A common myth in the SEO industry is that you must be publishing ‘x’ amount of content on your website regularly to rank well over time. It’s true that by providing your target audience with valuable, relevant, and optimised content that answers questions and shares insight, you are likely to see increased visibility. However, the opposite effect can occur if the content being published is ill-informed, poorly structured, and lacking in purpose.
It’s important to review and take stock of the content on your site periodically to ensure it’s performing at its best and not sat going stale. Particularly with large sites that have been publishing new content for years, there are likely to be articles that no longer align with your brand, are no longer accurate in terms of their information, or content that isn’t helping your brand to achieve any certain goals.
This process is known as content pruning, and this guide aims to help you understand what the process entails including why and when it’s important to prioritise pruning over producing content.
What is content pruning?
Content pruning refers to the removal, consolidation, or re-optimisation of underperforming content across your website that offers no relevancy, value, or insight for your target audience. It involves reviewing content for a range of factors including visibility, goals, accuracy, accessibility, and more. Content pruning should not be confused with culling, as it’s not a case of simply removing vast amounts of content and being ruthless; this can do far more harm than good.
Let’s take a look at the general definition of ‘pruning’:
“trim (a tree, shrub, or bush) by cutting away dead or overgrown branches or stems, especially to encourage growth.”
The same applies to content pruning for SEO: it’s about identifying content that’s no longer serving a purpose and removing, re-optimising, or consolidating it to the benefit of ensuring higher quality content across your site, and therefore a growth in visibility long term.
Why is content pruning important for SEO?
1. Stay in line with Google algorithm updates
Google’s algorithm updates are continually emphasising the quality, accuracy, and authority of information. Alongside this, their ranking algorithms are becoming far more intuitive about what makes a piece of quality content. Long gone are the days when using scraped, keyword-heavy content was enough to rank for certain keywords.
Content pruning allows you to identify any older pieces of content that don’t align with or go against Google’s quality guidelines so you can either adapt or remove this content to improve the overall quality and authority of your website’s content. Without carrying out the pruning process, poor, scraped content or blackhat tactics that you may have once used might go unnoticed to you, but won’t be disregarded by Google and could harm your site’s visibility.
2. Better achieve certain goals
Content published across your site should align with the long-term goals of your brand. Articles and landing pages could be used to generate backlinks, convert visitors, encourage enquiries, or generate traffic and brand awareness. With sites that feature high volumes of content, there is a good chance that over time not all pages will be fit for purpose, or that not all of your pages have a purpose at all.
The goal of content pruning is to locate old or even recent content that does not align with your business goals, and then adapt, remove, noindex, or redirect it to similar, better-optimised content. It is the process of identifying the purpose of each page on your site, whether the page is optimized to accomplish that purpose and the performance of that page so far.
For example, if the purpose of a page was to generate backlinks but your digital PR campaign flopped, analyse why this might be and whether there is an opportunity for the page to be updated, further optimised, and outreached again. Another example would be a page that has too little content. The current content can be strengthened or consolidated with a page on a similar topic. You can reap huge rewards by ensuring your content is tailored to fit its purpose.
3. Locate outdated content
Naturally, over time, older pieces of content can lose relevance or become inaccurate; a process known as content decay. Content pruning involves periodically reviewing any potentially stale content like this to ensure your website is offering up-to-date, factually accurate advice, whether you decide to update the page, redirect it to a more relevant page on your site, noindex it to keep crawlers away, or delete it entirely and present a 404.
4. Identify competing content
Particularly if your brand or a website you are working on is large, such as those with extensive content libraries, internal competition can often occur. Known as content cannibalization, this occurs when multiple pages on a site compete against one another for the same keyword or keywords. In most cases, it is unintentional and goes unnoticed, but it can significantly impede the visibility and success of all competing pages. Content pruning provides an opportunity to discover instances of cannibalisation and make a plan of action for resolving it. You may decide, for example, to merge two pages on one URL with better visibility in the hopes of creating a larger, more effective, and more valuable page.
Now that we’re clear on what content pruning is and why it can be hugely beneficial and impactful for SEO, let’s get to the nitty-gritty of how to put it into action.
1. Create your dashboard
First, you’ll need to pull an array of valuable data into a spreadsheet to provide yourself with the best chance of assessing your content and making actionable recommendations. The best way to do this is to complete a crawl of your site to obtain all the necessary data using a tool like Screaming Frog. Alternatively, you can export a list of all indexed URLs from Google Search Console.
We recommend pulling a complete 12 months’ worth of data into your dashboard to ensure you have a broad picture of how your pages are performing.
Creating a dashboard with all the necessary metrics you plan to analyse can be fiddly and take some time.
Here’s a list of the data we recommend pulling into a sheet and certain tools you can use to do so:
If your site has less than 500 URLs, you can carry out a complete crawl of your site using Screaming Frog’s free SEO spider tool. From here, you can gather:
- URL list
- Metadata (alternatively, pull meta titles and descriptions into a Google Sheet using an IMPORT XML formula such as =IMPORTXML(“URL”,”//title”))
- H1s and heading structures
- Word count
- Duplicate content instances
Google’s own tools are the best places to find your data. From Analytics, you can export the following data alongside your URLs:
- Organic traffic including Organic Users or Sessions
- Bounce Rate (GA3) or Engagement Time (GA4). Using this metric, you can identify pages where users bounce off almost immediately or pages where they spend considerable amounts of time. Don’t strictly rely on these metrics though; someone may also leave a page if they have found what they were looking for quickly.
- Organic Conversions, Revenue (where applicable), and/or Goals. To prune your content, you will need to collect data that corresponds to your business model and broader goals. For example, e-commerce sites may want to track how many users go on to purchase after consuming a certain page of content, whereas other sites may be focused on how many users go on to make an enquiry or carry out another specific action on the site.
