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Increasing SEO Traffic by Updating and “Thickening” Your Old Blog Posts

Increasing SEO Traffic by Updating and “Thickening” Your Old Blog Posts

Everyone loves a good hack. Terms like “low-hanging fruit” and “quick wins” are common corporate turns of phrase because things that are lower input and higher output are obviously good.

This is why it’s curious to me that many SEO-focused and SEO-savvy folks don’t have a methodology for updating old blog posts.

Publishing company wrote an interesting post about how they’ve made a regular practice of updating and re-sharing older content. Vox was starting with a lot of overall traffic and has a large library of older content that likely gets several thousand unique visitors per month, but even on sites with 5-15 thousand unique visitors a month from search, I’ve frequently seen a similar pattern:

  • There is often a “power law” that applies to existing posts where a small number of older posts drive a significant percentage of traffic (maybe 10-20% from the top two posts and as much as 75-80% from the top 25-50 posts). This can happen even if their previous content creation efforts were uneven and not particularly focused on SEO.
  • Those posts have not been updated in several months or even years.
  • When updated, those posts can frequently see a 15-30% increase, which is significant since those posts already represent a significant portion of the site’s overall traffic.

There’s frequently a lot of opportunities to update existing content to help drive organic traffic growth, which we’ll walk through in this post.

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What Should You Be Updating?

The first and probably most important question is: Which posts should you update?

The first place to start is to look at the posts on your site that already drive the most traffic, particularly if you have an older blog where some of the more popular posts are things you or your team wrote six or more months ago.

If you have a limited amount of organic traffic (say less than 5,000 unique visitors from organic search a month) or just launched your site/blog, then you should probably skip this entire process and spend time building links to your domain and growing your overall traffic. You can always come back to this as your content and your site matures.

If your blog does have some existing traffic, take a look at your top landing pages from organic search:

Screenshot of Google Analytics

As you can see from the screenshot, this site is a perfect candidate. It’s driven a little over 17,000 unique visitors in the last month, and while I’ve blurred the post titles, you can see by the dates in the URLs (by the way: don’t use dates in your URLs!) that there is a lot of old content driving traffic for this site. For our purposes, that’s perfect.

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The other way to find good candidates for updating is to look for “low-hanging fruit” in a quick SEMrush report (hat tip to Nick Eubanks, which you can see mentioned in this post or in-depth in his keyword research course).

Essentially you just want to:

  1. Input your own URL to SEMrush.
  2. Export all of your organic keyword data.
  3. Filter for 10-15 (or potentially anywhere from 5-20, essentially you want to find opportunities to improve rankings for valuable terms where you’re close to the first page / the top five).
  4. Sort by estimated monthly search volume.

Here is the output of that process for the same site pictured above:

SEM Rush report output (screenshot)

Now I have some additional specific targets for optimization efforts (and even some specific terms to optimize those pages for).

One question here is: How do you decide exactly which and how many pages to update? This can be a bit tricky and should be somewhat dependent on your internal resources and priorities of course, but a few ways to think about and approach the process:

  • Weigh Time to Update vs. Estimated Traffic Value: Here is a quick and dirty way to think about this: The average of the monthly unique visitors in the top five pages in the first image is ~1,490 unique visitors per month. If the upside is 15-30% traffic growth on those pages, and you call it 15%, that’s an extra ~200 unique visits a month (on a recurring basis). How much is that traffic worth to you? As in, what do you pay for similar traffic via PPC, and/or what’s the value of a visitor based on standard conversion rates and the value of a lead/sale? How much will it cost you to update the pages (you’ll have a better sense of this after reading through the process below)? Again, I think for most companies as you get into the 5-10k plus unique visits a month range, the effort will be worth the increased traffic.
  • Think about estimated search volume the way you would a new asset: If you’re looking at the SEMrush report above, you can think about traffic estimates in a similar way to how you’d consider creating a new piece of content. If you use 500-1,000 estimated monthly uniques as a threshold for launching a new asset, you can safely use that same range as a good threshold for updating existing posts (since typically updating a post will require less time and effort than a wholly new post, and should be de-risked since you already have a proof of concept that you can rank fairly well for the term).
  • Start with a defined test: Like with most new endeavors, start with a specific budget for the project and a defined scope (say 10-25 pages) and measure the output. Then you can consider applying the same methodology to more pages and/or perform the same process every 3-6 months.

Actually Updating and Fleshing Out Your Old Posts

Now that you have a good list of pages to update, you can start to actually get those updated. A word of caution before we get into some specific steps to update and freshen older content, as this excellent post from Cyrus Shepard on fresh content details a few potential pitfalls of freshening your content:

  • Changing anchors: If you’re updating internal links or building new external links and trying to push a page up a few spots for a specific term, you may “devalue” older anchors that gave the page relevance for a different term/topic (and may actually lose traffic).
  • Freshening a page for a query that doesn’t warrant freshness: If your site is focused around technical topics where most of the results are relatively “fresh,” updating is likely a good idea. But if your topic is historical, freshness may not be an advantage.
  • Changing the focus of the page: As you make updates on-page, if you deviate too much from the core focus of the post you’re updating, you can pull the theme of the page (and subsequently your existing rankings) away from where it had been focused.
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With all of that in mind, once we have a batch of posts we’ve decided are good candidates for updating, we can get to work.

