Content Decay: How to Identify and Fix Decaying Content

While trying to scale your SEO content efforts, it’s natural to get lost in the cycle of ideating, creating, and optimizing new content, consequently forgetting existing, well-performing pieces on your website. 

When that happens consistently, content decay can set in and slowly erode your gains on those high-performers, making it difficult to sustain your organic traffic and rankings. 

Left unchecked, it can take a toll on your entire content marketing strategy. It sounds terrifying, yes, because content decay is a slow, silent killer that’s almost unavoidable.

But, the good news is it can be fixed and its effects reversed. This post will detail the reasons content decay happens and how you can reclaim your lost traffic by breathing new life into decayed content. 

What is Content Decay?

Content decay is a steady decline in the organic traffic and ranking of a piece of content over a period of time. It’s not the sharp drop-off in clicks, impressions, or traffic you see from time to time. Instead, it’s a continuous downward spiral that happens in the background.

Unfortunately, every content asset in the digital world has a lifespan and will decay at some point, no matter how great it is.

Content marketing agency Animalz, in a 2018 study, outlines the five phases every successful piece of content goes through. They call it the content lifecycle, and it includes –

  1. The spike phase, where there’s an initial surge in traffic after the post is first published and promoted.
  2. The trough phase, where that initial spike drops off, and growth looks stagnant.
  3. The growth phase, where traffic picks up again and pageviews grow over time.
  4. The plateau phase, where the growth stabilizes, is not growing but also not decaying yet.
  5. The decline phase where traffic takes a downturn and begins to drop off slowly.
The content lifecycle according to Animalz, Source:

While some content will have a longer lifespan than others, every post will eventually plateau. The plateau happens when the content has maxed out its potential due to quality, search volume, or relevancy. At that point, failure to take steps to keep it in the plateau phase for as long as possible will lead to decay.

When multiple pieces of content start decaying and are left unaddressed, it can result in compounding losses where your cumulative traffic growth slows down significantly, no matter how much new content you produce.

What Causes Content Decay?

Content decay is a natural occurrence, and several factors (some of which are outside your control) contribute to it. However, recognizing these factors is the first step towards counteracting the decay and preserving your SEO traffic.

Here are some reasons content decay happens.

1. Content freshness: 

It is a known fact that Google prefers fresh content to older ones. The search engine believes new content contains updated information, which is more helpful to the reader. So, as competitors publish new and better content, theirs may usurp your aged one, resulting in reduced traffic to your page.

2. Search intent shift: 

As the world evolves, so do the behavior, interests, and expectations of searchers. Therefore, content that once resonated may now miss the mark because the search intent has changed. If this happens, it’ll reduce rankings or clicks on the affected page.  

3. Algorithm changes: 

Though constantly in a state of flux, search engine algorithms determine how content is shown and ranked on the SERPs. Each update brings changes and fluctuations in the search landscape, which can result in a decline for some pages. 

For instance, a recent analysis from performance marketing agency Amsive shows that entertainment and news sites saw a decline in visibility following Google’s August 2023 Core Update. This is no fault of the website; it’s the ever-evolving nature of the algorithm to improve user experience.

4. Content cannibalization: 

Also known as internal competition, it is one of the most common reasons why content decays.  Cannibalization happens when multiple articles or pages on your website cover the same topic and compete for the same keywords. This can cause confusion on the SERPs, lower your rankings, and decrease visibility for all conflicting pages. 

5. Topical interest decline:

Time-sensitive content, AKA content that covers current events and trends doesn’t last for long. They are only relevant for a given period and fade as time passes or interest shifts. This results in fewer searches and low traffic.

For example, articles about Covid 19 or the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar are no longer popular in 2023. And even though they may still get some traffic, they’re in the decay phase, and it’ll only worsen with time. Look at the interest over time for Covid 19 on Google Trends. From the graph below, you can see it peaked in May 2020 but declined ever since. 

 Google Trends graph showing interest over time for Covid 19

If you write these types of articles, check the popularity of your topic regularly with Google Trends. If the popularity is declining, it’s an indication your content is likely decaying.

How Decaying Content Affects Your Website and SEO

The obvious consequence of content decay is reduced ranking and traffic. But in addition to those, content decay also leads to:

1. Poor user experience: 

Like Google, searchers expect fresh, up-to-date information from your website. If they come across outdated content, it erodes trust, detracts from your reputation, and frustrates their journey. Poor user experience also leads to high bounce rates and decreased engagement. All these signal to Google that your content is inadequate and doesn’t deserve to rank. 

2. Decline in conversion rates: 

As your visibility and rankings decline, so will your conversion. Searchers are less likely to take up your offer if they can’t find your content or if it fails to satisfy their interests. Low conversion rates ultimately impact general business outcomes.

The reason for this is apparent: fresh, high-performing content attracts backlinks. Once it becomes outdated, loses appeal, and no longer satisfies search intent, webmasters may remove the link to your content to avoid sending their audience to a site with poor experience. And as you know, backlinks are important for ranking.

How to Identify Decaying Content

Content decay usually goes unnoticed because it happens slowly. As you focus on creating new content, those new pieces cover up the traffic loss, making the decay difficult to notice. 

Identifying decaying content requires a proper investigation of your content library. If done regularly, you can catch potential decay candidates when they’re still in the plateau phase. 

To investigate, you’ll need a tool that tracks content performance over time. 

