Why you should think twice before deleting content

So you’ve got loads of out-of-date content – why not just junk it? Not so fast, says Jonjo Maudsley.

One of the questions we’re commonly asked – especially by clients who have to oversee big, sprawling websites – is whether they should delete old content.

They’ll typically ask us things like:

  • how far back should we look – one,  three, maybe 10 years?
  • should we prioritise deleting content with lower pageviews?
  • should we implement a system to delete content about news and events as soon as it becomes out of date?

But my response to all these questions is usually the same…

Don’t delete anything unless there’s absolutely no reason to save it.

There are cases, of course, where content has to be deleted for strictly business reasons. For instance, if…

  • you have discontinued a product or service and need to remove any content promoting it
  • the company has changed direction and legacy content is now deemed off-brand
  • your content is facing legal or compliance ramifications

Otherwise, content is rarely so thin, so useless, so spammy or so awful that it can absolutely be deleted without mercy. Here’s why I recommend doing everything you can to save it – and how to go about doing that…

Reason 1: You don’t know the ‘dark value’ of your content

When it comes to understanding how valuable a piece of content is to your bottom line, there’s no way to ever really know.

While you can see pageviews, traffic sources and backlinks in Google Analytics and other tools, it’s impossible to know about traffic and impressions from ‘dark’ sources.

Consider, for instance, how many people have bookmarked your page, or linked to it offline (e.g. in presentations, on local intranets, in emails, in printed materials and so on).

And here are some other not-altogether-unlikely scenarios:

  • the page may be an essential asset for authors, students, teachers or businesspeople who have linked to it in their offline publications and presentations
  • it may be an essential bookmark for one of your customers, especially if it contains information relevant to your products or services – they may only use the bookmark once a year, but that single use could drive value directly to your business
  • your page may have attracted a number of nofollow links which, while only passing on minimal SEO value, may be sending a considerable amount of traffic to your site

By deleting content from your website, you may inadvertently disrupt a much wider ecosystem of content built around it.

And that’s not all…

Reason 2: You may lose SEO value

One of the biggest risks you face when removing content is the loss of backlinks (links from other sites into your site).

Backlinks are the biggest driver of SEO value to your website. If you are removing a page that has several backlinks pointing to it, you stand to potentially lose all of this link value. This can seriously impact the SEO strength of your whole website.

You can mitigate the damage in two ways:

  • Create a 410 error for the URL you are retiring. This sends a message to Google that the page was intentionally removed, as opposed to the 404 “Not found” error, which only says that the page is not in its usual place
  • Establish a 301 redirect that directs users and search engines who land on the page’s URL to a different one – either a similar piece of content, or the higher-level category page

By implementing both of these steps correctly, any backlink that had been acquired by the page will continue to drive value to the domain.

However, John Mueller of Google confirmed in 2017 that even with a 301 redirect, you will not be able to keep 100% of the original backlink value, unless the new page closely matches the content of the previous page.

And of course, you will stand to lose SEO value in other ways too. The loss of signals such as click-throughs from Google search, keywords contained in meta data, total indexable pages and so on could negatively affect your site’s overall performance.

So, if SEO is a big consideration for your website (and it usually is) and you’re sure the page(s) you’re removing are big drivers of SEO value, you may want to consider whether a more suitable alternative would be to keep and archive those pages, or refresh the content.

Reason 3: Old content isn’t necessarily bad content

Like a beautiful antique or a bottle of fine wine, some content can age surprisingly well.

Many websites have pieces of content three, five or even over 10 years old that still drive high traffic and engagement. I’ve seen brands who are still generating leads and conversions from assets they created in the noughties.

The question is not whether the content still looks good. It’s about the substance. Are the points it makes still relevant today? Is the data still useful? Is it still a valuable resource? Does it offer content that hasn’t really been improved upon by anyone since?

And even if it’s not useful in a contemporary sense, can it at least act as a good historical source?

For all of these reasons, then, a better alternative to deleting old content is to either archive it or refresh it…

Archiving content

When archiving, you should look to direct traffic away from the page internally.

This means you should avoid changing the URL, as this will negatively affect the page’s SEO value and may cause external links to point to the wrong place. Instead, simply remove links to the content from your main site navigation menu or content hub.

You could also take a leaf out of The Guardian’s book by including a message on the page reminding visitors that this content is old. This will ensure that readers are aware that the data and editorial they are reading is historic rather than current.

Refreshing content

If, however, you feel that the content could still generate value by reflecting more up-to-date data and opinions, another option – and in my opinion, the best course of action in 90% of cases – is to refresh the content.

The methodology speaks for itself. Simply comb through the content and rewrite sections that use out-of-data data. You may also like to take the opportunity to update the SEO meta data in the page title and H tags, and refresh any internal and external links, especially if they point to content that has also been revised or removed.

Updating content is always my go-to solution. Why? Because updating content not only saves you from the headache of having to 301-redirect and 410 pages, it can actually generate positive SEO signals that help both the page and the rest of your site rank higher in search.

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