Away with the old texts! Better rankings by deleting content

You want to know an SEO trick that works quickly, brings a lot and that hardly anyone practices? Here you go: delete your poor quality content! How this works and what I mean by it, you will find out in my article today.

More and more content – but what about the old content?

Again and again you hear from SEO experts that good content is important for a good ranking. There is no doubt about that and this strategy is the best approach alongside solid technical on-page SEO and a proper keyword focus. However, you can increase the quality of the content on your website in two ways:

1.By producing good new content.
2.But also by removing old, bad content.

Google looks at your website with a wide variety of tools and algorithms and classifies it qualitatively. One aspect – and I’m very sure of that – is something like “Overall Domain Quality”. This measures the quality of your domain. It’s just a guess that there is such a value and how it is called exactly, I don’t know. It has to be there, however. Why? Many well-known domains – let’s take Spiegel.de or Bild.de as an example, rank for certain search terms – even with very fierce competition immediately after the publication of a URL on the relevant topic. New URLs for such domains have an advantage over others. Sometimes this unknown quantity is also called “trust” or “authority”.

Often this special bonus is also focused on certain subject areas in the ranking.

The Financial Times ranks well for financial topics, the FitForFun for lifestyle topics. If Macwelt.de writes an article about the Iphone 12, then the domain has a good chance of ranking for the keyword “Iphone 12”. If you do this with a new and unknown domain, then you have no chance of even remotely reaching the Top10.
How does Google measure overall domain quality?

A couple of theories from me:

The bonus is not always fixed for everything, but always on certain subject areas. You cannot fish in strange waters. If FitForFun suddenly started writing about stock tips, it would have a difficult time at first. Only a few domains have a basic bonus – such as T-Online.de or Wikipedia.
Backlinks, age of the domain and brand awareness play a big role. More precisely: Relevant (!) Backlinks for the respective niche, especially the constancy of the domain in terms of age (i.e. not an expired domain, but a fitness guide that has published a blog post every day for 12 years). That has to be built up over years.
Other quality factors are now more important: What percentage of the content is performing well? In my opinion, the ratio of mediocre or even bad content to top content is decisive here. The more top content, the better the ranking. And this is exactly where the topic of “deletion” comes in.

An example to illustrate

Domain X consists largely of editorial content and has a total of 1,000 articles.

Of these 1,000 articles, 5 articles are real traffic generators and produce 80% of the organic traffic.
Another 145 articles produce the remaining 19% of the traffic.
The remaining 850 articles collectively do not even provide 1% of the traffic.

The total traffic is 50,000 visitors per month.

In the eyes of Google, the picture is mixed: Domain 5 has really excellent URLs that perform well and offer added value for the user. Google definitely wants these 5 unicorn URLs high up in the SERPs. However, there are – besides 145 mediocre content – also these 850 “toad URLs” with rather bad content. What would you as Google do now if you see a completely new URL from this domain? What is the likelihood that the new URL will be a unicorn and not a toad?

You can calculate that: It’s 0.5%. Only every two hundredth article is a piece of cream.

What happens if you delete content?

What is the obvious choice for your domain X? Right, delete content! You should delete the 850 articles that make up less than 1% of the traffic. In purely mathematical terms, you would have 500 fewer visitors per month (1% of the traffic of 50,000), because you will lack the traffic of the toad URLs in the future. In practice, however, the opposite is the case: It is not uncommon for your overall traffic to increase by 20%, so you suddenly have 60,000 visitors per month. My experience shows that a 10-20% increase in traffic is not uncommon, but rather the rule.

Specifically, the following happens:

You will of course lose the rankings for your 850 articles. But there were hardly any rankings anyway.
At the same time – usually with a delay of a few weeks – the rankings for your remaining URLs increase.
With the leftover URLs you will rank for more keywords and you will generally rank higher.
Incidentally, your internal linking is also better, because you distribute your link juice over fewer URLs.

Unfounded fears about the deletion of content

Many SEOs and webmasters often do not dare to take this step to delete content. Why not?