Google Search Console
Search Console is useful for reviewing which pages are indexable, as well as exporting a list of all internal and external links across the site.
Rank tracking tool
For SEO purposes, it’s also important to gain a wider picture of how your pages are ranking before you can suggest a plan of action. For this, we’d recommend using either Ahrefs, SEMRush, or another similar tool where you can export a list of URLs and their top-ranking keywords.
These tools are also useful for reviewing which pages have backlinks pointing to them and the authority of these links, as well as reviewing search intent and the varying search engine results page (SERP) features offered for certain keywords. For example, you can easily identify if a SERP has the opportunity for a Featured Snippet that your page could be better optimised for.
2. Identify your priorities
Next, you can start doing the pruning. If your site is considerably large, for example, with thousands of blogs published over the years, you will need to identify your priorities. You may want to focus on reviewing pages published before a certain year, those with little to no backlinks, or those that generate less than a certain amount of organic traffic or conversions per month. Again, this is dependent on your business and what your site is trying to achieve long term, whether that be increased visibility in a certain area or increased conversions.
3. Make a list of planned actions
You will need to have a list of potential actions in mind while you’re going through your blogs, articles, press releases, or any other forms of content you have on your site.
This stage of the process allows you to vet your older content and make a list of planned actions, whether that’s to reoptimise a page for different or more keywords, consolidate an underperforming page with a stronger page on the same topic, to leave pages alone that are performing well or aren’t designed for SEO purposes, or to simply scrap pages that aren’t ranking or generating any traffic.
Potential actions include:
- Consolidate (For example, if you identify that multiple pages on your site are competing to rank for the same keywords or find a page that is thin on content, you may want to consolidate these onto a stronger page.)
- Update (For example, if you identify that information, data, or facts used throughout your content are no longer relevant or accurate and need updating.)
- Reoptimise (For example, if your page isn’t ranking for its target keywords, it may be because it’s not matching the right search intent and would be better optimised for a different set of keywords.)
- Repurpose (For example, if you identify pages where the purpose of the page isn’t matching the search intent. This can occur when a page is too thin on content or the opposite, where users are looking for a media-heavy page such as images or an infographic alongside copy.)
- Remove (For example, if you find a page that is incredibly thin on content or entirely irrelevant and there is no opportunity for improvement. Always be careful of removing content that may potentially have value and ensure to redirect users to similar pages where possible, or present a custom and helpful 404 page.)
- Monitor (For example, if there’s a page published relatively recently that isn’t yet ranking for your target keywords, make a note to monitor it in the coming months and tweak where necessary.)
- No action (The chances are if you consistently write content to a high quality that is well-researched and optimised, a lot of your content will be performing as it is and can be left alone to age and grow in visibility over time.)
4. Measure the effects
Arguably the most important part of the content pruning process is measuring the effects. If you review a load of your content and improve it but don’t prioritise measuring the results of your efforts, this defeats the purpose entirely.
As you are working through your content, make sure everyone involved knows the status of certain pages and when new-and-improved content has been uploaded so you can track any effects of these changes in the months following. By doing this you can easily pinpoint your ROI for the time spent, whether that’s increased organic traffic, conversions, or backlinks. Of course, bear in mind that your results likely won’t be instantaneous; it can take time for Google to recrawl and subsequently rank your content accordingly.
Content pruning can be just as fruitful, if not more effective than creating new content for SEO. In addition to helping you to avoid having a website that becomes over-bloated with lower quality or repetitive content, pruning helps you to be aware of the value each page is offering and measure results accordingly.
Google is placing increasing emphasis on content quality and authority, so taking a look at what you already have, and making sure it is unique, valuable, informative, and credible, can only work to your advantage.
Questions to ask yourself when pruning your content: a checklist
Use the below checklist to ensure you’re effectively considering a range of important factors when pruning your content, or download a copy of the checklist here.
- Keyword search intent. If you have targeted keywords through your content, is the content still in line with the search intent of users? Has the search intent for those keywords changed slightly over time and if so, how can you update your content to better suit this?
- Page purpose. What is the purpose of a piece of content? Is it to inform or educate, convert, or entertain?
- Page goals. How do you plan to measure the success of a piece of content? For example, if the purpose is to convert or generate leads, you will need to make sure you have conversion tracking set up correctly. If the purpose is to entertain or generate attention, you may want to measure this through the volume of backlinks secured.
- Internal competition. Are there multiple pages across your site that are competing to rank for the same set of keywords? If so, is the best solution to consolidate these or reoptimise certain pages?
- Average time spent on page. Are users clicking onto your blog pages and leaving without any interaction? If so, what could your page be missing that your users were seeking when they searched for your target keywords?
- Accessibility. Are your pages accessible in terms of font size, font type, and colour contrasts for readability? Does your written and non-written content take into account website accessibility factors such as alt tags and clear heading structures?
- Stale or outdated content. Is your content showing signs of decay? For example, is there information provided that is no longer accurate or relevant to your business offering or goals?
- Thin or poor quality content. Are there instances where there is little to no content on the page for Google to crawl? If so, is this in line with competitors, or do these pages need building on or removing? Are there instances where content isn’t in line with your brand’s current guidelines or standards that need improving?
- Duplicate content. Is there content across the site that is too similar in purpose, keyword targeting, or wording?
- Underperforming content. Is there any content that has been published on your site long term but isn’t generating any organic traffic or ranking for keywords? If so, does the page offer value in another way or is it worth improving or removing?
Holly is a Senior SEO Account Manager with a background in content writing and linguistics. She is passionate about all things content and using it to increase visibility in search.