What Is Content Decay? Plus 5 Top Strategies To Address It
Combining search engine optimization (SEO) and content marketing is an excellent strategy if you want your efforts to pay off in the long run.
In fact, you may find that some pieces you published several years ago are still your best performers and account for a significant portion of your organic traffic.
And overtime they become outdated and lose their competitive edge on search engine results pages (SERPs).
This is content decay. If you want to sustain your organic growth, it’s crucial that you understand it.
Let’s take a closer look at what content decay is, why it happens, and how to address it. Along the way, we’ll hear from Nate Turner, co-founder and CEO of Ten Speed, who covers this topic in his webinar, “How to Find and Fix Content Decay with Systems and Processes.”
Content decay: Why has my Google ranking dropped?
Content decay is an ongoing decrease in organic performance for SEO content, such as blog posts, white papers, and webinars. The term “decay” refers to the fact that the decline happens slowly over time — it’s not a sharp drop-off in clicks and traffic.
As Nate explains, this idea of a slow decline is important because “It can go unnoticed if you don't have the proper systems to identify it.”
We’ll go over tools and processes that can help you monitor and identify content decay later on. But first, let’s look at what causes decay.
Causes of content decay
Content decay happens for a number of reasons that occur naturally as new articles and posts get published online. Here are some of the most common causes.
As your content ages, some of your references, conclusions, and supporting data become outdated and less relevant. In other words, your content loses its freshness. And for some keywords, that can result in lower rankings and less organic traffic.
Lack of topical depth
Lack of topical depth (topical authority) can cause content decay. That’s because Google’s algorithm has evolved to prioritize useful, high-quality, and comprehensive articles.
Google may see shorter blog posts as thin content, which doesn’t provide user value. In contrast, longer posts with more depth create value by covering related topics and answering the reader’s natural follow-up questions.
When you write in-depth content, it helps establish your brand as a knowledgeable expert on the topic.
Sometimes, one of your blog pieces may decline in search engine results because it has too much competition from other posts on your domain. This type of internal competition is cannibalization, which means you have articles in direct competition with each other.
You may also lose traffic due to content overload, which happens when you have too many pieces covering one topic.
Fresh content is published all the time, and competitors targeting the same keywords as you may publish pieces with more depth or relevance and outrank your pieces. While external competition is natural, don’t overlook it.
A small drop in SERP position can lead to a significant decline in organic traffic based on average click-through rates (CTRs). A 2022 First Page Sage study revealed that the first position on Google has an average CTR of 39.8%, while the second only has a CTR of 18.7%.
In other words, your content can lose more than half of its clicks just by falling one position in the SERPs.
Changes in search intent
Google’s first step in ranking content is figuring out the meaning behind the query (user intent) and then seeing which articles satisfy that intent. That said, search intent can change.
If there’s a change in intent for one of your target keywords, it can negatively affect your rankings if your piece doesn’t address the shifts.
This change can happen as new technologies, like electric cars, artificial intelligence (AI), and virtual reality (VR) become more common. Five or ten years ago, the search results for these technologies may not have included commercial intent.
It can also happen because of new meanings from pop culture. For example, the search term “white noise” now includes mixed results because of a film released with the same name.
Google continually updates its search algorithm to improve the user experience. Many of the changes are small releases that won’t significantly impact your content’s performance.
However, there’s a major core update or release every now and again that shakes up the SERP rankings.
In 2021, Semrush analyzed how SERP positions changed as Google released its Core Web Vitals update. One finding was that URLs with a “good” Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) score increased on SERPs, while URLs with a “poor” rating declined.
In other words, websites that took too long to load the main content on the page (i.e., poor LCP) slid down the rankings. While the content on the page didn’t change, a less-than-optimal user experience negatively impacted the SERP position for certain URLs.
Content lifecycle stages
To better understand how and when content decay happens, consider the lifecycle of a new piece of content.
After you publish a new piece, it takes time to rank on Google Search. You may wait anywhere from six to 18 months before you see results.
The time it takes to rank varies based on the keyword difficulty, competition, and your website’s authority. At this stage, search engine algorithms are working to understand what your content is about and how it fits within the context of your website.
