Every content marketer dreams about publishing a blog post that ranks #1 in organic search and drives a ton of highly qualified traffic. The thing many marketers don’t think about is, once you pull this off, your content is now going to have a bulls-eye on it.
Other companies are going to study it, reverse engineer it, and figure out how they can outrank it. Eventually, one of your competitors will pull that off. Your content will fall to #2, then to #3, and so on until you’re getting much less traffic for that keyword than you used to.
When a piece of content's organic traffic decreases over a long period of time, it’s called “content decay.” Typically, we look for three consecutive months of a decrease in organic traffic before considering that the post is decaying. Any shorter than a three-month period and it could just be a natural change.
Decay can happen from increased competition, but there are also a number of other reasons why content decay happens. Unfortunately, content decay will happen to all of your posts that get organic traffic. It might take months or years, but it’s inevitable.
When content decay happens, it can be hard to identify in real time, but if we take a long-term look at traffic in Google Analytics, we can see it. Here’s an example of the life cycle of a blog post that at one time got significant organic traffic.
At its height, this post brought in 10,395 users in August 2017. But by September 2018, it only brought in 3,854 users. That’s a drop of 62% in its traffic, but it’s a gradual drop—about 5% each month. You might not even notice it in real time since you’re publishing new blog content that’s probably covering up the decline in this post.
Content decay on this post should’ve been caught during that three-month slide in traffic from 2017 - 2018, but it wasn’t caught and continued to decline.
Fortunately, we can prevent and even reverse the content decay on this post by performing a content refresh.
Why does content decay happen in the first place?
Content decay happens for three main reasons:
- Increased competition: Content marketing’s popularity has been increasing at a fast pace over the past 10 years. Companies of all sizes realize that blogging and content can drive a significant amount of organic traffic. With more companies creating more content, competition over keywords is tough, and it’s only going to get tougher.
- Google’s freshness ranking factor: For many queries, Google values freshness. It expects to see up-to-date information for things like current events and topics that change frequently. Google evaluates freshness by engagement — both on-page and off-page. If your content is three years old but still gets new backlinks, it’s probably still a good piece. Similarly, if readers continue to click to your content from the SERP, read it, and share it on social, it’s probably still a relevant piece.
- Loss of interest in the topic: Topics sometimes just fall out of favor. Remember Google+? Google shut it down in April 2019. If your company wrote something like, “The Ultimate Guide to Marketing on Google+” in 2015, you might’ve gotten plenty of traffic to it. But, as time went on, the popularity of Google+ decreased, and your traffic probably went with it.
If your content is decaying as a result of increased competition or because of Google’s freshness ranking factor, performing a content refresh is a great way to fix that. If your content decay is due to a loss of interest, it’s harder to fix but still possible.
Let’s look at how to identify content decay in the first place.
How to spot content decay
Content decay happens slowly, so identifying it can be difficult. To find it, you’ll need to spend some time in Google Analytics along with other tools. You’re going to be looking for content that was previously getting a significant amount of organic traffic, but that organic traffic has declined for at least three months.
The best way to do this is by using Google Analytics. Log into your Google Analytics account. On the left bar, click on Acquisition → All Traffic → Channels. Now, under “Default Channel Grouping,” click on Organic Search. This view will show you some of the keywords that drive organic traffic to your website.
Now, you’re going to change the primary dimension to “Landing Page” because your organic keywords aren’t relevant for this part of your content refresh. The Landing Page view will show you which pages are getting organic traffic.
You need to do one last step to focus Google Analytics on your content pages. In the search box on the right side of this view in Google Analytics, enter the URL extension of where your content lives on your website. For example, SpyFu’s blog content lives on spyfu.com/blog, so the URL extension we would enter into the search box is: /blog.
Lastly, you need to adjust the date range in Google Analytics to the past three months and add a comparison for the previous period. This will give you a starting point to find content that is currently decaying.
At this point, you should be at the view you need to be looking at to identify content decay.
You should start by manually looking through the list for pages that have a percentage decrease in users when comparing the current period with the previous period.
For example, when we ran through the list for SpyFu’s website, we found a few instances of potential content decay. The red arrow in the image below points to a 5.77% decrease in organic traffic to one of our pages.
When you identify a page that may have content decay, all you should do right now is add the URL to a spreadsheet with the percentage decrease.
Once you’ve gone through all the pages that get a meaningful amount of organic traffic, examine each page to identify the reason for the decrease in traffic.
