What Should You Do With Old Content? Part 2 Of 3

December 9, 2014

Options for Dealing with Old Content

This post is part of series on how to handle old and outdated content. Part 1 focused on your internal resources and the reasons you may want to update old content. Part 2 focuses on the 6 types of potential options you have for how to update old content, and Part 3 will help you make the right decisions.

As you identify problem pages, whether they’re outdated, incorrect, or no longer relevant, you can also start thinking about the best way to fix these pages.

1. Do nothing

This may be the thing to do if old content performs well, is not outdated or poor quality, is not a drag on authority, and time and resources are at a premium.

2. 404

HTTP status code 404, aka the “Page Not Found” error, is what users will get if you remove the page and don’t redirect the URL. 404s are bad for SEO because they reduce link equity. 404s are also bad for user experience (UX), more often than not.

However they can occasionally improve UX if the content is totally expired and more likely to confuse and tick off users than an error page.

Tip 1: To help UX, have a nice custom 404 page.

Tip 2. Track 404s in Google Analytics and in Google Webmaster Tools or server logs.

Summary: It’s rare that letting a page have a 404 error is the right call.  That said, if you need a quick “fix”- especially if the page gets very few pageviews – deleting pages may be OK if the content is outdated, totally useless, and lacks a relevant, more useful page (where it can be redirected – see below.)

3. 301 redirect

With a permanent redirect, HTTP status code 301, you sends users to a new URL when they try to get to the old one. The permanent redirect is SEO-superior to the other redirects like the temporary (302) redirect, as it passes most of the link equity to the target page and allows search engines to update their index. 301s also pass relevancy signals to the target page.

301 redirects do reduce net relevance (since some content is removed and link signals are dampened) but may improve relevance of target page if the redirected page was relevant to the target.

Tip 1: Avoid unhelpful blanket redirects of a ton of URLs to single page like the main blog page or a home page when they should go to several specific URLs.

Such redirects are no better than 404s for UX (worse, in my opinion). They are frowned upon by Google, which is getting better at giving unhelpful redirects the SEO benefit (or lack thereof) they deserve; consider their rally against “faulty redirects” for mobile. Blanket 301s are yesterday’s SEO tactic – good SEOs just don’t do it anymore, but bad SEOs still love ’em.

Tip 2: Avoid redirects that make the user ask “WTF?”

One sloppy redirect is a long chain of redirects that slow down page load time (especially bad for mobile). Other sloppy redirects include the redirect loop, accidentally redirecting the wrong URL, and accidentally redirecting tothe wrong URL. Such issues are common with large, complicated webs of redirects and can be caused not only by carelessness, but also by ignorance or confusion of the technical implementation setup.

Tip 3: Tell users what is happening (when appropriate).

Some open communication to redirects can improve UX. For example, you could add a note explaining which old posts (on a blog) or which discontinued products (on an ecommerce site) have been redirected to another page, and why.

Tip 4: If you’re confused at this point, here’s a friendly guide on redirects and some info on technical specifics.

Summary:  301 redirects have long been a favorite weapon of SEOs as they are a way to pass link juice from an old page that isn’t taking advantage of it to a page that needs and deserves that link juice. However, don’t use 301s carelessly. Only use redirects when it actually improves the user-experience, for example when you can say “hey I have a much better post on this exact topic”.  Only use redirects if you will commit to doing them right.

4. Archiving

Archiving is a means of downgrading content. Archiving is like moving your merchandise into the back room – yes, people can still look at it if they want, but you’re giving the other stuff room to catch eyes, and people don’t expect things to look pretty in the back room.

At its simplest, archived content is just moved to a less visible section. However, you can implement archiving to fit your needs.

When you archive content, you remove some internal links. You can “de-feature” category pages, remove some or all navigation links like menus and category pages, and scrub out internal contextual links. You can make them complete orphan pages if you want.

If users would be otherwise confused, you should also communicate that the content is old and archived . You apply a simple “archives” label; or you can slap on labels that say things like “this article may have outdated content or subject matter”,  or “this feature is no longer supported.”

Tip 1: Feel free to cross-sell and point users in another direction with internal links or messages at the top of archived pages to fresh, related content.

Tip 2: Reduce Sitemap Priority. 

If you want to free up crawl budget, you can give archived content lower sitemap priority ratings or remove them from sitemaps; you can even redirect them to an archives subdirectory and block that subdirectory in the robots.txt file.

Tip 3: You can use different levels or sections of archiving for different content segments with various labels, messages, cross-selling, internal linking settings, or comment handling settings. Don’t forget there are many ways to archive.

Tip 4: Be wary of unintentionally archiving content before it has peaked. 

For example, say you blog every weekday and your blog’s settings automatically feature the newest five articles only on the main pages and in sidebar links – you basically give all articles good internal links and visibility for a week and then cut them off. Does it make sense for you to effectively auto-archive every single article older than a week?

It certainly doesn’t make sense for articles with high SEO potential. Those often take a few weeks to get rolling. You may consider more sensible internal-linking strategies. For many bloggers, this tip would be one of the very best pieces of low-hanging fruit.

Summary: Archiving can be a quick, scalable way to improve UX and to reduce the siphoning of internal link juice and visibility from other content. Most news sites are a classic example of archiving – they simply bury old content and replace it with new content people want to see (special UX steps generally need not taken since people expect old news to not be relevant).

Note that archiving hurts the archived pages and helps the other pages, so make sure your CMS settings make sense for your contents’ life cycle. You can also use archives as “content purgatory” – where expired content sits until it gets reviewed and sent to a better place.

5. Updating

Updating is what it sounds like.  It can take the form of correcting pieces of outdated information, totally refreshing and republishing articles

Tip 1: See this great article on republishing old posts.

Tip 2: Always look for ways to make updating less time consuming; there are many. Incorporate updates into your process, and try to make your CMS work with you, not against you.

Tip 3: Consider crowd-sourcing updates. Ask users to let you know when something needs to be updated. Giving helpful users nice hat-tips may increase the frequency and quality of suggestions. Also, consider alternate crowd-sourced methods of keeping it fresh: think Wikipedia, Crowdsource.com, fan forums, incentivizing users, etc…

Summary: Consider an update if the topic is still relevant, some of the content is still relevant, or the content has a lot of potential to be a good performer. Just pick your battles – updating can take a lot of time, so use data-driven analysis to prioritize your opportunities. We’ve had a ton of success using research to find big update opportunities for our clients to really focus on.

6. Consolidate (combo redirect/update)

Often, an old post has some unique helpful content, but there is a new post (or a new post that should be made) on that topic. In that case, consider consolidating the articles by updating the new article with the stuff from the old and then redirecting the old to the new.

For tips on consolidating content, just combine the tips given for redirects and updates.

Summary: This is a great technique to get killer traffic numbers – you take a few cool pages and combine them into a Voltron of Content Awesomeness. For example, we used the consolidation technique on this article on Google Webmaster Tools, which is our second-most viewed article published in 2014, due to strong organic traffic.

The consolidation method is particularly attractive when you know there’s high organic traffic potential: keyword research indicates high volume keywords, previous articles on the topic have done well, and you need some more link juice and longer-form content.

Consolidation takes a lot of manual work; but you should fight labor costs (preferably with a blazing sword) by incorporating consolidation into the content creation process.  If you’re really smart about it, you can actually cut down on overall content creation workload.

Which one is best?

While there are many options, which one is best for you may vary by individual page. Check out Part 3, our conclusion of the series, which goes into different ways to make that decision!


Voltron of Content Awesomeness