The content cost money. That is correct, but it does not help – and harms you more than it uses. When I think about how much content we’ve produced so far and how much of it is still up-to-date, that’s really terrifying. But the fact is that very few contents have what it takes to be a “star” and have a permanent existence correction.
Great fear of major ranking changes: Many SEOs are afraid that internal linking could cause problems or that the ranking could fundamentally go downhill. This is almost never the case when deleting content. Changing the URL and / or page structure is problematic, and you should never take it lightly. Deleting individual pieces of content is usually very good for any domain.
The hope that the ranking for the 850 URLs could still come. This can be the case if the content is still new – and then I would not recommend deleting it to you either. For content that is several years old and is performing poorly, I would say: You can wait a long time, these rankings usually don’t come back.
The fear that even the top-performing URLs will no longer rank. That does not happen. I have never seen that the top performers suddenly disappeared in the ranking after a generous deletion.

Who should delete content?

Basically anyone can do the practice, but some types of websites are particularly suitable.

  • Older websites, especially websites that produced content before 2010. Let’s be honest: Back then there were different standards for content on the Internet than they do today.
  • Domains with editorial content.
  • Domains that have a particularly large number of URLs with no traffic.
  • Domains that are continuously losing visibility.

Who shouldn’t delete content?

  • Young websites that are less than a year old.
  • Websites that have little overall content.
  • Websites that are relaunching. Basically, you can delete some content during a relaunch. However, I would not carry out a major deletion at the same time as a relaunch. You can do that before or after. Too many changes at once can confuse the Googlebot and this definitely includes extensively deleted content in combination with a new design.
  • In particular, you should leave the URL structure of the existing articles alone if you delete a large area. Basically, nowadays you need a really, really good reason to touch your URL structure.
  • At least I would be careful if the deletion doesn’t work like a thinning, but instead you delete, for example, 4 out of 5 subject areas on your website. But that has to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Simple how-to: this is how you delete content

What content should you delete?

How you exactly identify the content that should be deleted depends particularly on the amount of content you have to investigate. Bild.de has to proceed differently than a small blog with a few hundred articles. In the following I assume that you don’t have to examine tens or hundreds of thousands of URLs, but less than 1,000.

First you need a list of your URLs – ideally in a table with data from the Search Console and Google Analytics. The Screaming Frog is ideal for this. With the Screaming Frog you can crawl your entire website like Google, and you can use the API to display the click data via Analytics and the Search Console quite easily.

Personally, I base the analysis on two factors:

The “hard facts”: Here I look at the number of clicks (via Search Console) for the last three months. I always start with the URLs with 0 clicks and then work my way up. You will be amazed how many of your URLs have not received a single Google visitor in three months. Then I look at the impressions and whether you can turn something on the alignment / the keywords in order to steer the URL in a different direction. Sometimes you have rankings for previously unfocused keywords and you can get a lot out of this by a slight adjustment in the title / description. If you have other on-site key figures (such as the length of stay, if you measure it more precisely than usual using event tracking) or other hard quality key figures, then you can use these as well. Often, however, the picture is clear: the URL has no relevant rankings, there is no traffic and you are far from a well-performing URL. If you have an extremely large number of URLs – hundreds of thousands or even millions, then you have to find further factors here that show you whether the URL is really “worth deleting” or not. Because the second step would be too time-consuming.
The “soft factors”: If the number of URLs is small, you now proceed in such a way that you call up the URL and look at it honestly – is that a high quality URL or not? In 9 out of 10 cases it is not and the Googlebot has rightly not sent you any traffic. Very often the content is either never really good or it is out of date.

One of the basic requirements is, of course, that the articles are indexable and not excluded by means of a noindex or canonical. Another exception to watch out for is highly seasonal content. An article on the topic of “Halloween decorations” is only interesting for a few weeks a year, but although it probably doesn’t generate any traffic from January to March, you shouldn’t delete it right away.

What about archive content?

