If recent events have forced your business into hibernation mode, taking some time to regroup and optimize can restore a much-needed sense of forward momentum. Just like you can combat cabin fever by tackling indoor projects, you can beat the business doldrums by temporarily shifting your focus to the internal projects that polish your brand.
Enter the most oddly-satisfying spring cleaning task this side of power-washing: content pruning.
What Does It Mean To Prune Your Content?
Sometimes perfectly great websites are haunted by the ghosts of content strategies past. From 200-word fluff posts and incomplete how-to articles to page after page of thin content with no real purpose, these specters recall a simpler time when low-quality content could rank just above Yahoo Answers at the top of the SERPs. Listen carefully on a quiet night and you can still hear them whispering: “Remember when you used to make your intern write ten How-To articles per daaaaay?”
Bedeviled by an outdated strategy or not, there’s a good chance that your website has accrued some useless content in its time; a bit of experimentation is built into every page you create. Content pruning is the act of assessing all the indexable content on your site and improving or removing the pages that contain thin, useless or outdated content. And it feels great.
Content Pruning and SEO
So, why is content pruning worth the time? Wouldn’t the benefit of producing new content outweigh the benefit of satisfying a nitpicky urge to clean up your site? And if nobody’s seeing the useless content anyway, can’t you just leave it alone?
You could, but it will diminish the authority of your priority pages. Content strategies of the past — and even some today — are built on the flawed assumption that useless pages don’t hurt SEO, even when they don’t actively help it. Historically, this “No harm, no foul” policy led to a feverish numbers game as people churned out page after half-baked page, targeting different keywords and topics in an effort to hit pay dirt with a few.
That’s not how it works anymore. To see how useless content hurts, we can lean into the pruning metaphor. A plant left to its own devices will produce a series of increasingly tiny flowers or fruit.
Plant resources might be renewable, but they’re also finite — just like people, plants can spread their energy too thin. When you prune away dead or sickly leaves and fruit, you divert resources to the production of the plant’s healthier material so it can flourish.
So far so good? Excellent. Your website has finite SEO resources too: crawl budget and link equity. Crawl budget refers to the amount of pages Google will crawl on a website in a given time frame. If your website is a plant, crawl budget is the sunlight: renewable, but finite in each moment. Link equity is the water, flowing from one page to the next and passing authority as it goes.
It’s normal for the top 10 pages on your website to attract the bulk of your organic traffic. It’s also normal — especially if you have a content strategy — for the rest of your organic traffic to come in through diverse, incremental long-tail keywords. What we don’t want is a website cluttered with low-quality pages that attract no traffic at all. Like dead and sickly leaves diverting resources from a plant’s best fruit, these pages pull crawl budget and link equity away from your best content.
A Note About Duplicate Content
Incidentally, this is the reason why duplicate content is so dangerous. The mythical “duplicate content penalty” doesn’t actually exist — because when websites have duplicate content, it’s rarely intentional.
Duplicate content is created spontaneously when faceted search tools aren’t configured correctly, or canonical tags aren’t set, or dynamic URLs wreak havoc, or pagination isn’t clear, or when different versions of a URL don’t resolve to a single version…the list goes on and on. If your website has duplicate content, you probably don’t even know about it — and Google won’t penalize you for that.
The search engine will, however, continue to crawl those duplicate pages. If you’re sitting on thousands of dynamically-generated pages or entire duplicates of your site, you’re making the crawlers do a whole lot of extra work and diluting your link equity. That’s why we care about duplicate content.
Low-quality content typically isn’t as catastrophic as duplicate content because of the sheer volume of duplicate pages that can be created when technical issues run amok. But the more low-quality content you have, the more likely it is that your SEO is already suffering. That’s why Google’s John Mueller recommends improving or removing low-quality pages. And it’s why the “No harm, no foul” content strategies of the past continue to weigh down websites today.
How to Prune Your Content
Paid tools like SEMRush and Ahrefs will make this process a breeze, so use those first if you have them. For this tutorial, we’ll focus on free tools.
First, pop into Google Analytics and set your time frame to a year. Head to Behavior > Site Content > All Pages, then adjust the toggle in the bottom right hand corner so you’re looking at the maximum number of pages Google will show you in one view.