Tools for identifying content decay

  1. Google Analytics (GA) and Google Search Console (GSC): 

Analytics tools provide the most accurate data on content performance since they track directly from different sources. On either GA or GSC, analyze the organic traffic to different articles for a given period or compare two date ranges to determine whether traffic is improving, plateauing, or decaying. In addition to traffic, look out for pages with declining CTR and impressions. In many cases, they’re good indicators of decay due to topical depth, search intent shift, or fresh, better content from competitors.

On GSC, you can even analyze the queries for different articles to get a full picture of how you’re performing. The only downside is that it is a manual process and can take a lot of time if done regularly. 

  1. Semrush/Ahrefs:

SEO tools like Semrush and Ahrefs can track position changes on the SERPs to help you know when your pages are starting to decay. However, keep in mind that these third-party tools only make estimates. They do not have actual data, so endeavor to corroborate their reports.

Six Ways to Handle Content Decay and Win Back Your SEO Traffic

Once you’ve identified decaying content, it’s time to take action to mitigate or reverse its effect on your organic traffic. 

Usually, the best course of action for each piece will depend on the reason for the decay. But here are the best ways to address content decay and make previously published content great again.

  • Update old posts regularly
  • Expand old content to make it more comprehensive
  • Merge cannibalizing content
  • Remove obsolete content 
  • Repromote old content 
  • Focus more on evergreen content
  1. Update old content regularly:

Regular updating will help tackle issues like content freshness, especially for content pieces with short shelf life. For instance – content with mentions of dates (best social media strategies for 2023), constantly changing topics like tool features and even listicle posts with lots of screenshots. For these kinds of pieces, freshness equals relevance, and that’s what Google and searchers need. 

Content updates can be simple actions like changing the date on your title and meta description. Or it can entail a complete overhaul of the article. Either way, your goal should be to reinforce its value by removing anything that makes the content dated. 

Here are some things you can do to update old content properly.

  • Review the content to confirm the information is still relevant, accurate, and helpful. Where necessary, review your angles/point of view, add new examples, case studies, and statistics, and modify steps in tutorial-style content. The idea is to make the content fresh again so readers come away from it feeling satisfied.
  • Review internal and external links in old content to ensure they’re still relevant and working. 
  • Build more internal links to old articles. You can perform a quick site search to find new related content for internal linking. Or, to save manual labor, use the InLinks internal linking tool to automate the process. 
  • Review all your headings to confirm they’re aligned with search intent and optimized for your target topic.
  • Verify images and other multimedia are still relevant. Add or improve alt tags, optimize the file size, and type to help your page load faster.

📚Recommended reading: 9 ways to improve your rankings + tips from SEO experts

  1. Expand old content to make it more comprehensive: 

Sometimes, content decays because it lacks topical depth. Simply put, if your competitors are covering a topic better than you, chances are they’ll outrank you. 

Expanding a piece of content doesn’t mean adding words for the sake of it. Instead, try to add more value, context, and information to the search engine. For example, if you had an article on the 10 best content optimization tools in 2022, you could expand that list to include more recent tools. Similarly, you can expand a post on sales strategies with fresh insights from subject matter experts or sample strategy templates from renowned salespeople.

Also, lots of SEO research and studies show that longer-form content performs better on the SERPs. Even though length doesn’t equate to quality, most old, underperforming content will benefit from new insights and supporting information. A great way to know if you need to expand an old piece is to compare it to the top-ranking posts.

  1. Merge cannibalizing content: 

There’s no need to keep competing pages on your website. They eat at your traffic and crawl budget and create confusion with navigation and SEO. If you’re covering very similar keywords that overlap as different pieces of content, consider consolidating them into one comprehensive article Google can rank for a topic.

Merging content requires critical examination, though. Make sure you’re not repeating sections and the new content makes sense, is beneficial to the reader, and is not overwhelming. Also, do not forget to set up 301 redirects from the old URLs to the new consolidated content to show Google the new post you want it to index and rank.

  1. Remove obsolete content: 

Also called pruning, this is a powerful but highly underutilized strategy in SEO. Not every piece of content should live on your website forever. If an article no longer serves your product, business, or audience, even an update may not help it. In such cases, it’s wiser to remove it and focus on those that move the needle.

Removing outdated content keeps your content library clean and streamlines content management. It also helps the search engine understand your site better.

  1. Repromote old content: 

A fresh round of promotion can get old but valuable articles buzzing again, especially if you’ve just updated, expanded, or merged them. Send old content to your email list multiple times, share it on social media as if it were new, or drive traffic to it with paid ads. The visibility and engagement from socials can help you amass backlinks, which we know can boost organic rankings.

Additionally, consider guest posting as a way of promoting old content. Contributing to other authoritative websites is an excellent opportunity to include links back to your content. 

  1. Focus more on evergreen content: 

The reason is obvious – they have more longevity, and so may sustain traffic for longer periods. For example, an article on “how to choose the best mattress for a 5-year-old” will be relevant for many years. But another one on “ten best back-to-school essentials for teens” will require constant updates through the years. 

While it’s not possible to create only evergreen content, try to infuse them into your content strategy plan as much as possible. They require fewer updates and make managing your content library easier.

SEO Is An Ongoing Commitment

Content marketing and SEO is not a set-it-and-forget-it business. Staying proactive is how you catch issues like content decay immediately after they set in or preemptively before they do any damage.

While some level of decay is expected with content, you can keep it at bay by creating a balance between publishing new content and following up with existing ones.

Try as much as possible to bake content updating and refreshing into your SEO content strategy by:

  • 1) Keeping an inventory of all your content assets
  • 2) Analyzing performance metrics regularly to identify content pieces needing updates
  • 3) Invest in content optimization software like InLinks that helps with reviewing existing content and ensuring new ones are well positioned for ranking.

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