If you work for a newspaper, you may have a lot of content that is out of date, but still worth indexing. Gary Illyes from Google has very clear answers: You shouldn’t delete such archive content. Very few major news websites delete their old articles. They are not necessarily of inferior quality, just old. Personally, I would leave them online too.
Google’s opinion

Most people at Google believe that content should not be deleted, but rather revised and improved. Of course, you have to see it from the point of view of the Google employees: Basically, you can make a lot of mistakes with massive deletion of content, so I, as a Google employee, would rather advise against it. Literally, John Müller once said in a webmaster hangout: “Improving it [den content] means that the rankings can only go up, whereas by removing it, can cause loss of rankings instead of the gains that some people think content removals will do.” You can find a great article on the topic on Search Engine Journal (in English). How & Why You Must Improve or Remove Your Old Content. It contains the various statements made by Google over the years and why the author Danny Goodwin (the editor-in-chief of Search Engine Journal) is still deleting his content. I totally agree with Danny.

Additional tip for shop owners

If you have an online shop, product URLs should also be put to the test. Do you have products that don’t rank well and that nobody buys? If the answer is yes, then seriously consider taking them out of the range. Every “offline shop” takes poorly running products from the shelves – unfortunately, in online shops I sometimes see a tendency to say to yourself “it doesn’t cost anything if you keep them in the range”. I would also look closely here to see whether all the products are actually still useful.

What do you do with URLs that are scheduled for deletion?

The actual deletion of a URL using a 404 or 410 status code should always be the last consequence. There are other things you can do.

See if you have a similar URL that performs well and covers the same topic. Then forward via 301. It’s super easy with a site query. Enter “Site: Yourdomain.de Keyword” on Google and you will be shown the most relevant URLs for the relevant keyword on your own domain. If you delete an article about plum jam, then you enter “Site: Deinedomain.de plum jam”. Often you will find articles that are similar or even thematically the same. Instead of just deleting the article, you can forward it using 301 redirect. In this way, no link power is lost from e.g. external backlinks. However, it is important that the URL really fits thematically. There is a simple rule here: If a user clicked on the old link in a forum and then landed on the new URL – would they still be happy with the content? Or is the topic related, but not what he’s looking for? Google doesn’t like it when non-topic URLs are merged by redirecting them just to save link power. Incidentally, this also answers the question: “Should I forward deleted URLs via 301 to the start page?” No, except on the start page, the user will find what was previously on the corresponding subpage. Unfortunately, some SEOs still do this incorrectly.
See if it’s worth revising the URL. You will be surprised how often this is the case. Some URLs would be great in terms of topics, but they just weren’t implemented correctly. Or the information on this topic is out of date. Very often it is also the case that the URLs are a few years old and the competition has meanwhile added better content and you have therefore lost the ranking. Here you can add an “Ü” to your list and leave the URL indexed for the time being. Then I would revise it, where I would tend to publish a new URL and forward the old one to the new one. Then Google will understand faster that the content has been renewed.
If 1 and 2 don’t match, delete the URL. Don’t you have any traffic? The quality of the content is bad? There is no url to redirect to? And it’s not worth revising? Then delete the url. It is best to use the status code 410 (Gone), this tells Google that the content has finally disappeared and will not reappear as with 404. But 404 is fine too.

Recommended strategies for deletion

Make a backup of your content. Better safe than sorry. If all else fails, you should be able to restore the contents.
If you are not an SEO professional: Hire a professional with the process and get advice. Even though content deletion can do a lot, it can also do a lot of damage if done incorrectly.
Be sure to run content deletion independently of other SEO measures. If the rankings plummet, you don’t know otherwise whether it was due to the deletion or the other measure.
If you have to delete a lot of content, do it in several steps. First delete the first batch, then wait a few weeks to see how the rankings develop. In the example above, I would never delete 85% of the content at once, but first 20% and then continue in small steps. But that should be decided on a case-by-case basis and depends heavily on your domain and the previous content.
Backlinks that point to deleted URLs and thus 404 or 410 URLs, unfortunately, no longer bring you anything for the ranking. Many therefore shy away from deleting URLs at all, because links still refer to them. Funnily enough, however, in practice every URL that has a (natural) backlink is either of good quality or the topic is laid out so that it can be revised and does not have to be deleted.