Navigate to the upper right hand corner and hit that shiny Export button. If you have more than 5000 pages, you’ll have to perform multiple exports and combine your data.
The results might look a little crazy, but you don’t need all the information your export gives you. Delete all metrics except for pageviews, average time on page, and anything else you want to keep track of, then clean up the formatting. Your spreadsheet should now look something like this:
Using a crawling tool like Screaming Frog, pull every followed URL on your site and cross-reference the results with your Google Analytics data to make sure you’ve caught everything. Take this opportunity to assess all your site content, not just blog posts: product pages, category pages, landing pages, FAQs…if it’s indexable content, it’s on the list.
While it’s useful to scour your top-performing pages for further opportunities, if you’re overwhelmed with data you can filter your view. Set a minimum bar for traffic volume (this varies by site) and analyze only the pages that don’t meet the bar.
You can also set a word count parameter in Screaming Frog — say, 150 words or less — to make it easier to home in on the pages that are most likely to contain low-quality content. The only problem is, word count isn’t always a good measure of content quality. If 150 words is all it takes to get your customers excited about a category page, that content is doing its job. There’s no getting around some degree of subjective analysis.
Now the fun begins! Visit each URL and manually assess its content. Is it complete? Useful? Unique? Does it have a clear goal? If it’s a blog post or article, is it genuinely helpful or does it lack readability and depth? Add a column labeled “Action” to your spreadsheet and assign each URL one of four actions:
- Keep – Keep the content as-is
- Improve – Build on the existing content by adding depth, editing for voice and quality, or updating old information. For pages marked “Improve,” add another column to note the type of improvement required.
- Consolidate – If two or more pages contain very similar information, consolidate them.
- Delete – If there’s no traffic and the content is so thin or low-quality that it’s not worth saving, delete and redirect the page.
It can also be helpful to add another column called “Quality” and rate the content on a scale from 1-10 so you can prioritize your updates.
Should You Delete That Content, Or Improve It?
Content is usually safe to delete when it has no meaningful traffic and includes one of the following qualities:
- The content is highly repetitive — It can be helpful to organize your content into topics and tackle one topic at a time, so you can spot redundancies more quickly. If you’re looking at a carbon copy of a topic you’ve already covered better, delete.
- The post or page covers a non-evergreen topic that can’t be updated — This includes sales, events or news items that won’t happen again.
- The page was published in error — It sounds silly, but weird CMS mistakes happen to the best of us. Just ask Teen Vogue.
- The content covers a topic that’s far outside of your wheelhouse or funnel — This can happen before you have a well-defined content strategy.
- You just know — It will often be obvious when the content simply isn’t good enough to pass muster.
Don’t be afraid to exercise the “Delete” option! Sometimes doing so can be difficult, especially if you have an innate tendency to hold onto things you “might need” someday. Strip the content into a document if it makes you feel better, and remind yourself that useless content is useless at every level: if it’s not useful to your audience, it will never be useful to you.
When you decide to delete a page, double-check its traffic and inbound link status. No traffic, no links? That’s an easy Delete. No traffic, some links? Delete and redirect. And if a significant amount of traffic is still moving to the page, suss out what people are responding to and improve the page instead.
Prioritize Your Improvements
We address the “Delete” column first because it’s easy to tackle and instantly rewarding. That leaves our Consolidate and Improve columns. Take on the Consolidate pages next, moving information related to duplicate topics to their most promising page. Delete and redirect the defunct pages and mark your primary page for further improvement if needed.
For the pages marked Improve, add another column to your spreadsheet and note the type of improvement. Some adjustments will be large in scale (adding a lot more content to a page or overhauling its voice and tone), while others will be small (updating the statistics on a resource that still has organic traction).
Tackle all the small improvements now and build the larger improvements into your regular content workflow. The quick wins help you create a sense of momentum that can propel you through the slow-burning part of your content strategy.
Your successful organic pages can be analyzed for conversion improvements, like adding CTAs to your top-performing posts. See if you can spot any patterns in your top content. How long is it? What format? What’s the topic? To what degree did you publicize the piece when you published it? Lean on these discoveries as you refine your strategy moving forward.
Then — finally! — it’s time for new content to flourish.
It may not seem like it now, but spring will come. And when it does, your content-pruning will help the best parts of your website thrive.