO checklist masterpiece was receiving a measly 4-5 visitors per day, putting a merciless end to a downward trend that was anything but typical of his past work. History had proven that Dean’s posts generated more traffic as they aged.
Dean was at a loss. How could this have happened?
He scrambled to find a solution. His post contained all of the ingredients needed to perform well over the long-term. All of them but one: a focus on user intent.
Using something he calls “Skyscraper Technique 2.0,” Dean went to work improving his content using a three-pronged approach:
- Step 1: Figure out user intent
- Step 2: Satisfy user intent
- Step 3: Optimize for UX signals
Dean started his analysis by evaluating the content that had overtaken his post on the first page of Google for the term “SEO checklist.” What were the publishers of that content doing better than him?
Almost immediately, Dean came to the realization that his post, entitled “(Case Study) This SEO Checklist = 48.7% More Organic Traffic,” was not providing the one thing its readers wanted most: an actual SEO checklist. Instead, he was providing them with a case study of an SEO checklist unimportant to their needs.
The post, luckily for Dean, had managed to gain plenty of traction by the time Google wised up to this fact. But once they did, well, the proof is in the pudding.
Dean improved his post by taking steps to satisfy what he had identified as the intent of his content’s user. He rewrote the post to highlight the most fundamental aspects of good SEO. He reformatted the content to be more “checklisty” to affirm its title and avoid monotony.
Now two years removed from the post’s original publication date, Dean updated the title to include “2018” to make it timelier. Lastly, he implemented a table of contents, added in some videos and shortened up his sentences and paragraphs to improve overall user experience.
Within days, Dean’s downtrodden post and begun to recover its former glory, eventually ascending again to the top five of Google and bringing back visitors in waves that still continue today.
All said and done, Dean spent seven days improving his content, and his return was a 652% increase in traffic. All because he gave his readers what they really wanted. Imagine what a traffic increase from new content like that could do for your business or ecommerce site.
Improving Content on Your Site
Start by evaluating each page of your site while asking yourself this:
Does the content of this page help me, hurt me, or do absolutely nothing for me?
Contrary to what you’re probably thinking, if the page helps you – meaning, it currently ranks well in Google and/or you feel it is of benefit to a visitor – its content should be improved.
Content that’s considered high-quality by Google has the following traits: informative, credible, engaging, shareable, and generally more valuable than similar content on other sites.
Regardless of rankings, if you feel content on a page falls short of possessing all five traits – or, if it lacks in any one category – there’s your starting point.
OK, but how does this dictate what changes you make to your site’s content?
One of the intended consequences of the BERT update is to relieve publishers of their obsession over dotting content with important keywords. Google likes to see content that answers questions, addresses problems, and provides solutions.
Improve your content by ensuring it accomplishes all three, and make sure it asks questions that your audience is asking, and then provides answers to those questions.
Here are some ways to accomplish this:
- Worry less about writing strictly for keywords (or word count) and more about producing content that seems natural and conversational
- Further establish expertise, authority, and trust by supplementing your industry knowledge with relevant statistics and citations
- Review the content that Google is ranking on the first page of results for keywords related to your industry to see how you can improve upon it
- Double-check to make sure your spelling and grammar are impeccable
- Use informative headlines that clearly and succinctly preview the content
- Break up text into sections with sub-headlines and bullet lists to improve readability
- Use impactful rich media, such as infographs, video clips, or audio snippets, within your content, especially if the subject matter could be considered complex
- Bonus: create a long-term content marketing and SEO strategy, and revise it as needed
Again, it’s important to remember that content improvement is not necessarily about radical change. Some content could use an overhaul, but If a piece on your site has already proven itself valuable to your visitors — evidenced by a traffic to that page and/or improving rankings in Google — a few small adjustments could supercharge that content to the next level.
NEED HELP IMPROVING YOUR CONTENT? LET US SHARE OUR APPROACH WITH YOU
Option No. 2: Migrate
What A Content Migration Is & Why You Should Do It
Not all of your website’s pages will be created equal. Some are more important than others, and the content that differentiates these pages is a reflection of this simple fact.
