Clients and colleagues often express doubt or skepticism when I mention bulk deletion of content. This is often wrapped up in multiple positions that all make sense.
It was often a difficult task to create this content. Delete it is a devastating blow to the emotions. Beyond the emotional impact, there is a financial one. Content costs money, and quality content costs real money. It seems so wasteful to throw it away.
There is also skepticism about the idea. Why would you delete content? If Google doesn’t like it, they won’t rank it. It’s a bummer, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with all the other things. It couldrank later.
We have removed content from many websites at our agency in bulk, and a recent case study that I shared on Twitter raised many questions.
Let’s start with the theoretical aspect of deleting content. Let’s then look at the situation I was in and why bulk deletion of content made sense in this instance. Finally, let’s look at the results for our particular use case.
Why delete content?
There are many reasons to delete content from a website in bulk. The most important are low-quality content and authority/relevance.
Since the Panda update was launched by Google in 2011, their algorithms have been looking for low-quality content. Panda has been permanently embedded in the core algorithm, so websites don’t have to be affected by an algorithm update to see the effects on low-quality content.
Google does not evaluate low-quality content page-by-page, but they do aggregate all indexed pages when evaluating a website’s quality. The quality of individual articles can have an impact on how your site ranks.
Or, you can say this: Here’s what Google’s Gary Ilves said to Search Engine Land’s Barry Schwartz regarding Panda
“[Panda] measures site quality by looking at the majority of pages. This allows us to rank pages from a site and adjust the ranking accordingly.
John Mueller, Google’s chief search engine strategist, has also spoken out on this topic multiple times. He stated that low-quality content can have an adverse effect on your website’s overall rankings.
Google isn’t going to let you delete content it deems “low quality”. It can be part of a larger strategy to improve content quality and increasing the topical authority.
Glenn Gabe has written a great article about this concept.
Authority and relevance
Panda is a new concept that has been added to the conversation. This idea is often related to the idea Google’s algorithms must see your content as relevant to the authority of your website.
Mueller commented on this during a 2021 Office Hours. He said:
You are building up your knowledge base on the topic for search engines. Google will surface sites that are good for the wider topic if it recognizes that they are useful.
There are many ways you can build authority in the current environment.
- Backlinks to other websites that are experts on the topic.
- Controlling relevance via internal links and anchor texts
Publishing a lot of relevant, in-depth content about a topic is a favorite way to gain topical authority. Google will trust you more if you have a lot of useful content on a topic. This will result in higher rankings.
This approach can be a good one, but it can also cause problems for websites if done poorly.
Your website’s authority can be diluted if you publish content on many topics without building up topical authority on each topic.
There are many ways to fix topics that aren’t well-structured. In a perfect world you would prefer to build the topic out with rich, detailed content. This takes time and a healthy amount of money.
Sometimes, deleting content is simpler and faster.
Let’s look at one situation.
The website we were working with was primarily focused on one product line within the fashion niche. The brand has created content around this product since its inception in 2018. The website was well-ranked for many terms related to this product.
The brand began to expand into two related product lines in mid-2019. These three products looked very similar, as they all came under the same umbrella.
The website gained some traction in rankings and organic visitors for these new product lines during the first half of 2020. This traction reached its peak in June 2020.
Traffic and rankings began to fall across all sections of the website in the second half 2020. Traffic dropped 40% by early 2021 from June 2020’s peak.
It was difficult to evaluate any 2020 items, as most of the world was down at the start of COVID-19, which then ended in a frenzy of pent-up spending. Everything, from traffic changes to seasonal trends to buying patterns, had to be taken with a grain of salt.
These website traffic drops weren’t sudden like what you might get from an algorithm update. Traffic declined steadily, but not in an extreme or dramatic way.
It became quite clear when you separated the URLs of the three product lines.
- The performance of the oldest product and related content was not significantly worse than in previous years. The rank of newer content published in this product silo was however significantly slower.
- The vast majority of traffic and rankings for the two most recent products and related content had been lost.
It is a great way of identifying potential problems by grouping “content silos”.
It is important to distinguish between the loss of traffic and keyword rankings in different silos when analyzing traffic.
It is not uncommon for a large portion of website traffic to come from a small number of pages. Site traffic can plummet if one or more of those pages loses key rankings. It’s not as though all pages saw a drop in traffic.
Contrarily, if a silo has a large number of pages that lose traffic or keyword rankings, it can reflect poorly on the silo as a whole.
Here’s an example. We identified the newer product lines and found massive drops across the board.
Traffic was much more stable when we looked at the same report for original product and related content. Although there was no growth, there weren’t large drops like we saw with other product silos.
Similar story told by Google Analytics organic traffic charts
We were faced with many challenges.
- The keyword rankings, traffic, as well as sales for the new product lines, had fallen significantly.
- Even with the addition of new content and links, keyword rankings, traffic, sales, and sales for the original product range were not increasing.
What to do
It was obvious that this could be an issue of authority and relevance in Google’s eyes. This site published content on one topic for many years.
Although the new product lines appeared to be closely related, this doesn’t mean Google has transferred their topical authority to this new content.