After that first few months to a year, your content can enter a growth phase as long as you optimize it and your website. This is where you start to see exponential growth.
Content generates more organic traffic and backlinks as it continues to move higher in the ranks. The increase in backlinks reinforces the authority of your piece and helps it continue to rank higher in SERPs.
There’s a positive cycle of earning more backlinks that reinforces its authority and can push it higher on the SERPs.
Eventually, published pieces reach a stage of maximum growth. There are a few reasons for these content ceilings.
If a competitor piece outranks your content, you may receive fewer clicks and backlinks. However, even if your post stays ranked in the top position, there’s only so much traffic it can generate based on the monthly search volume (MSV) for its main keywords.
At this point, the SEO performance of your content can plateau and begin to decline steadily.
As time passes and the piece becomes outdated or less competitive, its position may drop, resulting in less attention from organic search.
Decay may be natural, but it doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do about it. Later on, we’ll cover five strategies you can use to update content and improve its search rankings again. But first, let’s take a closer look at the impact of content decay.
How does content decay impact your SEO and marketing strategies?
Decaying content may not seem like a big deal at first. But consider the fact that the average age of most top-ranked pages on SERPs is at least two years. This means that most brands rely on slightly older posts to bring in most of their organic traffic.
If older pieces start to rank lower, it can affect your SEO strategy in several ways, such as:
Less organic traffic
Lower SERP positions have lower click-through rates (CTRs) on average. That means you receive less traffic from a piece of content if it’s become irrelevant or a competitor has pushed you out of the top spots.
You may see fewer people coming to your website from search engines if this happens to multiple pieces.
Fewer backlink opportunities
Other marketers benefit from citing authoritative sources in their posts. Brands are more likely to see and cite your posts if you rank in one of the top positions for related keywords.
However, the opposite happens if your SEO rankings drop. People who write content won’t see your URL right away when they search for sources. Instead, competitor articles will get more attention and backlinks that reinforce their growth.
Lower brand awareness
Google receives more than 243 million visits each day. That’s a lot of people seeing SERP results every day. When your URLs rank highly, those searchers see your domain and brand name and associate it with the keyword — even if they don’t click your URL.
In the image above, you’ll see the SERP for “email marketing idea examples.” Three brands appear: HubSpot, Moosend, and Omnisend. Even if a user only visits one website, all brands can benefit from the visual impression, which helps users associate their company with the keyword.
As content decays and ranks lower on page one (or moves to page two) of the search results, you’ll lose the brand awareness opportunity to competitors that rank higher than you.
How to identify content decay
Now that you’re aware of the effects of content decay, the question becomes, “How do I know when one of my content pieces is in the decay stage?”
Content decline signals
As mentioned before, content decay happens slowly. It’s not a sudden drop-off in organic traffic, so it might be easy to overlook.
When you monitor your SEO performance, here are a few content decay signals to look for:
URLs with a steady decline in organic traffic over time
URLs with a long organic traffic plateau
Steady decline in click-through rate
Loss of impressions
While the loss of organic traffic is a good clue to look for, it’s not the only one. Nate recommends considering a holistic view that includes clicks and impressions.
“If you have a loss of impressions but clicks are steady, that probably means that you've lost a number of queries. Search terms may have stopped matching this post because the content isn’t as relevant anymore.”
Tools to identify content decay
There are several SEO tracking and content optimization tools you can use to monitor the performance of your articles and blog posts and identify instances of content decay.
Clearscope: Clearscope’s Content Inventory feature (beta) automatically tracks all your content reports, so you can see when an article’s SEO rankings have dropped and may need updating.
Google Analytics: You can use Google Analytics to get a bird's-eye view of your website’s traffic and conversions, so you can see when they decline.
Google Search Console: This tool lets you see SERP performance metrics, such as clicks, impressions, and average position.
5 methods to fix content decay
Content decay happens. The good news is that there are steps you can take to address it, so you can continue to reap the gains of your previously published pieces.
Here are five strategies you can use to address content decay on your website:
Content pruning is the decision to remove low-performing and obsolete pieces from your website. There are two situations where getting rid of old content makes the most sense.
First, it helps get rid of pieces targeting keywords that are no longer relevant. For example, if you’ve gotten rid of a particular feature or no longer address a given use case for your product.
