How To Do Content Pruning To Improve Your Search Rankings

Bernard Huang
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    Adding new content to your website isn’t always the best content marketing strategy.

    To rank high on search engine results pages (SERPs) and satisfy your ideal target audience, you need to make sure every piece of content on your website is high quality and provides value to readers.

    But how do you do that?

    By auditing your website’s content regularly to update or remove low-quality content — also known as content pruning.

    You might already be doing that to some extent.

    In this guide, we’ll go over how you can be more systematic. We’ll also explore a few tips to avoid the need for excessive content pruning in the future.

    What is content pruning?

    Content pruning is the process of removing or repurposing old and low-performing content.

    How can you identify the right candidates for pruning? You can start with:

    • Duplicate articles

    • Blogs with thin content

    • Articles with outdated information

    • Content that has keyword cannibalization

    • Pages with low traffic or high bounce rates

    Content pruning isn’t just about deleting old content. It’s a systematic process to clean up your existing content, reveal gaps, and set a direction for future content marketing.

    When should you do content pruning?

    Businesses often carry out content pruning as part of their search engine optimization (SEO) strategy.

    If you don’t have a content pruning strategy, here are a few signs that you need one:

    • Organic traffic has diminished or flatlined

    • You’re sharing outdated or incorrect information

    • Your content isn’t ranking well on relevant SERPs

    • Your content has low engagement, like social media shares

    Did the reality of content pruning just hit you right in the wallet? It's understandable — you’ve spent a lot of time and money building your website’s content. The idea of deleting or reworking it probably sounds painful.

    But content pruning has many benefits.

    Content pruning benefits

    • Improves SEO rankings

    • Optimizes your crawl budget

    • Improves link authority distribution

    • Removes clutter and makes navigation easier

    • Improves customer experience and your brand’s reputation

    Let’s take a closer look at these benefits and how pruning strengthens your content marketing strategy.

    Improves SEO rankings

    Search engines strive to give the most relevant answers to search queries. So, high-quality content that matches the search intent usually gets the highest rank on relevant SERPs.

    Search engines may push down certain types of content to preserve the quality of the search results, such as:

    Google started its effort to fight off low-quality content as early as 2011 with its Panda update. The brand stated:

    “This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites — sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites, or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites — sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis, and so on."

    Google also hires people to manually rate the quality of websites. The search engine has extensive guidelines to help these quality raters determine a website’s content quality.

    Pruning is important to maintain a reputation for high-quality content that will satisfy ranking algorithms’ quality checks and impress human quality raters.

    For example, G2, a popular peer-to-peer review website, executed a content pruning strategy using Clearscope to improve its SEO performance.

    Amy Lecza, director of content marketing at G2, believes that refreshing the website’s older articles had a great impact:

    Quote from Amy Lecza, director of content marketing at G2: “Our content ranks reliably, and after a short initial learning period, we began to see an immediate decrease in the amount of time it was taking for our content to pick up keywords — we even have net-new articles debuting on pages 2-4 when previously they’d start out on page 7-8.”

    Optimizes the crawl budget

    A webpage will appear on relevant SERPs only after the search engine indexes it. Google and other search engines have a quota for how many pages on a website they’ll index in a given timeframe.

    This number is referred to as crawl budget, and it varies for each website based on its crawl limit and demand.

    If you don’t regularly prune your content, crawlers will end up using crawl budget on indexing low-quality pages. As a result, your high-quality content might not get as much attention, and may take longer to appear on the SERPs.

    Pruning helps you weed out underperforming content and allocate your crawl budget to high-performing articles.

    Improves link authority distribution

    You may (and usually should) have several internal links within your articles. Businesses generally use internal linking as a way to pass value and authority from one webpage to another.

    For example, a backlink from a high-authority page improves the authority of the target page. That’s known as link equity distribution.

    A page transfers a part of its authority to the pages it links to.

    Content pruning removes pages that don't contribute to your link equity. You can safely remove these articles without worrying about deleting the backlinks to other articles. Since these low-quality pages don’t get much viewership, they aren’t driving traffic to the interlinked pages.

    Removes clutter and makes navigation easier

    Say you’re browsing through a brand’s knowledge base. The articles aren’t organized well, and it’s impossible to find the information you want.

    You’re probably not going to spend much time on that page, right? A large number of articles clutter your website and confuse visitors. According to a 2021 GoodFirms survey, 34.6% visitors leave a website due to bad content structure.

    Pruning helps you reduce clutter by deleting low-quality articles and highlighting your good content. You may also be able to create a new high-quality, focused article by consolidating its duplicate content or by reusing the salvageable portions of the related content you’re planning to delete.