This means that expanding into new topics or products might have diminished the authority of the site’s original product.
These new product silos were ranked well right out of the gate. Perhaps they relied on the site’s overall authority to rank these early ranks.
Google can sometimes change its mind about what your site is or authority on, as we have discussed.
This can be a good idea, especially if you do a deeper analysis.
- The majority of backlinks to this site pointed to the first product silo.
- The first product silo received the majority of the consistent traffic.
Plan of Action
In such a situation, there are many viable options to consider:
- Invest heavily in silos that are losing content by creating lots of great content, updating existing content, and building backlinks to relevant niches.
- Remove the content from the silos that are being lost.
- Do nothing and pray that Google changes its mind about silos
Scenario #1 can be expensive and time-consuming, and there is no guarantee that it will work.
Scenario #2 is disappointing, and it eliminates the possibility to rank for this content in future. It is not certain that it will work.
Scenario #3 makes sense , if it can be argued that content should rank. This means that you are 100% certain it is the best content on the subject. If you are unable to prove that, this route is not for you.
It can be difficult to determine if your content is worthy of being the #1 result. I will admit that we tend to underestimate the quality of our content.
Here’s where we landed for this scenario:
- Although we didn’t find the content in the silos with poor performance to be bad, it wasn’t the best.
- It was likely that there wasn’t enough content to establish topical authority. A look at our competitors revealed that they had much more content than us.
- Furthermore, there was no appetite for heavy investments in product silos that hadn’t been proven.
Szenario #2: You delete content silos Google doesn’t consider you an authority on and increase the overall authority of your site.
You can also rebalance your site’s relevance.
This is what we set our minds to do.
After deleting all content from the silos that were not performing well, we had to do some work.
We removed all URLs that were not needed and evaluated each URL to determine if it had backlinks.
To preserve authority from backlinks, we set up 301 redirects to all URLs. These 301s were pointed to the most relevant pages for each URL. End result: 26% of URLs were 301 redirected.
We removed 74% of URLs and set up 410 status codes. Google immediately knows that the page is not live by using the 410 code instead of a 404 code.
We decided to let many pages “dead” without redirects, because we wanted Google know that we had no content on this topic. This information was provided to Google faster by the 410 code than the 404 code.
This was followed up with a site crawl. We also fixed any internal links that were still pointing at 301 or 410 pages.
All of this was done in the last two weeks of February 2021.
After we had deleted all pages and set up redirects, we knew it was time to wait.
Google can take up to a few hours depending on how often they crawl your site. They may then re-index pages that are still alive and delete pages.
It can take a while before you see any significant changes as a result.
Gabe has, among other things, spoken out about how recovery from Core Updates can often not happen until subsequent updates. “There are site-level quality algorithm that refresh during broad core upgrades.
Although we weren’t trying recover from Core Updates in this situation, it is what I expect when looking for benefits from bulk deleting of content.
We didn’t want just to sit there. We also had the option to create additional content on the topic that we were now 100% focusing on.
We published 30 articles over the next five-months, covering everything from product reviews to informational topics.
Rankings and traffic continued to decline slowly throughout Q2 2021.
In April 2021, Google released its first Product Update. However, nothing has changed. However, it was several months later that the Core Updates for June 2021 and July 2020 arrived, which had a significant impact.
Traffic spiked 4.5x from the May low point due to the June/July Core updates. Revenue increased 3x over its previous low.
We were energized by the results, but we noticed that traffic and rankings started to decline as we reached August and September 2021. We were able to see the changes in traffic and rankings slowly, but it was subtle.
We published 56 articles in Q4 2021, which was a result. We started seeing gains in December 2021. This website is in the fashion niche so you could argue that Q4 has increased traffic. We saw that the traffic growth was matched by ranking improvements.
In March 2022, we started a third content push. We aim to publish 15-20 articles each month.
Traffic has now exceeded its monthly peak from July 2021 and May 2022 is poised to be its busiest month ever.
Revenue is also rising, with April 2022 revenue 97% more than April 2021. Revenue is expected to continue rising and surpass previous highs in Q4 and Summer.
- It is better to improve than delete content. If you are able to do this, it should be your first choice. We all know that this is not always possible for many reasons.
- It is not a magic bullet and doesn’t work every single time. To determine if the use case is compatible with the decision to delete content, spend some time analysing the website’s details.
- We also deleted lots of publishing lots more topically focused content. This is not the right A/B test for deleting content. The results are still compelling.
- Even if traffic isn’t dropping, pay attention to the topical authority. Google is constantly changing the algorithm that evaluates authority and relevance. You don’t want your site to be on the wrong side.
Building topical authority in some niches is easy. It is possible to publish high-quality content that answers the question.
Building authority in niches requires more than publishing high-quality content. It might be necessary to find experts to help with long-form content pieces. It might be necessary to build high-quality backlinks that are relevant to your niche and to mention your brand. These cases may require patience and a lot of time.
Focus your efforts on building true authority in the topic. If you fail to establish authority, you can delete content in bulk.
Search Engine Land’s first article was Why and How to Delete Content in Bulk for SEO.