Content decay can be a silent killer for organic performance, slowly eroding your gains and making it harder to maintain your growth rate in organic traffic and revenue.
If left unchecked, it can eventually reach a point where your total organic traffic is declining, no matter how much new content you create.
This sounds ominous, I know, but there’s good news too.
Once you understand what content decay is, how to identify it, and how to fix it, it can actually become a really exciting and effective part of your SEO content strategy.
Table of Contents
Content decay is a term that describes an ongoing decline in organic traffic and rankings for one or more blog posts.
The use of the word ‘decay’ in this phrase is an important detail because it is describing the way the decline happens. It is not a sudden drop. It is a slow and gradual decline that can go unnoticed for long periods of time, resulting in compounding losses.
To better understand this, we can look at the stages of the content life cycle.
When you have studied the performance of individual blog posts long enough, and at scale, a pattern emerges. A piece of content will often follow a similar life cycle that has a big impact on how your content performs, especially as you get to hundreds or even thousands of blog posts on your site.
When you publish new content on your site or blog, it will take some time for it to start to rank and drive organic traffic. There are a number of factors that play into how long that period lasts, but in general, it is common for performance to ramp up over time.
Newer content is indexed by the search engines and then the algorithms will get an initial understanding of how your blog post stacks up, fits search intent, and more. You may notice a few mini spikes in traffic here and there for the first week or two as the content is crawled and analyzed. From there, if it is optimized and competitive, it will begin to build some consistency and start to create some early traction.
If you have a solid audience built up on your social media channels and a good newsletter list, you may see a nice spike in total traffic, but that will not last long and then it is back to reality with the slowly building organic traffic.
The growth phase is fairly straightforward. As your content gains more backlinks and begins to rank higher and for more queries, the organic traffic to the post will continue to grow.
Again, every post and topic is different in terms of how fast the growth happens and for how long.
The peak stage is when the growth starts to taper off because of one of several reasons:
The peak stage is also very dynamic. For some URLs, it may only remain at the peak for days or weeks before moving into the decay stage, or it may plateau at the peak and stay that way for months. Not growing, but also not yet decaying.
As older content becomes less relevant, less fresh, and/or less competitive in the SERP, it will move out of the peak/plateau stage and begin to decay.
And as mentioned earlier, it may not necessarily be “old content” per se. If it is a competitive topic, the life cycle is shortened and it will typically reach the decay stage much sooner.
So now that you understand what content decay is and where it fits into the content life cycle, let’s dig in to the different causes of content decay.
One of the things that makes content decay challenging to prevent and/or fix is that it happens for a number of reasons. The most common causes for content decay that we see regularly are freshness, internal competition, external competition, a shift in search intent, and topical depth.
Search engine algorithms prioritize fresh content.
Think about it. How often do you see results in the SERP that are from 2004?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with content that was originally published more than a decade ago, but the “freshness” of the content comes down to how well it has been updated to stay relevant and optimized to keep the content aligned with the intent of the keyword phrases searched.
As you can see, even content that is only 2 years old is a stretch in this SERP.
Internal competition refers to a situation where there are multiple URLs on your website that are all roughly covering the same topic and therefore, competing with one another for rankings.
This makes it harder for the search engines to determine the right URL to feature and leads to suppressed performance for all of the conflicting URLs.
This is also not limited to blog posts competing with other blog posts. In many cases, you will have blog posts competing with other blog posts, category pages, glossary pages, product/feature pages, and more.
Internal competition can be sneaky because it happens over time and is easier to go undetected than external competition.
External competition is probably the cause of content decay that is most easily understood by marketers and non-marketers alike.
SEO is competitive and continues to get more competitive over time. With many different websites vying for rankings and traffic on the same topic, it is easy to see how you may lose ground to competitors.
Many factors come into play when determining why competitor sites are causing your content performance to decay, but the main ones include their brand/authority, volume of backlinks to the URL, and how well they are aligned with search intent.
Search intent is a fancy way of saying ‘what the person searching was hoping to find by searching that keyword phrase’ and it is often evolving.
Google is constantly evaluating how users interact with the results served for any query as a signal to understand their intent. As the word changes, so does search intent.
For example, someone searching ‘electric cars’ in 2001 was likely looking for information or educational research on what they are, how they work, etc. Now, 20 years later in 2021, someone typing in that same query is likely in the process of researching electric cars with the intent to buy.
Similar to how search intent can shift, so can aspects of a particular topic. As a topic evolves, your content may slowly become less of an in-depth resource on the topic, causing the performance to decline.