Move to a Last Updated Time Stamp

As multiple smart SEOs have pointed out: Switching the time stamp that populates on your blog posts from “published on” to “last updated” (and then actually updating your older posts) is a great indication that the content is up to date/fresher, particularly if you actually go through and make substantial changes to the post.

Do Some Basic On-Page Clean Up

Use a chrome extension like Link Miner to spot and clean up any broken links. Edit the post for any outdated information. Have a study from 2014? Update to the 2017 version if possible. Have a list of tools? Make sure they’re all still in business and supported, and if they don’t, replace legacy tools with new entries into space if appropriate.

Create New Sub-Sections Within Your Post

Thickening your post with additional useful content is a great way to grow longer tail traffic to the post. You can find some natural ideas for additional sub-sections for your content by looking at Google’s own “people also ask” feature:

Screenshot of the people also ask feature in Google search results.

These are terms that Google obviously deems relevant to the query, and in many cases, there are some good questions/prompts for additional areas to cover within your post. Just remember that Google is still just a robot: These questions are frequently awkwardly worded and/or redundant, so don’t just grab them word-for-word or you’ll start to sacrifice credibility and quality in your content.

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Similarly, Google suggestions (as you start to type your target keyword) and related searches at the bottom of a search result can also be good places to look for additional content ideas:

Screenshot of Google related searches

We might want to add some content to our post addressing doubts about Sundowning, information on why it occurs, or how it relates to alcohol consumption based on these results.

Add Links to External Resources

As you’re updating an existing post, a great way to incorporate more content and make it more valuable is to work in more external resources. Specifically look for opportunities to:

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  • Update older data with newer data (e.g. swap out an old survey for a new one).
  • Include new research and insights (the most recent advice on how to do something, the latest research on a topic).
  • Provide a list of additional resources the reader may find interesting.

This adds value to your page and gives you a mechanism to reach out to the folks you’re now linking to and featuring to let them know they’ve been mentioned in one of the more popular posts on your site (they may reciprocate with a link/share of the post).

Consider Updating the Title Tag

This is a great example of an area that could help, but where you want to be careful. Making your title tag “more clickable” and/or incorporating some key modifiers in the title tag can be hugely helpful in driving more traffic (ranking better for specific terms and getting more clicks in the search results you’re already showing in), but you want to be sure not to undermine your current rankings and CTR. You can look in Google Search Console to see which terms are currently driving impressions for a specific page before making any tweaks to the title tag.

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Then you can consider different approaches for testing and boosting your organic CTR and/or working in more modifiers to your page titles.

Link to the Page Internally From Other Pages on Your Site

The easiest links to get are links from pages you control on your own site. Look at your highest authority and most linked-to pages with a tool like Ahrefs, and add internal links from key pages back to these older, high-value blog posts.

You can also consider baking these kinds of links into the site’s navigation — add a “popular posts” widget to your blog sidebar and push link equity to these high-value pages.

Do Additional Outreach

If the post in question was a “linkable asset” that you’d done some outreach for, consider working on another round to drive additional/fresher links to the page. This won’t apply to every kind of page that’s driving traffic — if you’re not adept at link prospecting and outreach and/or the page wasn’t really built for this purpose (but is ranking anyway), you may be spinning your wheels trying to promote it (i.e. you can’t just take any kind of content and sprinkle link dust over it).

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Drive Social Traffic to the Post

Once you’ve updated the post, try re-sharing it via social media. You don’t have to pretend it’s a new post, you can Tweet something like “Our Sundowner’s Syndrome Guide has been updated for 2017.” In addition to sharing it on your platforms, you can also consider some targeted paid social ads to get it in front of certain folks on Twitter and Facebook, and/or you can push some StumbleUpon or Reddit traffic to the updated post to get it a little bit of extra distribution and potentially get some additional shares, traffic, and links.

Make It More Linkable

Finally, if you’re either in a more competitive niche or there’s just a large amount of traffic available if you can get the pages in question to rank, you might consider some more serious investments to make the page more linkable, like layering onto the existing article:

  • A proprietary survey or industry report
  • An infographic
  • An interactive piece
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Then you can support that updated content with a concerted link outreach effort. Again, this type of effort isn’t “for everyone” — if your upside on updating a post is a couple hundred uniques a month, you won’t want to (or likely need to) invest in an expensive creative piece and extensive outreach efforts.

Image Credits

Featured Image via Pixabay

All in-post photos screenshots taken by Tom Demers March 2017


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Tom Demers

Managing Partner at Digital Examiner

Tom is the co-founder and managing partner of Measured SEM and Digital Examiner. He was also the former Director of ... [Read full bio]

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