You’ve been publishing content to your blog for years. Now you have a library of 100/1,000/10,000 posts. Some of them are performing really well, generating lots of traffic and conversions. Others are buried on page three (or worse) of the search results, driving only a handful of visits each month.
But creating each one of those 100/1,000/10,000 posts cost you something, whether it was time, money, or effort. If those posts aren’t being discovered and viewed, you’re no longer generating any return on those investments.
Assuming you’ve been publishing evergreen content — content that’s designed to be relevant for long periods of time — updating that content helps you hit the reset button on its performance so that it starts generating returns for you again.
Why is updating content important?
In 2010 or 2015, you could write something really exceptional, publish it, earn the number one ranking, and keep it for years without ever revisiting the content. But in recent years, the effectiveness of SEO as an acquisition strategy has finally overridden its early bad reputation.
There are more SEOs than ever before who actually know what they’re doing, and there are more companies than ever before hiring those SEOs. As a result, there is far more competition for the top rankings — often by companies with much larger teams and much bigger budgets than you.
What that means is that you can’t just sit back and rest on your laurels after writing a great piece and earning a great spot in the SERPs. The moment you’re not looking anymore, someone will come along and write something that is just slightly better than your content and overtake your top ranking.
Besides increased competition vying for the top rankings, there are other reasons why evergreen content loses rankings over time:
- Google believes your post is outdated. Maybe your outbound links point to 404s. Maybe you have a tool roundup that doesn’t include a popular new tool. Maybe you’re using the incorrect terms for something. These small things can signal to Google that your post is outdated and not as useful as it once was.
- Users believe your post is outdated. If your search results display published dates next to your meta descriptions, users may skip clicking them in favor of something more recent. Those click signals can cause Google to believe a competitive result is better or more relevant and rank it above yours.
- Search intent for your target keyword changed. Sometimes, the content people are looking for when they search for a specific keyword changes over time — the search intent changes. When that happens, the content you originally wrote no longer satisfies search intent, so your rankings sink.
Without a strategy for updating your content regularly, all of the above things will happen, and all of the time/budget you spent creating that content will be lost.
4 ways to find posts that need to be updated
So how do you know which pieces of content on your site are in need of an update? Here are four signs to look for.
1. Declining traffic from search
The simplest way to find blog posts that are in need of an update is to look for posts that used to get more traffic than they are currently. This is really easy to do in Google Analytics:
Open Google Analytics, then navigate to `Acquisition` → `Overview` → `Organic Search`
Change the primary dimension to “Landing Page.”
Select a time period to compare: You might select the last three months compared to the three months prior to that, the last six months compared to the six prior, or the last year compared to the year before. The timeframe you choose should be related to the last time you went through this exercise. If you’ve never done it before, pick a year. If you did it recently, choose three months.
Click apply, then review the percentage change for each of the pages in the list below. You want to look for double-digit percentage decreases for either users or sessions. The higher the decrease, the bigger the opportunity to recover that lost traffic with an update.
These posts that have seen major traffic decreases are prime candidates for updates. Loss of traffic you used to have is a strong signal that you’re losing rankings and search presence.
However, there is a caveat for using this method: It only works if there isn’t some logical reason for your traffic to decline that has nothing to do with the content itself. For example:
- A global pandemic changed search behavior for billions of people, so people just weren’t searching for your keywords during a timeframe you chose.
- Your business is affected by seasonal dips and spikes in traffic. If you run an ecommerce business and see huge dips when comparing the first three months of the year to the last three months of the previous year, that’s likely just the result of changing search behavior after the holidays.
This method works best when there is no seasonality or other overarching factors that could have led to your traffic declining for natural reasons — rather than because of a loss of visibility related to your content being outdated.
2. Declining search rankings
If a piece once ranked high but is now ranking lower than before, it means Google believed it was once a great result — but now thinks that it isn’t as great of a result as it used to be.
Declining search rankings are a clearer signal that a post needs to be updated than traffic because rankings are far less likely to be impacted by general global/local trends in search behavior.
In fact, rankings are actually exceptionally helpful in determining if your traffic is being impacted by seasonal trends in search behavior:
- If your traffic is down but your rankings are consistent, it’s most likely seasonality.
- If your traffic is down and your rankings are down, your content probably needs to be updated.
There is one exception to this, and it’s related to sudden newsworthy trends related to your keyword.
For example, on the Help Scout site, we have a post about outage status updates that consistently ranks on page one, but occasionally there will be a newsworthy outage event that pushes that post down to page three or four for a week or two until the news moves on.
But in my experience, newsworthy events impacting your rankings are far rarer on a site that publishes evergreen content than seasonal trends that impact traffic.
The best way to know if your rankings have decreased is to use a daily rank tracker tool like SE Ranking, Authority Labs, or AccuRanker. If you have all of your target keywords in a rank tracker, you’ll be able to compare your rankings today to what they were 3/6/12 months ago and quickly identify what’s in need of an update.
A daily rank tracker also comes in handy after you update the post because you can monitor what impact the update had on your rankings.