Determining the reason for decay
Determining why a piece of content is decaying can help you figure out how to fix it. To figure out decay, the first thing you should do is check your Google Search Console. Under Performance → Search Results, you can see the ranking spot of specific pages.
Compare where the page was three months ago to where it is now. If you see a significant drop here, that’s likely due to increased competition or a lack of freshness in your piece.
To figure out what is causing your decay, simply do a Google search for the keyword that was driving the most traffic to that piece of content. Take a look at the top-ranking content for that keyword, and try to objectively answer a few questions:
- What sets the top-ranking content apart from your content?
- Is it more in-depth?
- Is the top-ranking content objectively better?
- Does it reference newer research?
- How many backlinks does the top-ranking content have compared to yours?
- Is it more popular on social media?
If there hasn’t been a significant drop in your ranking spot, it could be that the keyword is just not as popular as it once was. You can try to figure this out by using Google Trends, but it’s sometimes difficult to spot. If your content is about something like Google+, a loss of interest will be obvious from Google Trends:
In other cases, a loss of interest won’t be so easy to identify.
Once you’ve identified and determined the causes for the past three months, go back to Google Analytics and restart the process. This time, you’re going to expand your date range to the past 12 months to find content that has already decayed or where decay is taking longer. Again, log the pages with the largest percentage decrease and go through the same process.
This process can be time-consuming, but it’s really helpful to do manually because you’ll have a better understanding of content decay. It will not only help you figure out which pages are decaying but why those pages are decaying. The why will help you create future content that is a little more resistant to content decay.
If you feel like you have a good understanding of the why, you can also use a free tool called Revive to automate the process of finding pages on your website with content decay.
Identify pieces to refresh for an SEO boost
Refreshing content that has decayed is an important part of your site's overall health. You might also want to spot pieces that might not have technically decayed (by the definition), but they can certainly use a boost.
Along with the steps listed for Google Analytics, you can similarly figure out which content is likely to benefit from a refresh. While you're at it, it helps to identify the keywords to optimize it for, too.
Using Google's Search Console or SpyFu's tools will help you identify the keywords people are using to find your content. You can also find similar keywords you don't yet rank for that you can target.
What to Look for in Search Console
Go to Performance (Search Results). I like using the last 3 to 6 months, so choose either setting depending on how much traffic your site gets.
Make sure to select "average CTR" and "average position" so that these metrics are added to your columns.
Your list below should default to "Queries." These are the keywords that bring up your pages in search results. Click the "impressions" column header to sort your keywords.
Glance down the list, and look for average positions somewhere within the 4 to 14 range. These are bottom of the first page through top of the second page. Any ranking improvement you make will much further than moving something from page 4 to page 3.
Watch for keywords that match these criteria:
- It's not a branded keyword
- The keyword is highly relevant to your business
- It gets at least 3000 impressions per month
Click the keyword, and then click "pages," the second column in your chart. This will identify the piece of content getting all of those impressions. (If there are more pages listed, work with the top piece.) Click the top piece.
Now choose "queries." Once that page refreshes, delete the original keyword filter at the top of the graph. This should show you other keywords that have turned up this page in the search results.
To recap, you've gone:
- Queries (sort, click keyword)
- Pages (click top page)
- Delete keyword filter
Review their positions to find high impression searches where even a small bump in your position would make a substantial difference.
Now you have your piece of content to refresh for an SEO boost, and the keywords to optimize it for. Hat tip to John-Henry Scherck for the original instruction on this technique.
A SpyFu Shortcut to Find Content to Refresh
Once you've dug into content that has decayed (Google Analytics), and content on the edge of ranking on the first page (Search Console), you can take a short cut to find more content to refresh.
Open the SpyFu tool and type in your domain. Once you get your results, go to SEO Research and choose the tab for "Top Pages."
These will be the different pages from your site that bring in the most organic traffic from the SERPs. Your top producing content shows up first in the list, but if you scroll down, you can identify content to refresh.
Here's the list of top content from udemy.com:
Six of its pages bring in more organic search traffic than its home page does. What's more telling is how many keywords each page uses to get there. For many of udemy.com's content, their <30 keyword count still brings in tens of thousands of monthly clicks.
Their 5th entry stands out to me because it ranks for far more keywords than the top entries do, but it doesn't get as may clicks from those rankings. You can open the keyword list to see that this page (Top Photoshop Courses Online) ranks on the 2nd and 3rd pages for high volume keywords.
