SEO Insights > How content decay is silently killing your organic growth

How content decay is silently killing your organic growth

Article Highlights


What is Content Decay?


How to identify decay in your content


Factors that could cause your content to decay & how to fix them


Summary

Picture this.

You’re executing a successful content strategy, organic traffic is rising, your content is moving up the SERPs and things are looking great, but then…

Your growth slows, traffic starts to plateau and may even be in decline, nothing has changed, you’re still releasing content at a steady rate, and your rankings may not have even changed that much – what’s happening?

If this sounds familiar, you may be suffering from content decay.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What content decay is
  • How to identify decay in your content
  • Factors that can influence content decay and how to fix them

With all that said, let’s jump right in and break down what exact content decay is.

What is Content Decay?

Content decay is the process of your existing content experiencing a loss of traffic performance, ranking or conversions after a period of growth.

Because content decay happens to pages on an individual basis and is not usually a site-wide issue, it can go unnoticed, coining the term the silent killer of organic growth.

Some of the most common reasons for content decay are often not even in your control for example, topics becoming outdated or falling out of relevancy (remember all those Covid-19 articles you wrote?).

Content decay is a problem many sites suffer from. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in creating and launching new content whilst neglecting your existing content, especially if it’s performing well.

But how do you identify content decay?

How to identify decay in your content

Spotting content decay naturally can be a bit of a challenge when looking at your site’s performance holistically.

Thankfully, identifying content decay is made easier by tools such as Google Analytics, Google Search Console and third-party tools such as SEMRush.

Google Analytics/Google Search Console

Using Google Analytics and Search Console are perhaps the most concrete ways to identify whether your content is decaying.

Load up either tool and set your date range to be the last 12 months and apply an organic filter. Then select some of your top performing pieces of content and look at the trend, is it growing, plateauing or declining?

Below is an example of an article experiencing content decay in Google Analytics.

In this example, the article was about COVID, and we can see that throughout 2021, as we moved out of lockdowns, the article lost interest as it fell out of relevancy, despite the average position remaining relatively low.

Graph from Google Analytics showing traffic peaking and declining.

And here’s the same article in GSC over 16 months:

Graph from Google Search Console showing traffic peaking declining.

The pattern here is clear to see.

Whilst this method is great for pinpointing exact content that is decaying, the issue is that it is time-consuming to inspect URLs on an individual basis to analyse the graphs.

Therefore, you can also use tools like SEMRush & Ahrefs to get an indication of where decay might be occurring before inspecting further.

Utilising SEMRush/Ahrefs

You can utilise SEMRush & Ahrefs to get an idea of where content might be dropping by looking at Keywords and Pages over time. Utilise traffic estimated changes and position drops to get an idea of where issues lie, then utilise Analytics & Search Console to get a more accurate view of the situation.

Data from SEMRush shows traffic and keyword decline over time.

Just remember, the data from SEMRush & Ahrefs is third-party, and won’t be 100% accurate, so always check using your Analytics & Search Console accounts before making changes.

So you’ve identified which pages might be experiencing decay, but what’s causing it and how do you fix it?

Factors that cause content decay & how to fix them

As I’ve alluded to, there are a plethora of factors that could cause your content to decay, here are some of the most common reasons:

  1. Content ‘Freshness’
  2. Topic Relevance/Interest
  3. SERP Intent Change
  4. Algorithm Change
  5. E-A-T
  6. Content Cannibalisation
  7. Your competitors

We’ll break each of these down and explain them in more depth along with how to fix them

Content ‘Freshness’

We all know that Google favours ‘fresh content’, in fact ‘content freshness’ is widely considered to be a Google ranking signal.

If you’re searching a query and the results show a page from 2022 and a page from 2019, you’re far more likely to click on the result from 2022.

Google recognises this and will (usually) prioritise content that is ‘fresher’ in the SERPs, with all other ranking signals being equal.

How to fix it

Update your content!

You can utilise tools such as Ahrefs content explorer and examine the SERP manually to see if there are any new subtopics that have developed since you released the article. Take a moment to review the content at the top of the SERP, what have they included that you haven’t? It could be that the content is just written better – in which case, revisit the content and rewrite it, improving clarity, tone and structure.

