If you’re as keen on SEO as I am, you may have noticed an interesting phenomenon. While any number of websites provide resources on engaging audiences with SEO-friendly content, the better ones are clean, clear, and easy to navigate. In short, they practice good content pruning.
“Pruning” is something you do to the plants and trees in a garden to keep them manageable, appealing, and healthy. And it’s an excellent analogy for how you can maintain the content of your website.
In this guide, I’ll fill you in on how to get started with content pruning so you can implement it as a content marketing strategy and reap the benefits.
What Is Content Pruning?
Content pruning refers to a type of content upkeep carried out on a website that targets underperforming content. It can include removing pages with low traffic or low conversion rates, those with thin or duplicate content, or posts that have become irrelevant.
During the content pruning process, you may find value in:
- Deleting a page or blog post
- Combining topically similar pages to reduce keyword cannibalization
- Deleting or combining pages with thin content
- Updating pages to include more information or up-to-date stats
Basically, you want to identify pages suffering from content decay or ones that failed to perform well in organic search.
What Is Content Decay?
Extending the garden metaphor, you can think of your content as branches and leaves. Each serves a specific purpose: taking in “sunlight” (in the form of website visitors), ferrying “nutrients” from one place to another (via helpful hyperlinks), and generally making your digital property feel well-planned, appealing, and useful.
But like those real-life branches and leaves, content also decays — which is to say that it can become less useful as the months or years pass. Maybe it becomes outdated or just isn’t as valuable to readers anymore. Maybe the search intent for the keyword you were targeting has changed. Because search engines value “freshness,” this content decay can lead to a drop in rankings over time.
Yes, you can publish new content, but what if the topic remains relevant? What should you do with the content on your site that isn’t performing as well as it should?
Well, what would a gardener do?
They’d prune those dead or underperforming branches off to allow sunlight and water to reach new growth — that’s content pruning in a nutshell.
The trick — especially for websites that publish a large volume of blogs and other content — is identifying which posts or pages should be deleted, updated, or merged.
Content Pruning Benefits
Judicious content pruning focuses visitors’ attention on your best and most relevant content while helping preserve your crawl budget. This makes for a better overall user experience, and it supports all the corollary goals around content production: more organic traffic, more shares, and higher conversion rates. It also ensures your content is quality content, thus helping you build your expertise, authority, and trustworthiness.
Content pruning allows you to improve your internal and external linking. By ensuring that your content only references and links to worthwhile and meaningful material, you’re directing your audience towards high-quality resources. This supports trustworthiness and authority, signaling to readers that your content is valuable not only in its own right but as part of a healthy ecosystem.
What Tools Do You Need to Prune Content?
To create a content pruning process, you’ll need tools to help you identify how often your pages are showing up in search, how much search engine traffic your content receives, and how many backlinks they have.
You can get most of this information from Google Analytics (GA) and Google Search Console (GSC).
You can also use paid tools like Ahrefs, Surfer SEO, and SEMrush to research keywords, identify search intent, pinpoint backlinks, and check out the competition.
How Often Should You Prune Web Content?
This is an important question, and opinions vary. Some sources say this should be a continuous process, though this approach can become overwhelming with extensive websites. If you haven’t engaged in a large-scale content prune, I recommend a comprehensive content pruning to start, followed by smaller ones on a biannual basis.
Content Pruning SEO: Identifying Underperforming Content
Ready to prune your content?
There are two approaches you can take to identify underperforming content. You can have a trusted SEO agency identify areas of opportunity through a content audit — or you can run your own content audit.
If you choose to go the latter route, you’ll find there are plenty of ways to do a content audit. I’ve outlined a simple process below that can help you get started.
Steps for Finding the Right Content to Prune
1 – Audit your content.
When pruning content, the first step is identifying the lowest-performing content on your website. While starting with the oldest content might seem like the best approach, it isn’t always. Some posts are evergreen content, meaning they continue to attract traffic regardless of age(and, more importantly, fulfill a need for your website visitors). Others posts may be newer but may feature low-quality content.
Instead, we need to gather the relevant data to set our benchmarks.
To run a content audit, you’ll need access to a web analytics tool. For this example, I’ll be using GA since it’s free.
Once you sign in to your GA account, expand the “Behavior” menu on the left-hand sidebar. Then, expand the “Site Content” menu and select “Content Drilldown.”
This will provide you with a list of your subdomains. Clicking on one of your subdomains will take you to a list of your subdirectories.
For the sake of this example, I’ll be focusing on blog content. Clicking on “/blog/” will lead to a list of all your posts organized by pageviews. Click on “Pageviews” to organize the list so that it starts with the pages with the least pageviews.
Set the time period at the top of the report so you can see metrics for the previous year and then export the data to your preferred format. I chose Google Sheets.
Once you have your data, you’ll want to clean it up by deleting any non-existing URLs. For example, when I downloaded Victorious’s data, I noticed that URLs we had already redirected showed up in the results. Since I know that old content had already been pruned, I deleted the data from my spreadsheet.
A quick note: I recommend you prune your blog first before addressing your other web pages.
2 – Pinpoint your criteria for what makes something “low-quality content.”
Now that you have the info you need, you need to set your guidelines for what qualifies a page or a blog article as being worthy of review.
