Content Decay plays a key role in SEO since it affects the success of your content over a prolonged time.
You may have noticed that some articles lose their edge over time and you wish you started earlier.
I will talk about the causes, the solutions and how to measure Content Decay in SEO and Content Marketing.
Many of the articles out there focus on simple use cases or methods that rarely apply for business with access to more data.
N.B. This article will get an update as all the others I will publish on this website, make sure to bookmark it for future reference!
Table of Contents
Content Decay is the loss of traffic that occurs naturally to any piece of content. There are many possible causes behind it and in this article, we will mostly talk about organic traffic.
This phenomenon is mistakenly attributed to external factors sometimes but the truth is that decay happens to everything in nature.
Decay is usually described to be cumulating over time and that’s often the case. It’s a subtle enemy that infiltrates your content and is hard to detect if you only look at site-wide metrics.
Content Decay means that your content will lose performance over time. Everything in nature degrades as time goes by.
The reasons? Multiple and it’s a 100% event. You can’t completely prevent it but you reduce its effect.
The bad thing about content decay is that it snowballs and gets much bigger.
This is what happens to many websites that are unable to do proper content management. It’s a problem that affects anyone in the world of SEO.
Some aggravating factors could be:
- Increased competition
- Different search intent(s)
- Lack of updates But even without them, decay will happen anyway.
The only difference is that these factors act as accelerators.
Your competitors may be on the move and adopt an aggressive strategy to steal your rankings. They will probably write more complete articles and send you back to the depths of SERPs.
This increase in quality makes your content decay and you need to fight back to get your rankings back.
Updating a page isn’t always the ideal solution as you may also want to think in terms of backlinks.
Search Intent Shift
If the queries a page ranks for result in different intents, your content can be deemed obsolete.
This happened to me when I was using a news article to rank for a very generic but high-volume query.
Once a certain something happened, I got kicked out of page 1 due to an intent shift. I had to adjust the page to account for this change and modify the title tag.
Lack of updates
Pages will decay sooner or later and this is even more true for English markets. Many websites hit publish and then forget about maintaining their content.
The best article can be easily defeated if you are sure no one is going to update it.
Not every query deserves freshness but you know, pages should be updated once in a while.
Solutions & How To Prevent It
I have read several questions on social media and the answers are always generic or suitable only for small websites.
What I propose isn’t complex or hard to execute, if you have the resources.
Rounds of updates
Prepare rounds of updates every X time to create a positive culture of continuous improvement. There are many alternative methods you can use at this point:
- By cluster
- By priority
Choose the former if you want to put more emphasis on specific clusters that drive traffic/revenue; choose the latter if you have specific articles in mind.
There are infinite possibilities and this is an area where I usually help clients. If your website is big, you may want to adopt a mix between the 2 and even target specific pages.
Planning in advance
Repeat with me, updates should be planned before you even publish. Your content plan should take updating into account for more serious projects.
Otherwise, you publish and then forget about optimization. This is where the SEO industry has failed for many years compared to Content Marketing.
The lack of robust and reliable content processes leads to mediocre content practices and many headaches in the future.
I don’t have numbers to quantify how many businesses struggle with content management but in my experience, all the ones I talked to.
Briefs for Updating
Ok, you know that pages should be updated but how?
This is why you need briefs or instructions on how to update pages. Your writers/editors should know what they can edit or what’s missing.
For some content formats (e.g. listicles), this is straightforward and doesn’t require much thought, you add more items.
In all the other cases, it’s recommended to prepare instructions on how to update and how much it will take.
In plain English, keep doing SEO and consider old pages too. In competitive niches, link velocity gets more important.
On-Page SEO has the most important role. Adding new chunks of content is my favorite method.
2 lines aren’t enough, I mean entire sections or rewriting the introductions. Sometimes, it’s about removing outdated bits that may be untrue.
There are many opportunities to:
Your ultimate objective is to prevent problems after you can detect and fix them.
How To Spot It
Content Decay can be spotted with your Google Search Console data, which is free.
The mainstream advice is to check which pages have lost clicks between 2 periods, let’s call them A and B.
This approach is limited and wrong if you want to dig deeper into what is actually decaying.
The picture below shows a case where there is decay but taking the difference B – A shows you growth instead. This is indeed a misleading approach!
This mainstream and simplified method doesn’t show what’s happening in the middle. As you have guessed, we do care about the entire timeframe to avoid disasters.
So, the approach I elaborated with my friend Andrea d’Agostino is as follows:
- Get pages from Google Search Console
- Draw a line for any of them
- Get the slope
- Evaluate the slope
The slope of a function is a basic concept we studied in middle/high school and works wonders for this scenario.
It’s able to capture the clicks trend, giving you an idea of what is actually decaying.
