There is a growing trend in the SEO industry, and that is to “prune" or remove underperforming website content from search engine results in order to raise the page rank of the remaining content on the domain.
It might sound crazy to actively work towards having less content inside search engines, but the logic behind the tactic is certainly compelling. It wasn't long ago that savvy webmasters would create huge websites with tons of tiny pages with little content in the hopes of pulling in a little traffic to each page, collectively bringing in large amounts of traffic to the website.
But after a series of algorithm updates to search engines, these tiny (“thin") content pages no longer ranked as well for search terms. In fact, Google had a specific algorithm update in 2011 that dealt specifically with demoted websites with thin content.
Fast forward to today and the opposite is happening: SEOs are starting to go in the opposite direction by removing content from Google in the hopes of making the rest of the content on the domain rank higher.
Should You Remove Content to Help Improve Page Rank?
There are certainly situations where you wouldn't want to remove content from search engine indexes. You might want people to find critical information about your business, even if the pages don't have a direct impact on bringing in revenue for the company.
Removing content from search engine indexes is actually a way to force your company to review all of the content on your site and determine the usefulness of each one. This is known as a content audit, and it's a great way to improve the content and structure of your website.
I am personally more conservative when it comes to removing pages from Google's index. There is a lot of potential damage that can be done by removing content from Google's index willy-nilly.
For example, you might inadvertently remove pages that are crucial to your business. Then you'd have to wait for Google to add them back into the index. This is why I usually prefer testing the concept by only removing a few pages of content at a time to see if the change is positive, and if so, making the change permanent.
Strategies for Removing Content
The tactic I'll be discussing can potentially be very harmful for your business's website with respect to search engine rankings. Proceed with caution.
Like most things related to SEO, there is more than one way to remove content from search engines. This is a high-level overview and won't focus on the technical implementation, but I'll provide resources to help get started.
If two pages are very similar, you can use the canonical tag to tell search engines which version is the original. This method has the least amount of potential to cause technical problems, as it's a good practice to use.
Noindex Meta Tag
The noindex meta tag—aside from the canonical tag—is generally thought of as the least destructive and easiest to return back to the original state. Adding this tag to the page tells search engines not to index it. (Here's documentation from Google on the tag and how to implement it.)
The noindex tag is helpful because only search engines will see it, and it makes no difference to the end user. If you're a WordPress user, the Yoast SEO plugin can help you specify types of pages to block with the noindex meta tag. Drupal users might find the noindex module helpful, too.
Let's say there are two or more pieces of content that are similar and could be combined. You could always fuse them together and redirect the discarded page to the new combined page.
Here's an example: If you have a product page for two different shovels but with different color handles, combine both shovels into one page that also talks about the different colors available. You would then redirect the old page to the new page using a permanent redirect.
Delete from the CMS
I would strongly caution you from ever deleting content strictly for SEO purposes. Let's face it—search engines are fickle. Remember, it wasn't long ago that Google used to happily rank large sites with lots of thin content.
Removing content might work today, but who knows what tomorrow will bring. This is why I prefer either combining pages or using the noindex meta tag.
That said, if a page no longer has any value or use to your company, then you may want to consider deleting it. But deleting content should only be an editorial decision, not an SEO decision.
Here's an interesting solution that doesn't require meta tags: Password protecting pages so that search engine bots can't crawl them.
This allows you to remove the password protection in the future if you want to, and nearly any level of technical background can implement it. Most modern CMSes allow you to password protect a page in a setting on the edit screen.
Steps for Removing Content to Help Improve Page Rank
Once you've figured out your method for removing content, I'd recommend creating a list of content on your site that doesn't have any (or very little) traffic or engagement from search engines. (Conducting a content review is outside the scope of this article, but search engine optimization company Moz created an excellent guide on the topic.)
Once you've audited and identified potential pages to change, you can slowly begin removing or redirecting your content. I can't stress enough how important it is to go slowly on this tedious stage.
There's nothing that says you can't use a hybrid approach of all the above methods. For example, you might delete some old pages that are no longer relevant to your business. You might add a noindex tag to some pages, and combine others into a larger resource.
Just make sure you're recording the changes. Consider adding a column to your spreadsheet with the action to take so you can keep track of the action you took.
Keep a tab in your website analytics program and also Google Webmaster Tools if you have that set up for your website. In the coming months see how:
- your overall search traffic has changed
- your overall ranking of pages has changed
You can keep tabs on other metrics too, but the above are often the most apparent.
If you see a dip in traffic and page rank for your domain, you might want to re-evaluate your content pruning strategy. If your traffic and overall page rank grows, then a closer look might validate your pruning efforts.
The beauty of this process is that there is no downside to performing a content audit. Even if you don't want to delete or redirect any content, you may still benefit from taking stock of what you have and seeing if you can improve it.
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