Content is fundamental for ranking on Google, but what if you have the wrong content?
I’d define “wrong content” here as content that isn’t directly or semantically related to your niche.
If you have this problem or want to find out if you do, you might need content pruning.
What is content pruning?
Content pruning is the process of strategically removing irrelevant or low-performing pages from a website to increase the website’s relevancy and authority within its niche.
Benefits of content pruning for SEO
Time and time again, Google has stressed the importance of providing high-quality content, and many algorithm updates are focused on this.
For example, Google’s helpful content system uses a sitewide classifier to generalise how helpful or unhelpful a website is.
These signals identify content with little-to-no value, and sites with a large percentage of unhelpful content may experience lower rankings, even on helpful pages.
Essentially, less is more.
By removing content that doesn’t serve a purpose and retaining pages that do, you provide Google with a clearer understanding of what your website is targeting – enhancing the website’s overall organic performance.
Your website’s site structure is also being optimised, as removing redundant and/or similar content helps eliminate keyword cannibalisation and creates a more focused and organised website.
Content pruning is also beneficial as part of a wider SEO strategy to improve both visibility and user experience, as content pruning helps website visitors access only relevant content, which can provide better engagement and UX overall.
Content audit and analysis
Before you can prune your content, you need to perform a content audit to determine what your low-quality pages are and analyse this using relevant metrics to help you make informed decisions.
Crawl your website with GA/GSC integrations
The first step in content pruning is to crawl your site.
Ideally, you want to use a crawler that provides integration with both Google Search Console and Google Analytics, such as Screaming Frog or Sitebulb, so you can get more accurate data on how your pages are performing.
With these integrations, I like to get data for the past six months, but if your website is seasonal, you might want to expand this to 12 months.
The most important metrics you need from your crawl are:
- Status code
- Indexability / Indexability Status
- Number of internal links
- Canonical URL
- Word count
- Clicks (Google Search Console)
- Impressions (Google Search Console)
- Average CTR (Google Search Console)
- Average position (Google Search Console)
- GA4 Sessions
- Referring Domains
When you’ve selected the relevant metrics, export out the crawl onto Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel.
Here you can use conditional formatting to make it easier to filter the data in an intuitive way. The specific conditional formatting depends on your perception of bad/satisfactory/good.
How to identify badly performing content
You’re going to need to classify criteria for “badly performing” content.
For some people, it might be pages that have had less than 10 clicks and 50 impressions in the past six months, whereas others might set the bar much higher.
It’s important to also look at your URLs, titles, and H1s. Are there pages that are completely irrelevant to your niche or the main keywords you want to target?
Word count, whilst not a ranking factor, can help you identify potential thin content pieces which might not be adding value. Again, you want to set criteria e.g. URLs with less than 200 words.
This analysis will differ between websites as every website is unique, and different niches might have more or less metrics to consider.
Content pruning techniques
When you’ve identified content that you want to prune, there are different techniques depending on what you find.
Some techniques are easier to implement than others, and the degree of this will also depend on your CMS and internal resources.
It’s worth noting that there is no “best way” to prune content, rather your decision should be made on a case-by-case basis.
1. Removing irrelevant content
In theory, deleting content from a website seems relatively simple, but there are things you need to be aware of.
You want to check with your crawl to identify all the instances of internal links that were pointing to that page and remove them.
Alternatively, you can add a 301 redirect of the old URL to a more relevant one.
Remember: before deleting a piece of content, you need to be sure that you aren’t able to utilise the other content pruning techniques, which I’ll explain now.
2. Updating old content
If you stumble upon old content that isn’t performing, but is still somewhat relevant to your niche or has potential for adding new information, consider updating it.
The process for this will depend on how much resource you have to update the content, but if you are able to, it’s worth doing.
There is no absolute number in terms of how many words you should add while updating content, but make sure all the information you have provided is relevant and adds value.
3. Consolidating two or more similar pieces of content
This is often a good solution when you have keyword cannibalisation, i.e. multiple pages that are so similar they compete for the same keywords.
You might find multiple pieces of content that are trying to do the same thing, with no unique angle on any particular page. In this situation, it’s a good idea to merge these content pieces into one, deleting one of the pages (ideally the one with less traffic, links, etc), and then redirecting the deleted URL to the other updated page.
I often find that this technique isn’t as commonly used as the first two, but this is why content pruning only works correctly when it’s looked at on a case-by-case basis (as mentioned previously).
Measuring the impact of content pruning
Once you have gone through the effort of pruning your content, you want to assess what the impact was on your site.
There are instances where you’ll quickly see an uplift in traffic, but again, this depends on your niche, competition, seasonality, and heaps of other factors.
Because Google’s algorithms assess websites over months, you might find that it takes a while before seeing any significant impact.
For this reason, the crawl you performed earlier provides baseline data to benchmark against.
Because the goal (usually) is to increase keyword rankings, you want to see if you start ranking better for your website’s target keywords after content pruning.
If you’ve pruned a lot of irrelevant content, you might find that you take a traffic hit initially, assuming you were ranking well and getting traffic for irrelevant keywords beforehand.
After 6-12 months, you want to run another crawl with the same integrations to see if you have any significant increases in traffic for your strong pages or the ones that have been updated or consolidated.
Remember, content pruning is and should be a continuous process that involves consistently monitoring your website’s content and avoiding complacency.
Let me know in the comments what your experience has been with content pruning, and if you need tailored advice for your website, seek help from an SEO consultant.