The most obvious place to focus on the impacts of content decay is organic traffic, but it isn’t just the traffic that suffers. The decaying content can and most likely will suffer a decline in search visibility, CTR drops, fewer business outcomes like leads or revenue, and fewer backlinks.
As the content begins to decay, the number of keywords a post ranks for will decrease and your overall visibility will decline. Remember, blog posts don’t just rank for the target keyword, they most often rank for dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of keywords.
Many studies exist that have proven the highest ranking results in search get the highest click through rate. As your content decay causes your blog post to start to fall in the SERPs, your click through rate will ultimately decline, causing you to get less and less of the search traffic available.
When your content is decaying, it typically means that it is no longer one of the best, most relevant results. That means that if those searching click on your result but don’t find what they want/need, they will leave without going deeper into your site, which makes it hard to get any sort of real business results from visitors who don’t stay on your site.
As your content decays, it affects your ability to gain and retain backlinks. Whether from the content being outdated or not aligned with search intent, the quality of the content has declined, losing the appeal for people to link to your content organically. And in some cases, when your content is very out of date, you may lose backlinks as site owners remove the link to your content because it is now a poor experience to send their visitors to your content.
You may think that this should be easy. Just log into analytics and find the content that has lost the most traffic, which can happen, but it isn’t always so cut and dry and there is a lot of opportunity in the less obvious.
Every post is different and in some cases there may even been strong seasonality, so knowing where to look and what to look for will be critical in identifying content decay on your site.
We typically recommend using at least 2 of the following 3 data sources to identify your decaying content since each one paints a slightly different picture.
Google Analytics can be a great way to identify and analyze content decay because it can be contextualized with conversions. There are a number of different ways to pull the reports that include organic traffic & blog landing pages.
From there, you can look over a longer period of time to see the decline or compare two different date ranges to find the URLs with the greatest amount of decline in traffic.
Search Console will provide you with the most robust data on organic search performance, allowing you to see performance by URL, but also going a level deeper to understand the queries matching to each URL and how each performs.
In Search Console, go to the Performance tab, select a time range or select two date ranges to compare. From there, you can view both Queries and Pages data to find the URLs where decay has occurred.
SEO tools like Ahrefs and SEMrush can help you identify URLs that have experienced decay, but those findings should always be corroborated with data with at least one of the other platforms. These tools have pretty good methods for estimating performance but at the end of the day, it is just an estimate and not actual data.
In Ahrefs, you can enter the blog URL prefix and then use the Top Pages 2.0 report to see performance from two different time periods and quickly spot posts with decay in traffic and the number of keywords.
At the single URL level, there are a number of ways to spot existing decay as well as the early signs of content that is about to move out of the peak stage and into decay.
The first is the content that has seen a steady and sustained decline in traffic. If you are looking back at least six months, you should be able to spot the pattern of less traffic pretty easily.
In URLs that have less volume, it may be harder to spot the decline with a trendline. In the cases where it is hard to visualize the downward trend, it can be helpful to compare two date ranges to each other to roll up and quantify the impact.
The interesting thing about plateaued traffic as a type of decayed content is that it is less obvious. It is easy to see the performance and think, “cool, this post drives x amount of traffic each month.” However, what you can’t see is that most often the post is missing out on more traffic and potentially continued growth.
As we noted before, the plateau can happen for a number of reasons. If the traffic has plateaued because you are hitting the natural limits of the topic and there isn’t more to capture, that’s a different story, but most of the time a plateau represents some level of uncaptured potential.
In some cases, you may find that clicks/traffic are consistent or still growing but the impressions and number of keywords that the content ranks for are starting to decline.
This is usually a good leading indicator of content decay. It is typically the case that you still rank well for the core terms in the topic but some of the additional terms are starting to lose ranking and you aren’t getting the impressions.
The reason this can potentially matter is that it can be a signal that your topical depth is no longer sufficient or the search intent is starting to shift on the topic. Even if you are able to hold on to the majority of the core performance for a while, these should at the very least be put on some sort of watch list because change is happening and it will likely become a factor in the near future.
Even if you rank #1 for every single keyword that is relevant to the topic of a blog post, you could still technically see content decay if your click through rate is declining.
Search engines are constantly testing nuances of the design of the SERPs, which could impact your CTR. Or, maybe a competitor ranks below you but has a much more compelling title tag that is stealing clicks, even if they don’t outrank you.
