On a Webmaster Hangout John Mueller offered advice on whether it was helpful to prune low traffic content. This topic is related to what the SEO industry calls Keyword Cannibalization and also Content Cannibalization. Google’s John Mueller offered insights into internal discussions at Google about content pruning. He then offered two solutions.
Is Pruning Content a Good SEO Strategy?
The question asked was whether it was worth it in terms of SEO to prune content that was not performing. By “performing,” the questioner clarified that he meant content that was not receiving traffic. He also clarified that it was research content that was not adding value to site visitors.
The person asking the question did not mention the concept of content cannibalization. But the outlines of what he was asking conforms to the theory. More on that below.
John Mueller suggested that pruning content was just one approach. There are other strategies to use as well.
How to Deal with Low Traffic Web Pages
John Mueller offered two strategies. He said that the first option was to remove the content. The other option was to improve the content. Either approach could be satisfactory. He then cautioned that it may not be a good approach to use Page Views as a metric for determining what is good or bad content.
The second approach, to improve the content, contradicts the long held rote solution to remove non-preforming content. We’ll get back to that later. Let’s see what John Mueller actually said.
The caution about using page views as a metric for judging what is low content also contradicts certain advice related to how to deal with the so-called “keyword cannibalization.”
John Mueller had this to say about content pruning:
“I think they’re are kind of two opinions and approaches there. Even internally wihtin Google… when we talk with the search ranking leads on this topic a lot of times they say, well maybe they should just improve the content.
Like, if they have this content on the website and it was initially there for a reason; and maybe it’s not great content, maybe it’s even bad content… one approach is really just to say ok, we will spend time to improve this content.
And the other approach might be from a practical point of view where you say… I know this content is there and I put it out there for a reason but it’s really terrible content and I don’t have time to kind of improve this, I don’t have time to focus on this. Then maybe removing it is a good idea.
Ultimately it’s something where the content that you have available on your website is how you present yourself to search engines. So if you’re aware that this content is bad or low quality or thin, then that’s still how you’re presenting yourself to search engines.
And you can say I can handle that by removing the bad content or I can handle that by improving the bad content. And both are appropriate responses that you can take.
Sometimes there are practical reasons to go one way or the other way. For example if you have millions and millions of pages that are really thin content then maybe it’s not practical to improve all of those. Then maybe it’s something where you say well in the long run I’ll make sure that my new content is good and then you take all of those out. Or it might be that you find a middle ground and say well I’ll improve some but I’ll also take a bunch out that I don’t have time for or I don’t want to have it at all on my website.”
Page Views Can Be an Unreliable Performance Metric
Another participant then brought up the example of a web page containing important and accurate content that didn’t receive traffic because it wasn’t a popular topic at this particular time. In other words, the topic was not trending in any way.
John Mueller responded that this was an important nuance.
“I would not use a metric like page views as the only way of recognizing low-quality content. You’re kind of the expert of your website, you know what’s good and what’s bad. Sometimes a metric like page views helps you to find low quality content.
But I would not blindly say everything that gets few page views is bad content, I need to remove it. …Our algorithms do not look at the number of page views. They try to understand the value of the content…
Just because it’s rarely viewed doesn’t mean it’s a bad piece of content.“
What is Content Cannibalization/Keyword Cannibalization?
The phrase Content/Keyword Cannibalization has been discussed since at least 2007. Some SEO bloggers try to present this as an “advanced” topic that only few SEO know about, but that’s not the case. If Rand Fishkin was talking about content cannibalization in 2007, it’s safe to say this is a widely discussed theory.
The problem with the theory is that the phrase, Content Cannibalization, is just a label that does not describe the actual issue.
It’s like if your mechanic tells you that your car doesn’t run because it has engine trouble. How does that help you?
The phrase “engine trouble” is just a label that can describe anything from a blown gasket to an alternator that needs replacing. Similarly, the phrase “Content Cannibalization” does not tell you what is wrong. An alternator that needs replacing is more specific and gives you an idea of possible solutions.
And that’s why the person in the Webmaster Hangout had the question. He didn’t know what he should do because he didn’t understand the problem. You can’t find a solution to a problem you don’t understand. Calling it Keyword Cannibalization does not help anyone.
What Content Cannibalization Really Is
What’s really the problem is usually pages that are thin content, irrelevant content, duplicate content, outdated content and content that is simply long tail.
As John Mueller stated, using page views as a metric will get you in trouble because you’ll remove perfectly good content.
The other issue that is being fixed is site architecture. A good site architecture helps the different sections of a site snap into focus in terms of what the topic is about. Those might not be the only issues, but those are the ones that immediately come to mind.
It is unhelpful to discuss these issues under the label of Content/Keyword Cannibalization. It’s more helpful to specifically identify what is going on:
- Duplicate content
- Thin content
- Irrelevant content
- Outdated content
- Long tail content
- Site architecture
Those are six different issues. Most importantly, they are not issues because they are “cannibalizing” keywords or content.
They are problems for very different reasons. Each problem demands a different solution and “pruning” the content is not the only solution. As John Mueller suggested, you can remove the content, you can update the content or you could leave the content alone.
Watch John Mueller discuss content pruning in the webmaster hangout.
Screenshots by Author, Modified by Author