Topical Interest/Relevance

Topics develop and change over time, it’s rare that one piece of content will remain relevant throughout its existence, and some topics will naturally fall out of interest and relevancy over time.

For example, an evergreen piece of content around iPods isn’t going to be as popular now as it was back in 2010.

You can get an idea of a topic’s interest using Google Trends, here’s the trend for ‘iPod’ over time:

Image from Google Trends showing a decline in interest over time for the term 'iPod'.

How to fix it?

Generally, there’s not much you can do to reverse a decline in organic traffic relating to outdated topics. Typically, if the topic is still relevant, you should look to update your content as discussed in the previous section.

SERP Intent Change

In recent years, Google Algorithm Updates have become increasingly focussed on search intent and it’s become more important than ever to ensure you’ve hit the right intent for the search term your content is targeting.

We’ve also seen Google introduce many more SERP features over recent years and continue to add more all the time. This means that SERP real estate is much more valuable and more competitive now than ever before.

You could still be ranking in the top 3 but not in the viewport anymore due to new SERP features, thus causing a click decline. Take a look at the example below for “event management software” a head keyword for businesses in this vertical, but the first organic result is below the fold, due to ads and an Event feature in the SERP.

Image from Google Search showing ads and an event calendar for the term 'event management software'.

How to fix it

Review the SERP manually, taking note of any new SERP features that could be taking up real estate. You want to be looking to see what is now ranking above you, is the content informational, commercial, navigational or transactional? You may need to pivot your content to match the new intent better.

Algorithm Change

As we know, Google updates its algorithm regularly (7 times this year so far), which brings natural fluctuations and changes in the SERP landscape with it each time.

Alongside announced updates, Google regularly makes changes and tweaks in the background that we are unaware of, causing further headaches for SEOs.

How to fix it

This one is perhaps the most challenging to remedy, as we’re never truly sure what is wrong. We’d always advocate waiting a couple of weeks for SERPs to settle post-update and then reviewing from there. Typically, sites such as SEMRush and Sistrix will publish investigations into what happened with updates, showing sites that have won/lost.

E-A-T

We’ve seen in recent years Google place more weight on expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness (E-A-T) as a ranking factor, especially in YMYL (Your Money, Your Life) niches.

Identifying whether content decay is due to E-A-T is naturally challenging, as it references signals across your whole site rather than a piece of content in isolation.

How to fix it

Improving your E-A-T is another article in itself, although generally, we recommend looking at instilling trust signals across your site, through about us pages and author bios as a minimum as well as gaining natural, contextually relevant backlinks.

Lily Ray has some excellent articles on E-A-T if you want to read more about this.

Content Cannibalisation

Content Cannibalisation is the notion of two pieces of content competing against each other for the same keyword set. Naturally, this is going to hamper your rankings and overall click rate.

How to fix it

Identifying content cannibalisation should really start with an overall content audit to understand what topics you are already covering on your site and where there might be duplication.

To check if two or more pieces of content are competing for the same keyword, you can do a site search on Google, simply search pop the following into the search box:

site:”Yoursite.com”: “target keyword”

Image from a Google Site: Search showing all results on ahrefs.com for 'content audit'.

This should bring up any of your pages Google thinks is relevant for your target keywords. From there, you should decide which page you want ranking and either remove or consolidate the other piece of content.

Your competitors

And finally, if none of the above applies, it could be that your competitors have released a piece of content that is fresher and better than yours, carrying out regular competitor content analysis will help keep on top of this.

How to fix it?

As mentioned above, we’d recommend updating the content, utilising tools such as Ahrefs content explorer and examining the SERP manually to see if there any new subtopics that have developed since you released the article, also review the content at the top of the SERP, what have they included that you haven’t. It could be that the content is just written better – in which case, revisit the content and rewrite it, improving clarity, tone and structure.

To Summarise…

Content Decay is a common issue amongst sites, typically, increasing in severity the more content you have.

If you’re experiencing content decay, don’t panic – take time to fully understand why the content is in decline and only when you’ve understood this you can make changes that are far more likely to be effective at combating the decline.

In order to prevent content decay, we’d recommend auditing your content regularly, updating, merging and removing content in order to stay ahead of the competition.

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