If this is your site, look for those outliers on non-homepage entries. Find the ones that are within striking distance that have not been updated for a while. If you rank for high volume keywords and could benefit from a refresh, there's your bullseye.
Steps to fix content decay
There are two ways to fix content decay, depending on what the cause of your decay was. If your decay happened because of increased competition or a loss of freshness, you can fix it by performing a content refresh.
If you find that your decay results from a loss of interest, you can attempt to do a content refresh, but you might find there’s no way to refresh your content. For example, if your content was written about Google+, you might have to chalk that one up as a loss. You’re not going to be able to rework that piece into something useful since Google+ doesn’t even exist anymore.
The good news is that if you’re ready to try a content refresh, it’s a straightforward process. It does take time to do properly because you’ll be doing a lot of researching and rewriting of your content.
You need to treat it almost as if it’s a brand new piece of content. Generally, there are two steps to performing a content refresh.
1. Update it
Once you’ve identified pages that definitely have content decay, you’ll want to update them. There are a number of steps you’ll want to take to update your content, but there are also two things you should not do when updating your content.
Things you should do:
- Find new research: If your content is based on research, there’s a chance that it’s outdated after just one year. For example, the well-known Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic is updated every single year. Your content should be updated as the research you reference is updated.
- Link to newer and better resources: When you published your content, you probably linked out to a few external pieces of content. Chances are those pieces have decayed just the same way your content has decayed. Try to find newer external content to link to.
- Optimize for the right keywords: Keyword preferences may have changed since you originally published your piece. Make sure your content is still using the most relevant keywords. For example, if your content was written using “Google AdWords” as your keyword, it might be time to change since Google no longer calls its ad platform “AdWords.”
- Add headers with relevant keywords: If you’re changing keywords or adding new ones, make sure those keywords make it into your H1, H2, and H3 headers.
- Fix broken links: Over time, links break. This might happen because the content you’re linking to gets deleted or moved. Find the broken links in your content and update them to link to existing content. This is a freshness ranking factor.
- Optimize images: Make sure you’re using alt-text and compression on your images, which are best practices for blog images. Alt-text helps Google understand what the image is, and compression is a page-speed improvement.
- Update the meta description: This simple fix can help you get more clicks from organic search.
Things you should not do:
- Add more words to the content for the sake of adding words: Your content should always create value for your users. Adding words to your piece just to make it look longer isn’t going to help prevent or reverse content decay.
- Change the URL: Changing the URL is always risky, especially without a 301 redirect. Changing the URL essentially resets all of your engagement on the piece.
2. Promote it
Now that you’ve updated your content, promote it like it’s a new piece of content. Resend it to your email list, start a new backlink campaign for the refreshed piece of content, and repurpose it for social media to get new social shares. Do everything that you would regularly do with a new piece of content.
Another step you may not have considered is adding internal links from your other content to your repurposed content. There are a number of best practices when linking to your other pieces, and it could be a boost for other content on your site.
Go through your non-decaying content and find relevant places to link to your repurposed content. Since Google takes current engagement into account in its freshness ranking factors, you need to make sure your updated piece is getting engagement. The best way to do that is to re-promote it.
How well do content refreshes work?
The point of a content refresh is to get traffic back to the level it once was, but when it’s done right, you can actually get even more traffic than you had before.
Jessica Green, a marketing consultant, recently went through the process of refreshing old content for one of her clients. She refreshed the content on 21 posts that had seen some amount of content decay. The posts she refreshed saw positive results almost overnight. The post, “Find Any Email Address for Free With These Tips and Tools” was originally published in 2016. Traffic growth on the post had completely flatlined, so Jessica updated this post on November 5, 2018.
After one month, traffic had increased 212%. After six months, traffic was still climbing—it had increased 564%. For all 21 posts she updated, cumulative traffic after one month increased 52%.
Don’t just let content decay happen
If you want to prevent content decay, you need to remember that your job isn’t done when you finish promoting a post. Monitor all of your posts that get organic traffic for signs of content decay. It could take months or years to happen, but it’s likely to happen eventually.
Your competitors are likely updating their content as well. When you articles with a new date that seem familiar, it's possible they've embraced a content refresh. You can always check their past rankings to see how that update affected them.
If you just let a post slowly fall down the rankings until it isn’t getting any traffic, you’re missing out on a simple way to get quality traffic.
That’s why you should take a few hours each month to find posts that may be decaying. That will help you get more mileage out of your existing content.