    Improves customer experience and your brand’s reputation

    Wouldn’t it be annoying to spend a long time reading an article just to realize it's outdated?

    Keeping only relevant, high-quality content on your website will save visitors from this disappointment.

    Content pruning helps you improve the user experience by:

    • Removing vague or outdated content

    • Repurposing thin or duplicate content

    • Making it easy to find relevant content

    When customers determine that your website has reliable information, they’ll probably come back for more. Additionally, they might also tell other people about your brand. Being reliable and recommendable can improve your reputation and conversion rates.

    But while content pruning has many benefits, it can be harmful if you don’t do it correctly.

    The drawbacks of content pruning

    Content pruning is a critical task that needs a lot of attention. But cutting content out of your website can be damaging if you go about it the wrong way.

    Cutting your website content too thin

    If your website doesn’t have much content, then now might not be the right time to prune it. After all, if you cut down content, it will reduce your website’s size.

    So, Google and other search engines might think your website is too small to rank high in relevant SERPs. There might not be enough content for search engines to determine your website’s niche.

    Reducing content will also affect the user experience. If your website doesn’t have much content, your visitors might not understand what your brand is about or offers.

    There’s no strict benchmark regarding how many total posts you need to rank high in relevant search.

    Trouble determining a page’s quality

    There’s no objective way to determine the overall quality of a piece of content. Brands often use key performance indicators (KPIs) like traffic, backlinks, or social media engagement to measure an article’s quality. But these KPIs might not always be the best indicators.

    Let's say an article doesn't have much traffic. It might still be a high-quality page for a few reasons, such as:

    • It has high-authority backlinks

    • It’s ranking well for certain niche keywords

    • It has frequent visitors, even if the volume is low

    Content pruning without thoughtful strategy may harm your overall SEO rankings and disappoint website visitors. A systematic approach to content pruning will help you overcome those effects.

    Now, let’s go over the content pruning process, step by step.

    Content pruning step-by-step

    1. Take a content inventory

    2. Define content pruning metrics

    3. Audit content against target performance metrics and benchmarks

    4. Prune content in batches

    5. Measure results

    How to do content pruning, step by step.

    1. Take a content inventory

    Clearscope’s Content Inventory maintains a content inventory for you. Add the pages you’d like to track with up to three terms per page. Clearscope will monitor the Content Grade scores for each of your pages’ terms.

    And if the Content Grade decreases for any reason, we’ll send you a notification alerting you of the depreciating score.

    Ideally, before pruning content, you’ll conduct an audit to identify all existing assets and any relevant details. Small websites can probably do this manually, but it will be tough to execute without a specialized tool if you’ve published hundreds or thousands of articles.

    You can quickly get the content list using website crawling tools like Screaming Frog. Another option is to use Google Analytics and Google Search Console for content inventory. You can also look through content management systems (CMS) like WordPress to get a list of your pages.

    At minimum, we suggest collecting the following data for each piece of content.

    • URL

    • Article name

    • Publication date

    • Primary keyword(s)

    Tools like Google Sheets or Airtable simplify the process to analyze, group, and filter content.

    Here’s an example that includes a content inventory for ten articles on a test website. Next, we’ll explain how to approach pruning this content.

    List of website content to prune.

    2. Define content pruning metrics

    After you've created a master list of all your content, you’ll want to categorize it into two buckets.

    • High-performing, relevant content — excluded from pruning

    • Content that may be a fit for pruning

    How do you decide what’s a high-performing article and what’s not? Making the right choice means you don’t delete or alter good content. To help move forward, you’ll need some criteria to categorize it.

    Categorizing content in terms of specific performance metrics can help prune your articles. Consider the following:

    • Article age

    • Number of clicks

    • Past search traffic

    • Number of backlinks

    • Number of page views

    • Number of social shares

    • Number of high-ranking keywords

    Performance metrics to choose content pruning candidates.

    The metrics one business uses might not apply to others. So, choose which metrics are most relevant to your brand and what their benchmark values should be.

    Continuing with the previous example, let’s use monthly traffic, the number of high-ranking keywords, and backlinks as our pruning criteria.

    3. Audit content against target performance metrics and benchmarks

    The next step is to audit your content and pick the best candidates for pruning. To do that, consider each item on your content master list and record the value for the performance metrics on your content worksheet.

    For example, for each link, what’s the average monthly organic traffic for the past six months? How many backlinks does each piece of content have? You can use tools like Google Analytics, Google Search Console, or Clearscope to pull these metrics.

    Here's our sample list of each article’s performance metric values.

    Content list with values for performance metrics.