Undoubtedly, during your audit you’ll come across pages that you’ve forgotten, and probably because the content on those pages is very forgettable. Perhaps it’s too thin, just rehashes what has already been said on another page, or simply falls flat.
In any event, it could be time to migrate that content to another page of your site.
If done right, not only will a content migration trim your site’s excess weight, which helps Google’s ability to crawl it, but it could lead to a variety of wonderful opportunities that include the following:
- Additional traffic to your site through better rankings
- Increased conversions through more compelling content
- Avoidance of keyword cannibalization across multiple pages that cover similar topics
But let’s see a real-life migration at play.
Example of Successful Content Migration
In early 2018, we encouraged a client to undergo a pretty extensive content migration that has ultimately produced some phenomenal results.
We started by funneling like pages into categorized silos and suggested the client transfer content from the weaker pages of each silo to the strongest, based on multiple factors, including number of inbound links, organic ranking, etc. Each of the pages that had content removed was then redirected to its corresponding parent page to pass on any existing authority.
As a result of the migration, the client was able to not only condense a number of pages that offered little or no value to visitors, but the content of the pages that were retained was improved greatly, leading to higher E-A-T performance and, as a result, better rankings.
And, as you might guess, this has paid off handsomely in terms of both traffic and sales.
Here are the some of the results of the migration:
- More than 100% increase in monthly traffic in less than 24 months
- Record-high number of leads (160) during October 2018 – during a slow season
- Number of keywords ranked in top three positions of Google increased by 14 times
Migrating Content on Your Site
It’s foolish to think that it’s possible – or even necessary – to improve the content on every one of your site’s pages, but we can all but guarantee you that there’s at least a few like pages that are primed for migration.
Rather than covering a specific topic across many pages, concern yourself with building out one robust page that contains all of your expert knowledge and directly addresses everything your audience needs in one place.
For example, let’s say you own and operate a roofing company. Rather than using multiple pages of your site to outline for homeowners the benefits of having a new roof installed, build out a comprehensive guide on one page that covers every angle.
You could use your industry knowledge to not only bullet list the reasons for a new roof, but you could provide statistics on how much homeowners who invest in one save on repairs, insert an infograph on the different protective layers of a new roof, and post a video showing your team at work during an installation.
Thinking about migrating your content? We can help.
Option No. 3: Canonicalize
What Is Canonicalization?
Inevitably, some pages of your site will contain identical content. There are a number of reasons how this could happen, but correcting it is a process known as canonicalization — and it’s crucial to ensuring you’re getting the most out of your content.
Google considers each unique version of a URL to be a different page of your site. For example, if the home page of your site loads as both https://www.yoursite.com and https://www.yoursite.com/index.php, to Google, this is two distinct pages that would contain identical content, even though a human user would easily identify them as duplicate content.
Canonicalization tells Google which version of a duplicated page is preferred or original, and which version should receive less attention or can be ignored altogether.
Why You Should Canonicalize
The more versions of a page you have, the more chances there are for Google to crawl or index the wrong versions and/or completely disregard the original version.
This scenario commonly plays out with modern content management systems (CMS) such as WordPress, which automatically add tags and create different URL structures to access the same content, often without your knowledge.
This means that some of your site’s most valuable pages could be the victim of non-canonicalization and you don’t even know it. And a scenario such as this could have large ramifications.
Your backlink equity could be diluted, which would directly impact your site’s organic rankings. Google could show the wrong version of a page in its search results or miss some of your most important content while crawling your site. It could also lead to confusion for a visitor on your site, which culminates in frustration, a key ingredient in losing potential online business.
Example of Successful Canonicalization
To put this in context, consider the site for Airbnb. One of the best aspects of Airbnb’s business model is that it provides you with a place to stay based on your ultra-specific preferences, from number of bedrooms to preferred amenities, like a pool or hot tub.
But with all of those options comes an SEO nightmare. Every time a visitor on the site filters a search to align with his or her preferences, this in effect creates an entirely unique URL, despite the fact the content on the page does not change one bit.
