Should I deleting old content to improve my search engine rankings?

Should I deleting old content to improve my search engine rankings?

3 January 2019

CEB Creative's Blog Digital Marketing

It’s a well-known fact that content is the key to boosting rankings so how could deleting content on my site actually improve it?

In this post, I will explain what I did, the reasoning behind it and share the results with you. I’ll help answer the question should I delete old content to improve my search engine rankings?

In November I conducted a little experiment on my WordPress website to see if removing old out of date content would improve my search engine rankings and traffic.

What’s the reason for deleting content

Removing content is usually done to fix a problem called Index Bloat. This is when Google has indexed a lot of URLs for your website that it views as low-quality. You might have some really good content smattered amongst the dross but because Google has to index all your content, the page authority of any good content is diluted. In turn, your sites rankings are negatively affected by this.

Are we just talking about pages and posts?

Absolutely not and it’s often content that shouldn’t be indexed in the first place that causes the biggest index bloating issues.

Things like categories, tags, comments, media files and author pages are common types of content that often get completely overlooked when it comes to good housekeeping and SEO.

Have you peppered every blog post you’ve ever created with tags, gone over the top with your categories? Sure you have, we all have at some point in our web journey.

Don’t worry because it’s not too late to tidy things up.

TL;DR

Deleting old, outdated and boring content from my website did result in more website visitors (164% increase) but it did not boost rankings. Removing content requires some careful planning and the results were anything but black and white. Read the full post to find out the why, what and how I did it.

Why did I decide to do it?

Traffic on my website had been quiet over the summer and with Christmas fast approaching I was looking to land one more job to pay the bills.

My website went live way back in 2012 so I had built up quite a bit of content during that time, not all of it good! I had over 100+ blog posts, 60+ pages and 25+ portfolio posts and loads of redundant tags.

I had been reading and watch some of self-styled SEO guru Brian Dean’s content on how to give an instant boost to your rankings. Brian talked a lot about something he coined as ‘Zombie Pages‘ and a technique he had used on many websites he’d worked on, giving their rankings an instant boost.

What are Zombie Pages?

Zombie pages are exactly what you might imagine them to be – the living dead content that creeps into the websites of local businesses, infecting it with ugly, boring, lifeless copy that is going to have a very hard time ranking for anything.  You’ve seen them. You know them all too well. Wherever you find them, they must be killed and buried once and for all!

The technique of removing Zombie pages basically means getting rid of any content that is old, low quality and unnecessary.

In one of his videos, Brian talks about removing Zombie content from websites and seeing an instant leap in traffic as a result. Note, this sudden increase is usually temporary without further SEO work to back it up.

My site was certainly suffering from a Zombie invasion and I needed to take action. If that came with the added benefit of improved rankings it seemed like a no-brainer so I plunged right in.

Where do I start?

The first thing you need to do is identify good quality content, content that could be improved or repurposed and poor quality content.

It’s likely that you will be quite familiar with the different types of content you have on your site. You can put together a ‘hit list’ of content you know isn’t up to scratch and earmark it for removal.

I am a big advocate of decision making through data. I would suggest that you shouldn’t remove any content without first checking your Google Analytics account and Google Search Console first. Just because you think a particular piece might be rubbish doesn’t mean search engines or your customers agree.

What data should I consider?

I chose to cross check my content deletion ‘hit list’ with two sets of analytics data.

  1. Google Analytics > Behaviour > Site Content > All Pages
    I wanted to see which pieces of content got the most page views. I looked at a date range of 1 year and anything with no page views in that period I marked for removal.
  2. Google Search Console > Links > Top Linking Pages – externally (Backlinks)
    Backlinks are now one of the most important ranking factors. The last thing I wanted to do was start deleting content my link creators were linking to. I, therefore, went into my search console and got a list of my top linking pages, that’s pages being linked to externally. Fortunately, most of my links are to my homepage but there were a few internal pages and post that needed to be retained.

Google Data

Keeping track

I needed a way of keeping track of what I was removing and also a separate list for content that needs to be repurposed or updated. I just used a Google Sheet to manage this. It was a bit time consuming going through my site and listing out all the content but it was really helpful when it came to removing content.

I also took the precaution of creating a full backup of my site before I started removing anything. This was for two reasons; firstly in case it was a disaster and my rankings dived and secondly, in case I removed something that I later needed to reference or reinstate.

Google Sheet Example

How much did I remove?

