More content, less traffic: part I
It's important to have high-quality content on your website, but columnist Conrad Saam believes that SEOs might be overdoing it.
“Content is king” is the familiar SEO refrain that has spawned umpteen pages of thin, vapid website content. The push toward more and more content was mitigated somewhat by the next refrain, “quality content,” following Google’s numerous Panda updates.
But a widespread misconception perpetuated by the SEO industry persists: you need to continue to feed the content beast — otherwise, The Google won’t like your site.
So many marketers continue to push towards more sites, more pages, more content, more, more, more, more, more. The perceived need for more content is a convenient straw man excuse for agencies running a failed SEO campaign:
“Hey client, it’s not our fault your site isn’t performing — you just need to blog more. Still not working? Try more blogging!”
The focus on content is grossly overblown. Content is very rarely the answer — especially in industries where many sites have too much of it already.
I’m not sure there are any verticals where the push for more content is more pronounced than the hyper-competitive legal market. An entire cottage industry has sprung up, rewriting variants of “car accident attorney,” “Top 10 Things to Do After you are Rear Ended in Cleveland,” and “how to select a personal injury lawyer in Topeka,” in an attempt to “win” the SEO war for clients.
Law firms now have small teams of in-house content developers dribbling out prose that rarely sees an inbound visitor. This, of course, is exacerbated by poor installations of WordPress, which frequently generate multiple pages of identical content through the overly aggressive implementation of tags, categories and author pages.
I ran into the value of content minimization and curation almost a decade ago while working on Avvo’s Q&A section, in which lawyers respond to user-submitted questions — and each question generated a new page of content on the Avvo site. The most common example was some variant of the following: “I’m 19 and my girlfriend is 17… can we legally have sex?”
We had thousands, if not tens of thousands of pages generated by variations of this question. The vast majority of those pages didn’t receive any inbound traffic and served to bloat the site’s page count. Through a careful content curation process, we were able to consolidate this content into a series of high-quality content pages. And we saw an overall lift in inbound traffic to this type of content.
Now, that was years ago. Today, I work directly with law firms — and given the push toward more and more content, I find myself again dealing with sites that are bloated with repetitive, duplicate and otherwise underperforming content. What follows are three case studies for law firms in which we’ve axed a bunch of site content with a resulting persistent increase in inbound search traffic.
Site I: Pages down 63%; traffic up 61%
Between July 8 and October 11, 2016, we went through a process of consolidating and removing pages from this site. Some of the content was genuinely useful to a user but should never serve as a destination for search traffic. A good example here is pages with laws and statutes copied directly from state government sites — 50 pages in all for the different laws in 50 different states. These pages are genuinely useful to a user, but they should never be indexed.
Other pages were simply thin variants of content themes that needed to be consolidated into a single, specific page. In the graphs below, you can see an initial drop in reported index count in mid-August, followed by a dramatic drop in October, which is followed by an immediate 61 percent increase in search traffic.
Site II: Pages down 32%; traffic up 36%
In the second example, we cut content on three different dates. This is a WordPress site that vastly overused tags and categories, resulting in tons of duplicate content. They had also generated a large volume of extremely thin Q&A-style pages in response to the Hummingbird update.
On June 10, we dropped 10 pages of exact duplicate content. Following that, on June 21, we no-indexed 147 pages generated from media, tags and categories. Finally, on September 27, we consolidated 65 pages with very thin Q&A-style content. As you can see in the graphs below, the slow, steady decrease in indexed pages was mirrored by a slow, steady increase in inbound organic traffic.
Site III: Pages down 13%, traffic up 37%
The third example is a site for which we have had trouble generating significant improvement. But on October 5, 2016, we no-indexed 149 pages generated by WordPress tags and removed them from the XML sitemap. Note that many of these pages weren’t indexed anyway; although based on the graph below, at least some were.
We did the same for the site’s 10 different author pages. You can see the immediate impact in the persistent traffic bump below. This is a stark example of how a well-intentioned but aggressive implementation of WordPress’s auto-generating pages can reduce inbound traffic.
More content, more problems
Of course, none of this should be surprising; it’s not like Panda is a new concept. But we keep hearing the chorus of “content is king,” which encourages site owners (small businesses especially) to keep posting. What we’ve found is that, in many cases, less content means more traffic.
In my follow-up post, I provide an analytical framework to answer the question: Should I continue to invest in more content, or is my marketing dollar more wisely invested elsewhere (like my kid’s college fund)?
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