Second, pruning works well if you want to publish newer content that will ultimately replace older content. While content pruning may not result in a direct increase in organic traffic, it helps keep the content on your website relevant.
Not to mention, it can clean up your SEO performance data. Let’s say you decide a content piece is decaying. It’s not a relevant keyword, so you don’t want to update it.
If you leave that piece on your website, it will continue to have a negative impact on your overall metrics, such as organic traffic and average position. By taking it offline, you ensure that you’re only assessing the performance of the pieces you care about.
Expanding content refers to the process of updating older pieces that need more depth.
As Nate explains it, expanding works well when “you just need a little bit more detail to round out the piece.”
The amount of expansion depends on the keyword and how much information you need to make your piece comprehensive. Content updates may be as little as a few hundred words or up to a thousand.
Clearscope’s editor gives you a grade for each piece of content, which makes it easier to figure out if a post needs a small touch-up or a bigger overhaul. You can also use the editor to see which topics and keywords you’re missing, so you know your updates will be meaningful.
As you can see in the Clearscope report above, this piece earns a C+, which shows there’s an opportunity to expand.
By comparing your actual word count to the suggested one, you see that this expansion may be closer to 1,000 words. You can also filter the Terms panel to Unused, which helps you figure out what topics to address and new keywords to include to get the most out of your updated content.
Refreshing content typically involves adjusting it for a new year by updating the information, changing dates, and finding more recent sources to cite.
For instance, if you have a piece called “Top Digital Marketing Trends for 2022,” you’ll want to update it for 2023, so it stays relevant another year.
In some cases, all you need to do is change the dates and cite newer sources. For other keywords, you may need to refresh your take on the topic to make it more timely and relevant.
Content refreshing may also include making changes to re-optimize the user experience (UX) of an older piece.
Specifically, you want to make sure that you:
Optimize image file size and type, so they load faster
Edit headers and metadata to reflect new related terms
Check for broken links and replace them with ones that work
Ensure all image alt tags, captions, and file names are relevant
Consolidation involves combining several pieces into a single post that’s more thorough. This is an excellent way to deal with internal competition and content overload.
Nate explains that consolidations help you “give a clear signal to both search engines and visitors that ‘this is the piece; this has everything you want.’”
Consolidation may require more time than expanding or updating a post, and it has its own process. Besides combining pieces, you want to make sure you’re not repeating sections and that there’s a logical flow to the new post.
You also need to make sure that any internal links to your individual articles now point readers to the new, consolidated one.
Nate recommends creating a separate publishing checklist for consolidation projects, so you don’t miss any steps.
Re-promoting works well when you have a piece of content that isn’t missing any information but also isn’t being discovered.
Let’s say you notice a piece decline and run it through your Clearscope editor. Instead of finding content gaps, you see that this post is thorough and well-written.
In this case, you simply want to draw more attention to the piece and give it a chance to gain traction again.
The first step in re-promoting is to add this URL to your internal linking strategy. Look for related topics that can link back to this piece, and focus on those that get more organic traffic already.
You can even add website features like related content sections that encourage readers to explore more of your articles. The image below shows an example of this from news website Chron.
Next, you can take steps to generate more backlinks for the piece.
This can involve:
Sharing it on social media to increase online visibility
Writing guest posts that let you include links to your blog
Creating a shareable infographic and adding it to the post
Final thoughts: Content decay — what it is and how you can fix it
While SEO growth can be wonderfully passive at times, the mindset of “set it and forget it” won’t work long term.
According to Nate, “The important part is to understand how to turn (content audits and refreshes) into something that you address regularly as part of your entire content program.”
Here are a few steps you can take to ensure your content marketing strategy continues to address content decay:
Regularly review performance metrics to identify content pieces that need updates
Invest in software that helps identify content decay and inform updates
Incorporate content updates into your editorial calendar
Assign a method and scope of work for each piece
Create checklists specific to content decay
If you want to keep your existing content fresh and maximize your SEO results, Clearscope can help.
Besides helping you streamline keyword research and optimize new pieces for search engines, Clearscope makes it easy to monitor the performance of existing pieces and understand the scope of each update project.
Director of Marketing, Clearscope
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