If you’ve been paying attention to a lot of the case studies in various SEO blogs, you’ll see more and more articles about content pruning, content cruft, and content cleanups. This is no coincidence, the fact is the popularity of these case studies are due to the fact that they work. In this case study we’ll show you that through pruning the content on this very blog, we were able to increase traffic and better target our readers.
But what exactly is content cruft? I define content cruft as not only poor / shoddy content, but content with low engagement rates as well. For instance, you might have a really short article that is poorly written, but it gets lot of views and engagements. That isn’t necessarily crufty, because it is still somewhat popular. The same goes for really well thought out content, 5000 words in length with lots of references. Even though it took a long time to produce, it still could be considered content cruft.
I really felt our blog was a perfect case study for several reasons:
With that said, I fired up our website and started the great content cruft cleanup of 2017. Over the past year I saw a bunch of websites that did content cleanups with a lot of success, and really thought we would be a prime candidate.
Since our site is relatively small (under 1000 pages), I didn’t bother doing a custom crawl or scraping our site. We basically did a full export of our entire website, then systematically “got rid of” the good content piece by piece.
For the last year or so, our top ranking pages have been ones that we weren’t very proud of. It’s not that they were bad, its just that they were really kind of irrelevant. For instance from July – December of last year, our top post has been a post that was really just irrelevant. Here is a sample snapshot of some of the organic traffic we were getting:
As you can see, we were bringing in quite a bit of traffic every day, but a lot of it was really shoddy. A dozen or so visits had 100% bounce rate because people were looking for something completely different than what we were talking about.
The example we mentioned above, we didn’t want to necessarily delete that post in particular…we just didn’t want it to be one of our top performing pages. After all, Google seemed to love it:
We had a lot of pages like this. Older posts that we wrote, semi-related to SEO that brought in lot of traffic but wasn’t really the “right” kind of traffic. A lot of people (like us) have been so focused on bringing in new visitors, that they wound up with a huge handful of really crappy traffic. This is where a content audit comes in handy.
I’m not going to sit here and spout of what I consider “ranking factors” but over the years I have seen a lot of correlations. One strong correlation I’ve seen is the connection between websites with high engagement & targeted content and ranking.
The easiest way to find crufty pages is to view analytics in large date ranges. Open up 3, 6, 12, or even 24 month periods and sort by “entry pages.” If you can sort by search referrer, even better but that really isn’t necessary.
Here is one example of a large chunk of pages that I consider “crufty.”
Here are some pages that are obviously not in the cruft category:
Once I had a list in hand, I wanted to export everything to a text file. You can also export to Excel or your editor of choice. I personally love Notepad++ (and Scrapebox) for working with data. I also use Excel for my “master presentation” list. That is, after all my data is cleaned up, it is where I store things for the purpose of final presentation. To each their own.
Now that we have a huge list of crufty posts, I need to sort them into categories. Here are the categories I sorted them into:
In the end, you’ll end up with a list that looks something like this:
Now for the good stuff. Any of the “good” content that we deleted, but didn’t want to disappear forever (in the “optimize, upgrade, and fix category”), we merged into mega-posts or evergreen content. As a result, we were able to create 8 new posts that are now ranking quite nicely for a variety of terms:
(p1) http://www.elite-strategies.com/inheriting-seo-penalty (p2) http://www.elite-strategies.com/learn-seo/google-disavow (p1) http://www.elite-strategies.com/learn-seo/google-emd-update (p1 & p2) http://www.elite-strategies.com/learn-seo/seo-citations (p1) http://www.elite-strategies.com/learn-seo/on-page-seo-checklist (-) http://www.elite-strategies.com/learn-seo/google-panda (-) http://www.elite-strategies.com/learn-seo/google-penguin (p2 & 3) http://www.elite-strategies.com/learn-seo/negative-seo/
We were so happy with some of these posts that we merged them into our “learn SEO” hierarchy, which in the past few months has become the bread and butter of our content model so to speak.
We deleted all of our videos, and the pages that went along with it. Our videos really sucked. They really weren’t helpful, they didn’t bring in any new business, and in my opinion were just bad for our brand so they had to be removed. Deleted our video sitemap.xml. RIP video sitemap.
Deleted a few categories that didn’t get any love, such as: content marketing, inbound marketing, Google Plus, Video. We deleted all WordPress “tags.” I’ve always been kind of against tags as a whole. Categories are fine, but tags really just get in the way.
No-indexed and no-followed all category pages. This has always been a topic of debate in the SEO community (categories) but in our case our blog categories have never been a winner in the search engine results pages. They really don’t rank, and don’t bring in any traffic so we no-followed and no-indexed them.
We did lots of other cleanup type stuff such as combined all of our internship type posts into one.
Full database optimization. We went beyond our normal mySQL cleanup efforts and got our hands dirty. We went through each row of each table and deleted anything that could be, doing a full backup of course. We started with a database that was around 60 Mb in size and ended up with one that was around 15 Mb. Not bad! We also upgraded the RAM and CPU in our server, and did a full LAMP upgrade as well.
We also totally redid our menu. We created a huge “learn SEO” section on our menu to compliment our blog, mainly information taken from our book which was recently “open sourced” so to speak. In short, we made the content from our book browsable on our website.
A lot of other content cleanup case studies covers topics such as internal linking, anchor text, page speed etc. While these are all very important for SEO, we really wanted to stay focused on the task at hand (cleanup up our content.)
Don’t be so strict with your content audits and pruning efforts. I am really into categorizing and organizing things. If I wanted to, I could have made this project go on for months with no end in sight. In the end I put about 4-8 hours into the actual content cruft cleanup process, not including writing new content.
It is really hard to quantify results here because there were so many moving parts over several months. I was really, really happy with the end results of our content cleanup efforts. Overall, we saw a massive increase in organic traffic, which was really great. There were several other factors involved as well. For instance there were a few confirmed and unconfirmed updates during these months (interstitial, Fred, etc) so the boost we saw could definitely be due in part to those updates.
In my opinion, the bulk of our traffic increase was due to the content cleanup. After Google re-fetched our site as a whole, I truly believe our overall “quality score” improved which in turn gave us a boost in rankings. In addition to the traffic increase, I was really happy about the fact that:
Here you can see our “problem posts” on the before side, are now not even a factor in the after section. Our top performing posts are now treated as such by Google, and are bringing in the most traffic. These are also the ones that tend to generate the best leads (and attract the best links) for us as well.
What this means: the majority of our visitors are people looking to learn more about SEO, or the industry. This means more leads, more links, more social shares, etc. Our overall bounce rate is much lower as well. This can mainly be attributed to our “problem pages” not being so prominent in the search engines anymore, and our “money” pages doing much better.
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