    Next, define specific benchmarks for your pruning. For example, you may opt to delete all articles older than two years or those with zero high-ranking keywords. With your chosen benchmarks in mind, go through each article and decide what action you want to take, such as:

    • Delete content that isn’t relevant anymore

    • Combine duplicate content into one article

    • Update content that’s outdated but salvageable

    • Add a noindex tag for articles that aren’t good for SEO but are useful for readers

    Here are the actions we’re going to take for each of the articles in our sample list:

    Articles categorized for content pruning.

    4. Prune content in batches

    Even though you’ve identified potential candidates for pruning, you might not want to modify and publish the changes all in one go. Without a phased approach, it would be challenging to monitor how specific changes influenced SEO performance.

    For example, deleting some articles may improve your search rankings, while others may hurt SEO. Making changes in batches will provide more clarity regarding what works and what doesn't.

    So, how do you go about deciding what to prune first? You need to create a priority list and identify the top candidates for pruning. After you make a round of changes, keep monitoring your website’s SEO data for a few weeks.

    5. Measure results

    After each pruning phase, monitor how your overall traffic and search engine rankings change. You can use SEO tools like Ahrefs, Google Search Console, Semrush, Moz, KWFinder, Ubersuggest, and WooRank.

    If you see positive results, continue with the next set of articles in your priority list. Make the changes, publish, and go to the next step.

    But if you don’t see improvement in your SEO performance, try adjusting your pruning criteria.

    Suganthan Mohanadasan and Andy Chadwick, founders of Snippet Digital, share a few tips for content pruning, including an effective way for grading your content for pruning. Here’s how they describe this system:

    Check out our webinar with Snippet Digital for more useful content pruning tips and the brand’s content pruning template.

    How often should pruning be done & why?

    Content pruning is not a one-and-done process. Even if you don’t need extensive pruning (like with an initial attempt), you may still need to prune your content from time to time. There are several reasons why:

    • Technology and standards change, so you need to keep your content updated

    • You might change your target audience and products — and should update your content to reflect that

    SEO experts recommend pruning your content every 3-6 months or at least once a year. But there are proactive ways you can reduce extensive content pruning in the future.

    How to reduce content pruning in the future

    Content pruning can be an arduous process that drains your time and energy. After the initial run, you may want to take a few steps to avoid the need for extensive content pruning in the future.

    Create & stick to a content calendar

    It’s great to have a clear idea about what content you’re going to create and when. A content calendar is essential for planning your content. It gives you a roadmap for creating content so that you can avoid creating irrelevant and duplicate content.

    The content calendar will also come in handy when you do a content audit in the future, as it provides a ready list of your articles.

    Be mindful about content creation goals

    Creating content for the sake of it will lead to low-quality content that you’ll need to prune in the future. Instead, try to be mindful when creating content. Every piece of content you create should have a clear goal.

    To be effective, first, identify the gaps in your content. For example, you might have a lot of content for people in the awareness stage of the sales funnel but no content for customers you already work with and want to retain long into the future.

    Regularly audit your content

    After you publish an article, keep checking how it’s performing in terms of:

    • Organic traffic

    • Search rankings

    • Social media engagements

    This regular content audit will help you get an early idea of what content is performing well and what isn’t. Planning periodic audits gives enough time to split up content pruning in stages.

    Use optimization tools for content creation

    Keyword research is the starting point of creating content optimized for search engines. However, you might find thousands of potential relevant keywords during this phase. How do you determine the keywords that can help you rank content high on relevant SERPs?

    It’s like having a signal with a lot of noise — the signal is the keywords that matter, and the noise is all those keywords that came up in the keyword research phase. Clearscope can help you separate the signal from the noise.

    How does Clearscope make a difference?

    Clearscope’s keyword discovery feature helps you identify the most relevant keywords and search intents around a particular subject. Clearscope uses advanced algorithms to cut out the noise in keyword research and retain the keywords that matter, which include:

    • Understanding your topic using a high-end natural language processing (NLP) algorithm powered by IBM Watson and Google Cloud

    • Deploying an in-house noise reduction algorithm to suggest keywords relevant to your topic

    • Referencing millions of documents to determine how important each keyword is for your content

    Wrapping it up: How to do content pruning to improve your search rankings

    When it comes to content marketing, the quality of your content matters more than its quantity. Low-quality content isn’t useful for visitors and might also hurt your website’s search rankings.

    Content pruning helps you remove or repurpose low-quality content. Removing the content that represents a lot of your team’s effort might seem a bad idea. But, content pruning has many benefits, like:

    • Improving search rankings

    • Cleaning up cluttered blogs

    • Enhancing user experience

    A systematic approach to content pruning is crucial to ensure you don’t delete or repurpose helpful content. Content pruning may require a lot of effort the first time. But with the right approach, you can reduce your content pruning efforts in the future.

    Written by
    Bernard Huang
    Co-founder of Clearscope
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