But if you don’t already have rank tracking in place, you can use Google Search Console to see if rankings have declined on a post; it’s just more labor intensive and less clear than the data you get from a rank tracker.
Open Google Search Console and click the “Performance” tab.
Select “Average position” and deselect “Total impressions” and “Total clicks.”
Open the “Pages” tab.
Click into a page you’re interested in seeing the rankings for.
Go back to the “Queries” tab.
Click your target keyword for that post.
Review the chart that populates to see if your average rankings have been declining since you published or last updated that post.
You can also just search for your target keyword in the “Queries” tab to skip a few steps, but if you use this method, it’s important to look at the “Pages” tab and make sure that none of your other pages rank for that keyword because it could skew the data.
If you’re going to use the Google Search Console method rather than the rank tracker method, this exercise works best when you start with a list of posts that you found in Google Analytics that have been losing traffic.
Doing it that way minimizes the number of pages you have to look at and helps you determine if the loss in traffic was related to declining rankings or seasonal trends in search behavior.
3. Page-one, but not position-one, rankings
Another signal that a post could benefit from an update is that it’s ranking on page one — maybe in position two or three, or maybe at the bottom of the page — but not in position one. If it’s been a while since you touched that post, an update could help you overtake the number-one spot.
A rank tracker, Google Search Console, or even just searching for your keyword in Google can help you identify posts that are ranking on page one but not in position one for your target keywords. However, my favorite way to discover these posts is using Ahrefs.
Enter your homepage URL in Ahrefs’ Site Explorer.
Click on “Organic keywords,” then filter by positions 2-10.
This will populate a list of keywords where you’re ranking on page one but not in position one. If you have a large site, it might be a long list, but going through it to find update opportunities will be well worth the effort if you can use those opportunities to get your content ranked in the number-one spot.
4. Page-two rankings
Similar to page-one-but-not-position-one rankings, content that ranks on page two for your target keyword could be a big opportunity for updating that content. If it hasn’t been touched for a while, updating it could get it to move up to page one, and even a low page-one ranking can deliver a big boost in traffic to your site.
My favorite way to find page-two keywords is the same as my favorite way to find page-one-but-not-position-one keywords: using Ahrefs. The exercise is the same as before, but this time you’ll want to filter the results to show only keywords in positions 11-20.
Developing a long-term strategy for updating content
In my experience, there are two ways to generate rapid ROI when it comes to content SEO:
- Updating old content.
- Getting backlinks to that content.
Updating old content can sometimes take you from page two for your highest-volume purchase-intent keyword to position one overnight.
And when it doesn’t — when you’ve done everything you can to update that content and make it the best, most well-optimized piece of content in the results for your target keyword but are still stuck in position three — getting a handful of high-quality backlinks to the post can provide the boost you need to get in position one and stick there.
But success with updating content requires just as much thought and strategy as you put into any other content or SEO program.
Just sticking things on a cycle to update them every year is definitely better than never updating your old content at all, but it’s much better to wait until there are signs that the content needs to be updated to get the best return for your effort.
The strategy I use for content updates is two-fold.
Conduct a complete content audit
First, I conduct an audit early on with a new client and go through every piece of content on their site. I enter the URL for every page of the site into a spreadsheet, then I use Ahrefs to see what keywords each post is currently ranking for (if any) — and in what positions — and document that in the spreadsheet as well.
Then, I classify each post as “No change needed” (it’s already in position one for a target keyword) or “Needs update” (it’s not in position one). After that, I can prioritize the posts listed as “Needs update” based on whatever goals I’m trying to achieve — increasing traffic, generating more trials, etc.
The posts that are listed as “No change needed” get their keywords put into a rank tracker so I can monitor them and see when those rankings start to decline.
As we update the “No change needed” posts, the target keywords for those posts also get added to the rank tracker. I check the rank tracker daily, so I can see when something needs to be updated as soon as its rankings start to dip.
The content audit also lets me see where we have dueling coverage of a topic. If we have three posts all ranking for the same keywords, a super quick win is to just combine those posts together on whichever URL is ranking the highest.
The content audit process lets me see up front exactly what needs to be updated, and the rank tracking tool lets me know when it’s time for something to be updated again because it’s losing traction in the results.
Build backlinks to great posts that need a little more authority
When I can’t get an important post to rank in position one no matter how much I focus on quality, coverage, and on-page optimization, I send it to my off-page SEO partners to build some links to it.
I’ve found that while great content can win you the number one spot a lot of times, it’s not always enough. But in my experience, great content plus a few high-quality backlinks is almost always a winning combination.
Using this strategy of prioritizing, monitoring, and boosting with backlinks when required, I can make sure that a client’s most important content always ranks as well as it can for business-critical keywords.
Give updating your old content a try
I highly encourage you to go through one of these exercises to find a few older pieces of content that are worthy of an update, then update those posts and see what happens.
And if you’re not sure exactly what you need to do to update your old content and boost it’s rankings, check out my 10-step guide to refreshing old blog posts.