Once you’ve done all your prep, it’s time to start removing content. I actually ended up removing a lot more content that I had initially identified. I had a lot of duplicate content, pages that pretty much said the same thing but worded differently. There were quite a few spammy location pages and some keyword fishing pages, hangovers from my early forays into the complex world of SEO.

After removing all the Zombie Pages and some general housekeeping, I was left with the following:

  • 34 Pages
  • 40 Posts
  • 22 Portfolio posts

I also removed nearly all my tags, I had hundreds, none properly optimised, some categories that were redundant. I have a plugin on my site that disables comments so that was already under control. I had also set Yoast to no-index author pages and as I am the only author on my site, that wasn’t going to cause me problems either.

How much did I really remove? I guess around 70% of my total content which seems like a lot but there was still plenty left as you can see.

What about 404 errors?

One thing I was a little unsure of when conducting this experiment was what to do with content I deleted. I use a plugin for redirects on my site and before removing content I have 41 redirects setup in there.

I also use SEMRush and this sometimes warns me that I have too many redirects and that it may negatively affect search engines ability to index my site. Why? It seems to suggest there is a limited to how many pages search engines will index and by having lots of redirects you might use up all your ‘index credit’ before it can actually get into the content of your website.

Is this true? I’m not sure but what I do know is that Google’s Gary Illyes told the SEO world that Google doesn’t care which redirection method you use, be it 301, 302, or 307. He explained Google will figure it out. He also said 3xx (shorthand for all 300) redirects no longer lose PageRank at all. The general consensus online is that there is no limit on the number of redirects you can have.

I know that 41 redirects is not a large amount (despite SEMRush getting upset about it) as some sites have hundreds. The only thing I found to be documented as harmful with regards to redirects was redirect chains and loops.

What’s a redirect chain or loop? Long redirect chains and infinite loops lead to a number of problems that can damage your SEO efforts. They make it difficult for search engines to crawl your site, which affects your crawl budget usage and how well your web pages are indexed, slows down your site’s load speed, and, as a result, may have a negative impact on your rankings and user experience.

So what did I do?

I use Yoast SEO Premium which helped me a lot as when I moved a page or post to the bin, it asked if I wanted to add a redirect.

I used two types of redirects as follows:

  1. 301 Redirect – A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect which passes between 90-99% of link equity (ranking power) to the redirected page. 301 refers to the HTTP status code for this type of redirect. In most instances, the 301 redirect is the best method for implementing redirects on a website. Source: Moz.com
  2. 410 Redirect – 404 and 410 both tell Google that the page no longer exists; however, the 410 (GONE) is more specific than the 404 (NOT FOUND). Source: Moz.com

The 410 redirect was a new one for me, I hadn’t used that before but it is the most logical for any content that is removed and doesn’t have an obvious partner or successor. After deleting all my Zombie content I ended up with just over 200 redirects. I plan to review these in a few months and remove any that don’t get any hits.

Did my search engine rankings improve?

Now I know this is going to annoy you but the honest answer is yes and no, let me explain why.

I deleted my content on the 18th November and checked my analytics on the 26th November, here are the results.

improve search engine rankings

The previous two weeks visit numbers had been between 133 – 142 but for the week 19th – 26th November my visit numbers jumped to 351, a 164% increase on the previous week. Coincidence? I think not.

This euphoric triumph was short lived however and hence the reason for my yes/no answer. The following two weeks registered a decline in visitor numbers as follows:

  • 142 – November 26 – December 3 2018
  • 106 – December 3 – December 10 2018
  • 111 – December 10 – December 17 2018

What about actual rankings?

The week prior to deletion I was ranking nationally (Google UK) for 79 keywords total. Keyword positions can be seen in the graph below.

rankings before deleting content

The week after deletion, I was still ranking for a total of 79 keywords but there had been some positional changes. 11 keywords had moved up but 12 keywords had moved down.

results after deleting content

Digging into this further, I noted that it was mainly generic keywords that had benefited with some even appearing in the top 20 from outside the top 100.

These results were hard to gain any insight from as ultimately the number of ranking keywords my site was being indexed for did not change so the removal of content did not benefit actual rankings.

Conclusion

Deleting old content from your website can give it a boost in traffic but it has little effect on keyword rankings. The benefit of this strategy is very tempory and last little more than a week. Brain Dean stated he often used this tactic when he first started working on a new SEO account, basically to give the client some quick results.

It is clear that this content removal technique works but in order to sustain its benefits a follow-up SEO strategy is required. If you need help getting your website to the top of Google, visit my SEO page for more information on how I can help you improve your rankings.

I hope you liked my post and found it interesting. Got a question? Tweet me @CEBCreative

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