Look for content that has seen a decline in CTR and then try to understand if that is from a drop in rankings or some other factor to know how to address it.
Now that you have identified content on your site that is experiencing decay or may potentially begin to decay very soon, you can think about how to address the issues.
Here are the five most effective content optimization tactics to incorporate into your SEO strategy to fix your decaying content and renew the content life cycle for better organic performance.
If your existing content is good but lacks topical depth, you can expand on the existing content to better cover all aspects of the topic and create a better resource for visitors. It might require an extra 200 words or maybe 2000.
Search for your core topic in Google and review the content of the sites that are ranking on the first page. Take note of the aspects of the topic that they cover but you don’t. Do some additional keyword research on those aspects and create a game plan for how to expand your content.
Keep in mind, if you are still ranking in the top 3, this doesn’t mean you don’t look at sites ranking below you because there is a good chance they are gaining ground on you and this process can help you uncover why.
Sometimes, a content refresh will entail modernizing the references, screenshots, statistics, and anything else that can feel dated.
Other times, content refreshes will entail restructuring the content, adding more/better headers, removing content, adding content, and more. The update can feel pretty lightweight or like a total overhaul and it all depends on how out of line it is from the content currently holding spots on the first page of Google. Updated content also presents an opportunity to re-promote the post on social media or include it in your marketing automation campaigns.
In the cases where you have internal competition or a number of small content pieces that aren’t even ranking, it may be a good opportunity to consolidate your content and pull everything together into one significant piece of content.
There is some nuance as to whether you keep one piece as the main one and consolidate others into it or create a new one from scratch, taking from the existing content, and consolidate everything into the new piece.
An important aspect of content consolidation is setting up the correct 301 redirects from the old URLs to the new primary URL. This helps the search engines to see that you have moved the content and have multiple places that are now all redirecting to the main post, which shows that you intend for the main post to be the one they care about and index.
In some cases, you will review the existing content and think, “oh man, we only have a few sentences on this part but it could totally be its own topic.” That is usually a great way to identify one or more new content ideas from the content that you already have.
In terms of how it addresses decay, this is a situation where you were likely getting some impressions and rankings for that topic at one point because you mentioned it, but now that others are covering it more fully, you are slipping in the SERPs and it doesn’t make sense to try to cover the topic fully inside of the existing content.
By creating the new content, you take the part that was decaying and give it a brand new place to achieve topical depth and recapture the decay PLUS much more growth through new keywords in that topic.
There are some cases where the content is still great, in-depth, up-to-date, and aligned with search intent, it just doesn’t have as many backlinks as some of the others competing in that SERP. Or, you are missing opportunities to point more internal links to that content from pages and posts that have been created since it was first published.
In this case, you may not have to do anything with the content itself, but can focus on creating some link building campaigns to generate backlinks to the content or build internal links.
The challenges surrounding decaying content are not just limited to what happens in the SERPs. The processes your team follows, the expectations of your company, and the skill sets on your team (or not on your team) all compound the challenges of declining blog post performance.
We see a lot of companies that have all of their process and content marketing strategy built around creating 100% new content. Sometimes it is intentional, sometimes it is habit, and other times it is due to expectations of company leadership.
Being able to consistently address content decay and benefit from fixing it, companies need to shift their entire process and expectations to operate in a strategy that balances new content with updating old content, because it will keep happening.
Content decay is not something that happens one time and as long as you fix it, you are good. The content stays on that same life cycle we shared and it will decay again.
In some cases where the topic is highly competitive, content can begin to decay in as little as 30-45 days. We have also been a part of updating some high impact blog posts that drove 100k visits and $3k in new MRR every month, but it required updates or modifications every ~60 days to prevent that from declining.
When you get to the point where you have hundreds or thousands of blog posts, this can become a significant operation.
As we walked through, it isn’t very hard to find individual blog posts or pages that have decayed in Google Analytics and/or Google Search Console. That should be well within reach of anyone with a basic understanding of those tools.
However, knowing how to diagnose why the content has decayed and then determine the right solution on a case-by-case basis requires a deeper understanding and more experience.
A lot of people can talk about refreshing content and SEO content at a high level, but there are far fewer that have actually done it consistently, at scale, with a proven track record. Not to mention, those folks are typically much more expensive and already in good roles, so for 99% of companies, this is a skill set that’s difficult to acquire.
Content decay is a real problem that affects every website with content, whether they realize it or not.
If you are unsure of the extent of decay impacting your performance or have identified it but don’t know how to address it, we’d love to chat with you.