A line has the following equation:
y = mx + b
where m is the slope, such that:
- m > 0: growth
- m ≈ 0: stability/stagnation
- m < 0: decay
A sample output is shown below:
The image above shows a simple output, as each page gets its own score. In this example, the values are close to 0 because this experiment was run when the website was still new.
For this reason, it’s normal to get those values since there is no decay.
For larger websites, you can’t give your client a list with 1000+ pages and their scores.
You’d need to classify them into groups and decide what takes priority.
Get The Full Process Now!
Ready-to-use code for Content Decay and the Full Blueprint.
Content Decay plays a key role in my content auditing framework since it’s part of analyzing a website.
Assumptions & Warnings
Content Decay shouldn’t be scored without considering some warnings first.
A 2-day-old page isn’t affected by decay and the same goes for newborn pages under 6-12 months.
My recommendation is to measure decay after 1 year from publication because it’s a reasonable benchmark.
Some articles won’t rank or show their true potential before some months have passed.
Having access to the date of publishing is a powerful addition to your data analysis.
Measuring decay on a cluster basis can look promising but doesn’t really make much sense if you only have a handful of them.
A good old pivot table with the Unique Query Count may not be the ideal to show Decay.
The picture below shows an increasing trend for this website throughout 2022.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the website is growing in terms of traffic!
For this reason, I recommend the following:
- Ignore Position in Google Search Console unless you use the proper filters
- Don’t look at aggregates, score Decay by Page!
Be sure that you don’t get misled by the bigger picture! Always check what’s happening with every single pages rather than claiming “Traffic is growing overall”!
The other common issue is Seasonality. If you are selling fans you will probably notice a drop during winter and that’s NOT a form of decay.
Content Decay isn’t synonymous with seasonal trends so I’d recommend you identify and remove those pages first.
The slope is my favorite method but it’s not the only one out there.
I’ve identified two other methods to tackle decay:
The former tells you what’s the difference with the previous period and allows you to pinpoint individual changes.
The latter can be used to give more weight to the recent data, which is useful for evaluating new pages that are starting to get traction.
Small VS Big Website: Different Consequences
For big websites, you need some data work to get the priorities right. This applies to pretty much anything.
Content Decay is a problem for achieving Topical Authority. Information should be updated too, it’s not enough to cover a lot of topics!
Recall, that more quantity = more decay (often true). The content velocity hype is the #1 factor in causing decay since you are producing more than you can afford/update in the long run.
Churning more content means:
- you have to update more content
- higher maintenance costs
- easier to be attacked by competitors
- it’s tactically a terrible idea for long-term growth.
Small websites can easily play around with content decay as they have fewer pages to monitor.
Big websites are easy prey because they can’t afford to 1:1 against a small but dedicated website.
Content Decay is your natural friend when it comes to snatching traffic. Many niche or content websites have no actual strategy, if not writing more.
The ideal is to opt for a flanking tactic and have a strategy that revolves around content quality and targeting specific audiences.
Flanking means attacking one of your enemy’s weakest spots instead of going head-on.
Quality is a key aspect of winning SEO if you have actual quality. Content Decay can be used as additional pressure if your competitors publish a lot and don’t have the time to update.
Play the trench warfare and let them gradually lose traffic.
The 5 Most Common Challenges
Spotting Content Decay is easy but acting on it brings up some challenges.
I’ve spotted 5 so far and they are always the same culprits:
- Lack of in-house content team
- No budget
- Lack of processes
- No monitoring
Lack Of In-house Content Team
Not every business can afford to mass update or manage content. This is often the case for small businesses and solopreneurs.
The solution is to either hire an external party, like a content agency or to slowly build a functional content team.
The best preemptive advice is to avoid publishing what you can’t update and be moderate as you write. Overexpanding is a negative consequence of success too.
It’s impossible to work on content if the other party doesn’t have the budget or cooperate properly.
Old websites usually have 1000s of articles stacked over the year but have never implemented proper content policies.
Many of them can’t afford to update the content in one batch and if they simply change a handful of pages, there may be 0 results.
It’s important to avoid working on such cases if there is no room for salvage.
Lack Of Processes
Websites without existing processes not only face decay but have to start working on management too.
SOPs are important to ensure not only outsiders can understand your processes but also your team.
Trainees will also like reading documentation on how to get used to your website.
And what about the editors and the writers?
Content Decay is a continuous struggle, you have to monitor it over time.
Much like in healthcare, how many times do you screen yourself? It depends on several factors but I bet we all agree you do it more than once.
SEO Auditing is a necessary activity to ensure your pages don’t get eroded by decay.
Some implement changes and then forget to evaluate the situation, falling into the depths of traffic loss again.
Dashboards in Looker Studio often do the trick for simpler projects.
You find the problem and tell them to fix it… but they don’t do anything.
As explained above, it’s not your problem only, some businesses can’t afford to fix all that content.
Or they aren’t coordinated enough to work on hundreds of pages together.
The possibilities are many but I’ve found this to be one of the most common scenarios.