The simplest metric to use is pageviews or how much traffic a particular page is getting. For instance, if a page gets 364 or fewer sessions a year—totaling less than a visit a day—that might earn it a red flag.
If you choose this metric as a way to identify posts to prune, I recommend excluding posts published in the last year, since they may still gain traction with a link-building strategy or additional content promotion. GA doesn’t provide this information, but you can cross-reference your content calendar or CMS to identify the publication date.
3 – Identify content that falls below your cut-off point.
Ready to apply your new criteria? If you’re working in Google Sheets, you can apply filters to your column headings and to focus on the URL paths of posts with less than 365 pageviews. (If you chose another number, just input that number.)
Now you have a list of posts that fall below your benchmark.
4 – Investigate content to determine next steps.
If your list is long, don’t worry! We’re going to consider additional factors that may trim it down. However, if this is the first time you’re doing a content audit, there’s a good chance there will be lots of content to review. There’s no reason to speed through this — take your time to establish a repeatable process that you’ll be able to implement in the future to address low-performing content. While it will require an investment of time now, it will save you time in the long run.
Once you have your first criteria — pageviews — you can start identifying additional metrics based on your SEO goals.
Your criteria may vary, but since link-building is such a crucial part of SEO, the second thing I’m going to look at is how many backlinks a page has earned. If it has several backlinks, I may choose to update the content rather than remove it.
If you have an ecommerce site, you might want to look at click-through rate (CTR) and set a benchmark for that as well. If you have content that doesn’t get a lot of organic traffic but has a high CTR, you may want to update the content. However, if it’s performing poorly in search and has a low CTR, pruning may be a better option.
Content Pruning or Optimization?
You have your list of content that needs to be addressed — now what?
“Content pruning” doesn’t always mean “deletion.” While some pages with low-quality or thin content aren’t worth the effort to revise, you may find it more cost-effective to optimize and update outdated content with new information, up-to-date keywords, and the latest standards for length, clarity, and style. For example, you may find that your content is not aligned with the current search intent of the keyword you’re targeting. By making your content more relevant to your target market, you can hopefully capture more organic traffic and improve your page’s performance.
Let’s say I have a page with five backlinks but only 300 pageviews. Because it’s pretty close to the 365 pageview cutoff I chose earlier, I may choose to update and optimize that page. However, if it had zero backlinks and only 10 pageviews, it would be an excellent prospect for pruning. In that case, I’d identify higher ranking content that covers a similar topic and redirect it.
Use your best judgment here. If you feel a page or a blog post fulfills an important need but is underperforming, think about whether it can be optimized to better match search intent and your customers’ needs. This may require additional keyword research as well. Also, remember to update your meta descriptions and page titles to align them with your newly optimized content.
Content optimization is a big topic in its own right. If you need a refresher, head to our post on how to optimize existing content.
Any URL you’ll no longer be using needs to be redirected. Because you’re permanently deleting pages, you’ll want to implement 301 redirects pointing to newer content that covers similar information.
Sometimes, there’s no single obvious place to redirect from a deleted page. Again, use your best judgment. If visitors expect to find a page on writing blogs that generate organic traffic, what alternate content best fills that need? By taking the visitor’s point of view, you’ll do a better job of meeting their needs and keeping them engaged.
Edit Your Sitemap If Needed
If your pruning requires eliminating pages featured on your XML sitemap and your CMS does not dynamically generate your XML sitemap, you’ll need to update it and resubmit it to Google Search Console. An XML sitemap makes it easier for search engines to find, crawl, and index pages on your website. If you don’t update your XML sitemap, you may end up wasting some of your crawl budget having search engines attempt to crawl pages that you have redirected.
Once you have your new sitemap, simply head to your GSC and click “Sitemaps” on the left-hand side. Enter your new sitemap URL in the first box and hit submit. GSC will let you know whether it was able to access your new sitemap under “Status.”
Track & Monitor Effectiveness
Of course, these efforts aren’t much good without robust self-assessment. You’ll want to integrate monitoring content performance into your content pruning process.
Make it a practice to annotate your Google Analytics (GA) whenever you prune, update, optimize or merge content. This will help you more easily identify changes in traffic patterns that may be related to your content pruning activities.
To do this, log in to your GA and then select “Overview” under the “Audience” heading.
You’ll see a line graph showing your traffic. Make sure the date of your update is included in the range at the top right.
Then click the arrow right below the line graph.
This will expand the section to show you any previous annotations and who made them. Click on “Add annotation” to create a new note. When I do this, I summarize the changes I made and the slug of the affected page so I can further monitor changes in traffic.
You should also submit the URL of your updated page for re-indexing by Google.
Log in to your GSC and find the bar to the left of the GSC name.
Paste the URL for the page or post you’ve updated in the bar. Hit enter, and the following box will appear.
Once Google is done checking its index, it will let you know whether or not it has found the URL.
Click on “Request Indexing” to ask Google to take another look at your page.
If you have merged two pages and created a 301 redirect on one, be sure to submit both pages for reindexing. Just add the second URL into the top search bar once you’ve asked for the first to be reindexed.
Getting a page reindexed can take time — which means that it may be weeks before you notice the effects of your content pruning. Keep an eye on the metrics for the pages you’ve updated. You’ll want to see whether your keyword rankings or traffic have improved for the associated pages. Also note whether session duration or your conversion rate have increased.
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