What is Content Decay? (& How to Fix It)


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  • Decaying content is content that has lost traffic over the previous 12 months. 
  • Content decay is a natural process that all content goes through as newer content is published.
  • Content decay is dangerous because lower traffic means less visibility, which can further hurt your rankings, ultimately causing engagement and conversions to drop.
  • To combat content decay, we recommend refreshing stale content on a regular, ongoing basis.

At this point it’s almost clichéd to say that SEO is a marathon, not a race – but something only becomes a cliché by being true. One reason you can’t sprint toward SEO success is that so much of SEO revolves around content, which should be a steady, ongoing part of your overall marketing strategy.

Many people are aware by now that successful content marketing requires that you publish high quality content with frequency and consistency. But not everyone knows that publication is not the final stop on your content’s journey. What you do with content that you’ve already published is just as – if not more – important as creating new content. That’s because all content eventually experiences what is known as content decay.

So what is content decay, why does it happen, and most importantly, what can you do about it? Keep reading to find out.

What is content decay?

The most common definition of decaying content is content that has lost organic traffic over the previous 12 months. The term “content decay” is shop talk for the natural process every piece of content goes through the longer it stays published.

The team over at Animalz breaks down the life cycle of a piece of content as:

  1. Spike phase – The post is published
  2. Trough phase – Growth seems stagnant
  3. Growth phase – Traffic increases over several months
  4. Plateau phase – Growth once again levels out
  5. Decay phase – Pageviews begin a steady decline

This means that if you notice you’re losing traffic, you’re not necessarily doing anything wrong. At the same time, it doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to fix the problem.

Why content decays

Google’s main goal is to serve up the best user experience possible. That means showing users the most trustworthy, relevant, and high-quality content available to help answer their search queries.

A piece of content can easily begin to seem outdated to search engine algorithms after a few months or years, especially since newer (and possibly better) content gets published constantly. According to Tech Jury, in March 2019, over 4.4 million blogs were published every day.

Below are a few of the primary causes of content decay:

  • Competition: Content marketing is competitive by nature. When someone snags a new position 1 ranking, it means someone else got bumped out of that spot. That could be you if your ranking content gets stale and someone else creates a piece of content with more accurate information, higher quality writing, better formatting, better backlinks, etc.
  • Technical issues: How well is your content optimized for SEO? What about your site overall? How are your page load times? How easy is it to navigate your site? Does your content contain broken links or images with large file sizes? If your technical infrastructure isn’t up to snuff, it will be hard for your content to hang on to the rankings it does win.
  • Algorithm updates: Google is always experimenting with its algorithms, and sometimes a change can hit content that was previously doing well.

How does content decay affect SEO?

In the world of SEO, success builds on previous successes. The more people click, consume, and share your content, the better it looks to Google, and so even more people click, consume, and share… But a hit to your traffic can have a similar snowball effect. As content gets stale, fewer people engage with it, communicating low value to Google and further hurting your rankings.

So what is content decay’s effect on SEO? Here’s a cheat sheet to the major dangers:

  • SERP rankings – Google prioritizes new, relevant, high-quality content. As newer, better content gets published, older content looks less relevant, and those rankings go down.
  • Traffic & conversions – Most Google searches never move beyond page 1 results, so lower rankings means less visibility. Why do we publish content in the first place? To get people to click through to it and hopefully become customers. If no one is seeing your content, you have a major problem. Low rankings means less traffic, and less traffic means fewer conversions.

The bottom line: content decay is bad for business. So what can be done about it? Luckily the solution is a lot easier than creating better content from scratch. Instead, we recommend refreshing stale content. But first, you have to track it down.

How to identify decaying content

The first step to fighting content decay is to identify content to refresh. This will mean using data analytics tools (or a combination of tools) to find content that’s lost traffic over the past year. Some tools are more comprehensive (and costly) than others.

Metrics: organic traffic and engagement

No matter what approach you use, what you’ll want to look at is metrics that reflect organic traffic and engagement.

The main metric will be pageviews, which tells you how many people actually visited the page for any amount of time, followed by time on page, which can give a hint as to how much value people are getting from your content. For example, it’s reasonable to conclude that someone who spent 8 minutes on a blog that takes about that long to read probably got more out of the content than someone who only spent 2 minutes on the page.