The key to avoiding the pending fallout of this mess is, as explained by former Airbnb SEO manager Tommy Griffith, telling Google, “I know it looks like we have a thousand pages but really we only have one.”
To put this to the test, I filtered a search on the Airbnb site to show me an available unit based on the following criteria:
- Located in the city of St. Louis
- More specifically, situated in the Central West End, an upscale St. Louis neighborhood
- Available for two nights in late November
- Able to accommodate two guests
- Within walking distance of many dining and entertainment options
When it was all said and done, the URL of the page showing the unit of my choice was this:
And this URL is easily subject to change as I adjust the number of guests, dates, etc. However, because Griffith and the Airbnb SEO team used canonicalization properly, the only URL that’s indexed by Google to show this exact unit is this: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/39334578.
This tells Google to ignore all other URL possibilities for this unit and count only one version as being original.
Canonicalizing Your Site
Luckily, canonicalizing your site’s pages is relatively easy, and you won’t need to do it at nearly the scale of Airbnb. Additionally, doing so for pages that contain valuable content — both old and new — can produce quick dividends.
There’s a number of tools and plugins available that will help you implement a rel=canonical tag into each of our pages, especially if your site uses a CMS. And some of them, like the popular WordPress plugin Yoast, will insert the tag for you automatically, removing a lot of the worry.
This tag is a small snippet of code that is pasted into the header of any duplicate pages that indicates prioritization to Google.
Using the example above, ensuring that Google uses the preferred version of your home page would be as simple as pasting the following into the header of source code of the preferred version, as well as that of any duplicated version that you want ignored:
<link href=https://www.yoursite.com/ rel=canonical”>
Proper canonicalization enables Google to make more sense of your site. In turn, this leads to better and faster crawling, which leads to better rankings, which leads to more traffic.
You work hard to produce content you believe to be valuable to your visitors. Don’t let the absence of canonicalization short-change that value.
CONFUSED ABOUT CANONICALIZAITON? WE HAVE ANSWERS
Option No. 4: Kill
Do We Actually Want You to Delete Pages?
Yes. And no. It depends.
During your content audit, if your answer to that golden question is that a page of your site, in your honest estimation, is not benefitting your cause or may even be hurting it, it’s time to bring out the axe. Evaluate the content from an objective standpoint, and don’t be afraid to remove thin pages, or old content pages that don’t really serve a purpose.
Deleting pages of your site may sound horrific — and perhaps a little counter-intuitive — but please allow us to explain. When you see the benefits it can have, purging yourself of those meaningless pages could be a little therapeutic.
When it comes to your site, quality is infinitely more important than quantity.
Know What Content to Remove
The idea is to delete low-quality pages that may be hurting you because of their low-quality content, which can be defined as such:
- Has no target audience
- Has no goal or purpose (like old or blank category pages)
- Is not properly optimized
- Is unsuccessful
Yes, we know, pretty vague, right? The items above comprise a rundown of the characteristics exhibited by low-quality content, but by what metrics can pages considered for removal be measured?
If pages of your site meet the following criteria, toss them in the removal pile:
- Contains “thin” content
- Poorly written, off-topic, syndicated, stolen/plagiarized
- No historic significance
- Very low number of pageviews (check Google Analytics or Google Search Console)
- Low traffic or very few links, shares, conversions, or engagements
- High bounce rate (sometimes can be improved rather than removed)
If you’re wondering how to find pages like this, try using SEO crawlers like Screaming Frog or DeepCrawl.
Skeptical? We don’t blame you, but let’s consider some real-life examples.
Examples of Successful Content Removal
Search Engine Journal
Who better to demonstrate the benefits of page removal than the good folks of Search Engine Journal, an industry-leading publication that was quick to share the results of its “hacking and slashing” efforts, which started a couple of years ago.
As told by SEJ executive editor Danny Goodwin, the removal process started upon his arrival in July of 2017. Goodwin and his team ultimately came to the conclusion to remove any pages that could not be improved, but when the dust settled, an interesting outcome emerged.
