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(Not so) scary Google updates: is it time to purge the dead content on your website?

By Nathan Dale | Senior SEO Strategist



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October 26, 2022 | 8 min read

Is low-performing content draining the life from your website? Nathan Dale of Impression explains how to identify it and bring it back to life, in light of Google’s most recent algorithm updates.

Creepy hands

Lifeless content could be harming the overall quality of your website, says Impression’s Nathan Dale / Georgi Kalaydzhi via Unsplash

In August and September 2022, Google rolled out two major updates to its core search algorithms. First, there was the Helpful Content Update, which was completed on September 9, followed by the routine September Core Update.

It can be a spine-chilling moment when Google introduces an update outside of the routine, causing ghoulish screams amongst digital marketers (OK, maybe not quite that bad) who are concerned about what might happen to the performance of their websites.

But really, these updates aren’t so scary at all. Google’s update is intended to reward the good content you’ve been producing.

Trick, or treat?

There were two important lines from the Helpful Content Update documentation: ‘The update generates a site-wide signal. For this reason, removing unhelpful content could help the rankings of your other content.’

It has long been the view of SEO professionals that the overall quality of a website was considered by Google when it ranks individual pieces of content. You could write a great article with detailed information, examples, a how-to guide and a video thrown in for good measure. However, if the rest of your site’s content is low-res, it’s likely your article won’t perform well in search engine result pages (SERPs).

Is there zombie content lurking on your site?

Web pages with no SERP impressions, clicks or traffic are often referred to as ‘dead content’ since they seemingly have no life in them, although a more accurate term might be ‘zombie content,’ because the page is technically still alive, and search engines could therefore bump into it during a (presumably late-night) crawl.

If Google finds this content and classifies it as ‘unhelpful,’ it will take this into account when ranking your other high-quality, helpful content too. The more unhelpful content you have, the more likely Google will think that your website is providing lower overall value to its search results and users.

Taking steps to identify and remove poor-quality, unhelpful content is no longer an ‘as and when’ task to be done during a period of downtime. The Helpful Content Update means this task should now be high on your list of priorities.

There are very few (if any) websites that have 100% perfect content on every single one of their pages. While Google understands that this is an impossible standard, it would prefer to invest less time and money crawling and evaluating content only to realize that it’s as much use as a rotten pumpkin on November 1.

This is likely why it’s explicitly asking content managers to remove low-quality, unhelpful content, and rewarding sites that action this with potential overall ranking improvements.

Lack of continuity in the ownership of web content is usually the hidden monster that results in unhelpful content. As web content is inherited by new starters, passed around departments or simply left unattended, chances are you’ll find some skeletons in the closet.

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How to identify unhelpful content

Identifying low-performing content is straightforward. One approach is to use Screaming Frog SEO Spider, which can either crawl your entire website, a specific directory or a list of URLs.

In Screaming Frog’s configuration menu, select API access and add your Google Analytics account. Set the segment to Organic Traffic and the date range to the last 12 months, then your traffic data will be added to the crawl. We advise looking at this over a 12-month time period to give a truer picture (eg seasonal content might not get any clicks in June, but lots in December).

Once the crawl is finished, you’ll have a list of content with the session data shown in the Analytics tab. Simply sort by lowest to highest and you’ll find the zombie content that’s haunting your website.

Exorcise dead content (or bring it back to life)

Once you’ve identified the content with the lowest session data, you essentially have three choices. One: if it has the potential to be made helpful, you can update it with new and improved content. Two: consolidate any content that is useful into another page on the same topic, then remove and redirect the page. Three: remove the page entirely.

Side note: if you are considering totally removing a piece of content, you should check the ‘all users’ and ‘page views’ in Google Analytics as it is possible the page is being found in other ways.

For more information on Google algorithm updates, check out Impression’s search industry update blog series.

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