Below, learn more about your options for rounding up decaying content:

  • Google Analytics: Google Analytics makes it easy to track a given post year-over-year, but the drawback is it’s a very manual process. We prefer to use Google Analytics to track improvements once we’ve already found the content we want to refresh and made the updates. If using this approach, look at pageviews, time on page, and bounce rate.
  • SEMrush Position-Tracking Tool: We love SEMrush for keyword research. Part of the reason it’s so great for keywords is because of its position-tracking capabilities. Using the position-tracking tool is more efficient and less manual than Google Analytics for finding blogs, but know that SEMrush does not track on a daily basis, meaning there can be discrepancies between a page’s position in SEMrush and its actual position on the SERP that day.
  • Free and freemium tools: One simple but effective tool for finding decaying content is the one offered by Animalz, which connects to your Google Analytics and pulls any pages that have declined in traffic over the last 12 months, presenting them in a nifty chart that’s easy to navigate.

What to do about content decay: Refreshing content

Once you’ve identified decaying content, it’s time to figure out how to improve it. We almost always recommend refreshing decaying content in one or more of the following ways:

  1. Expand the text: Sometimes a blog can be improved by making it longer, especially a highly informational or technical piece of content. Check the word count on pages that are currently ranking for the keywords you’re targeting. If they’re much longer than your content, it may benefit from being expanded.
  2. Update the information: Who doesn’t love a good statistics roundup? Unfortunately, trending content of this type – along with content that focuses on predictions or tips for a specific year, timeframe, or context – can become outdated much more quickly than evergreen content. If you find a blog that’s stuffed with information from years ago that’s no longer relevant, update the content with new information and sources.
  3. Improve formatting and other SEO elements: Take a look at your page’s readability, load time, links, and images. Make sure you’re using well-written H1s and H2s (ideally including some keywords), break long paragraphs into shorter chunks or lists, fix broken links, and replace low-quality links and images. Check what SERP features come up for the page’s target keywords and whether you can optimize for one of them (e.g., a Featured Snippet or Quick Answer).
  4. Target new keywords: What are the keywords the content originally targeted and what is it ranking for now (if anything)? Are there any keywords within striking distance that you could add and hopefully gain a new page 1 ranking?
  5. Re-promote the content: Giving an old piece of content a new round of promotion on your social media channels can do a lot, even if you haven’t made many (or any) changes to the content.

It’s not unusual to use several of the above strategies on the same piece of content.

Two examples from RMG clients

To drive home our point, let’s take a look at the data on some content we recently refreshed for two of our clients.

1. Pageviews up over 100% after expanding content and targeting new keywords

In 2020, we refreshed six blog articles for a client in the medical field. We were pleased to see an average increase of 163% for pageviews and 7% for bounce rate, though we did see a slight drop in time spent on page.

The screenshot above shows the blog that saw the most improvement. The orange line in the graph shows pageviews before the refresh, while the blue line shows traffic from the date the blog was updated in the CMS onward. As you can see, pageviews went up nearly 400%.

How did we do it? For this piece of content, we added new internal links, expanded the blog to include a new conclusion and improved CTA, cleaned up the formatting and grammar, and even added some striking distance keywords.

Though traffic dipped back down a little toward the end of the year, this is another blog where we saw a big jump in organic traffic after a refresh: nearly 300%. We also saw a modest jump in time on page. For this blog, we targeted new keywords based on updated keyword research, and we added new sections to include those keywords and make the piece a little more comprehensive.

Since multiple strategies were used in both cases, it’s impossible to know what exactly drove the increases for either of these blogs. That’s why we try to cover all of our bases with any content we refresh, using the list of tactics above as a starting point.

2. Pageviews and time on page up for legal blogs

Last year, we also refreshed eight blogs and resource pages for a client in the legal field. On average, pageviews increased 38%, and average time on page increased 6%. We did not see a noticeable improvement in bounce rate.

As you can see, the average increase in pageviews for this client was much less dramatic than that of client 1. The screenshot above shows one piece of content that actually performed worse after we made adjustments.

If you take any lesson from this, it’s that content refreshes don’t always work – at least not right away – and it can require lots of tinkering to get it right. That’s because with SEO, you’re aiming at a moving target. You’re not the only one making adjustments – so are all your competitors, and so is Google. Often, you’ll find yourself refreshing the same piece of content several times over the months or years.

This doesn’t mean you’re failing! Refreshing content should be an ongoing project, because the content ecosystem is constantly evolving. That’s why it’s so important to have a team dedicated to monitoring your content once it’s gone live.

Don’t have the bandwidth? Don’t worry – we do

So much goes into content marketing even before anyone ever hits “publish” – so we understand how overwhelming it can seem to have to worry about content you’ve already pushed out on top of your regular publishing schedule. Luckily, the team at RMG lives and breathes content monitoring. If you have questions about how to combat content decay by refreshing your stale content, we’d love to help out – just ask!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephanie was an SEO content writer before transitioning to a management role. As the co-founder and Head of Content at RMG, she oversees everything from the development of content strategies and content creation to day-to-day office operations. She graduated from Cal Poly Pomona with a degree in Journalism, and enjoys showing clients the power and versatility of content.
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