When Goodwin started at his post, the SEJ site had roughly 910,000 pageviews across its 18,000 pages. When removal efforts came to an end almost 20 months later, the site still had the same number of pages — a clear indication that many pages had undergone the axe — but pageviews had nearly doubled, growing to more than 1.7 million in January of 2019, a record month for the publication.
Two months later, March set a new high, producing more than 1.9 million visits across, yep, roughly 18,000 pages. In total, organic traffic has increased by more than 60& year over year.
The takeaway? As Goodwin put it: “We’re just getting more out of the same amount of content.”
In other words, SEJ’s content auditing efforts, which included parting ways with a lot of content written years ago, took into account the effect that trimming some of the fat would have. As fate would have it, that effect has been very fortuitous.
Will Waggoner is the SEO lead at QuickBooks, the wildly popular accounting software developer. In 2017, Waggoner, determined to reverse a drop-off in organic traffic, boldly decided to 2,000 blog posts from the QuickBooks Resource Center.
The opposite of what you may expect happened: Traffic increased by 20% within weeks, and that growth had reached nearly 50% by the time the peak season of tax prep had reached full swing.
As a result, QuickBooks experienced a 72% increase in signup conversions.
To achieve the results he did, the last thing Waggoner did was wield a machete across any page that got in his path. In fact, his approach was very calculating, as should the approach for deleting content from any site.
Waggoner used a multitude of criteria when deciding which blog posts to scrap, including their age (he excluded all posts that were still too young to rank), number of incoming backlinks, and total number of visits.
Admittedly, Waggoner says that it was much easier for the QuickBooks site, which has a high level of authority built up with Google, to pull off a content dump. His advice to owners of much smaller or less authoritative sites is to use the technique as a last resort, only after a thorough audit has revealed that existing content cannot be improved with an update or refresh.
Different Ways to Delete Content
To be clear, when we say “delete” pages of content on your site, we’re not advocating for a quick swipe of the guillotine. Parting ways with content of the past requires a little more tact and can be carried out in a number of ways — depending upon the content itself.
410 Deleted Response Code
This is the closest thing to the guillotine approach and should be used for content you don’t care to see (or have Google or anyone else) see ever again.
Setting a 410 deleted response code for the page you are deleting is akin to telling Google to forget about your page forever, notifying them that you have deleted it for a reason and that it didn’t magically disappear into the depths of the Web.
Some webmasters may instead suggest a 404 web page not found response code, but this method causes delays because it relies upon Google figuring out for itself that the page is gone. A 410 deleted response code doesn’t mince words, sending a direct, much more powerful message to search engines that you mean business.
Think of a 301 as a change of address with the post office: When you move, you let the post office know that you still want to receive your same mail, only you want to receive it at a new address.
A 301 redirect should be used for saying goodbye to a page that is invaluable enough to be scraped but contains enough authority that you want it passed on to another page of your site.
For example, to use our roofing company scenario again, let’s assume you have a fairly large number of pages on your site that discuss the benefits of a new roof. Each of these pages has managed to build up some fairly decent rankings and a number of inbound links, but they’re still struggling overall.
This approach uses a 301 redirect to pass any of that existing authority to a stronger page of your site that covers the same topic or one that’s similar. In effect, the weaker pages are going away — when their URLs are accessed, the redirect kicks in and sends the visitor to the URL that’s the result of the redirect — but what little value they have generated is preserved.
In the rare event that a piece of content on your site performs poorly with Google yet still serves a purpose to your readers, you can exercise the deindex option.
Deindexing a page keeps it around in its entirety, but a “noindex” command is implemented into its source code to command Google to exclude it from search engine results page (SERP). Another way of accomplishing this is listing out the pages you want deindexed within your robots.txt file.
A good candidate for deindexing is a thank you page. When someone accomplishes a goal on your site, such a filling out a contact form, you’re thankful for their consideration. As such, you’d like to show them a message stating your appreciation, but this type of page holds no weight with Google.
Deindexing this page allows you to retain its benefit while telling search engines to ignore its content.