A website is an ever-changing entity, and you as a business owner will change over time as well. What you wrote two years ago may no longer be relevant, or may not even be correct! I find that when I go back over some my content from previous years I cringe.
Sometimes it's not about the quality of the content though! You may have some pages that don't perform or topics which no longer fit your niche, among other things. Getting rid of expired content is a common thing to do. But how do you delete a page or post without hurting your SEO?
Answer: A Straight Delete And 404 Is Fine Most Of The Time, Otherwise 301 Redirect
404 errors don't affect SEO directly, so if you just delete a page, Google will de-index it. Not a big deal. For crap content, I recommend just deleting it.
However, if your site is older, there may be some more elegant answers out there. Sometimes, you'll want to 301 or 302 redirect instead of deleting. I've done it where I actually just used the original content as a springboard to funnel people to more relevant pages, keeping my website structure in tact.
What's the best answer? It depends on what you're trying to do. Let's start by looking at what happens when you delete a page or post and consider the impact it can have on your SEO efforts.
The 404 Error
Deleting a web page will remove it from your server. However, visitors will receive a 404 status code when they try to access the deleted page. In general, 404 errors aren’t actually bad for SEO. They are a natural occurrence for the most part.
They occur whenever a page asset cannot be found. There can be several potential reasons why it happens. You may have accidentally removed a web page or typed a link manually and made a mistake. Other websites can give you 404 errors simply by linking to your site incorrectly. As far as search engine algorithms are concerned, it isn’t something they take into account.
However, there are two instances where 404 errors will hurt you. The first is if your eradicated pages are still receiving traffic from search engines or other external sources. This situation hurts your rankings because it’s just bad user experience (UX). Sending someone to a non-existent page means they leave fast, signaling that the content quality is low or not relevant to the search term.
The second is when you have links pointing to dead pages, whether externally or internally. Consider the typical SEO journey, which is often like the following.
You create astonishing content, build a bunch of backlinks to your website and one day, it takes off! Now you don’t have to manually build backlinks anymore because you’re getting them naturally. Yay!
But, you risk losing any link equity that you’ve gained if you delete that page with links pointing to it.
If you do have 404 error warnings in Search Console, I find that if I just leave them for a bit, Google naturally de-indexes the content. You can also “mark as fixed”, and Google eventually gets the hint.
How to Deal With Pages That Have Traffic And/or Backlinks
The ideal response to undesired web pages is to 301 redirect them. This means to permanently move a page’s location.
First, check to see if you have relevant web page content that you can point the old URL (s) to. Think of how you can improve the experience of your visitors. If someone clicked on a well-known page address and are redirected to a new page, will they be happy? 301 the given page if the answer is yes.
What if you don’t have relevant alternatives?
Ideally, you would write a whole new piece of content that you won't have to delete or redirect in a few years. Focus on making your page timeless so that you don't have this problem of irrelevant pages in the future. As an alternative, you could direct to a somewhat relevant piece of content, or a category page with related topics like a tag/category page.
The primary reasons for redirecting 404s is to recover link equity and avoid bad UX. If you have just a couple hits a month, a redirect anywhere is fine. Realistically, it won't make much of a difference in your conversions. If you have relevant traffic coming to the page, then you definitely want to redirect to a better page (which you still need to create)
When to Completely Delete a Page or Post
A 404 status code only tells the browser and search engines that a page couldn’t be found but doesn’t indicate a deletion by itself. Eventually, Google or Bing will remove 404 pages from their index but this may take some time.
What if you want to completely delete a page?
I still recommend that you try the approaches that we’ve previously discussed for handling deleted pages. However, you can send a proper HTTP response.
This is the 410 status code and it means content has been deleted. Of course, only use this option if there are absolutely no links and no incoming traffic to the page or post.
Search engines will delete a page from their index a lot quicker when they receive a 410 response. The only caveat is that you may still see your pages listed under excluded in GSC, even with a 410 status.
You can use your the ‘.htaccess’ file (for servers running apache) or a WordPress plugin like this one to setup 410 responses for deleted web pages.
Things to Keep in Mind
You may need to do a little housekeeping to make sure everything’s in order when you delete content.
Most CMS (content management systems) create archive pages where they store a list of particular post types (i.e. tag pages). However, not all of them remove the URL of a deleted page. So check your site to make sure it’s handling archive pages appropriately. You can also remove content from the search feature on your blog.
The best approach is to improve each post or 301 them if your website doesn’t handle archive pages well.
Auditing Your Site For Thin Content Pages
Thin content is any page that adds too little or no value for visitors such as spun, duplicate or scrapped content and doorway pages. I’m sure you’ve already guessed why these kinds of pages are bad for visitors.
The fact is, search engine algorithms aren’t smart enough to distinguish between thin content that should be disregarded vs. pages that belong on the SERPs (i.e. lead magnet pages). This ends up hurting your user metrics on the SERPs.
We know that PQ (page quality) is an important ranking factor for Google. Several things are considered such as user behavior and CTR to determine a page’s PQ score. So what typically happens is a slow but painful reduction of the overall quality and trust of your site if things are left unchecked.
So whenever possible you need to audit your site for thin pages. You want to look for pages that fit the following criteria:
- Very low volume of text content
- Low value or expired topics
- Spun or auto-generated content pages
- Duplicate posts topics
- Cannibalized keywords
How do you find them?
Two of the easiest ways to identify low quality pages are a high bounce rate and low time on page. A high bounce rate isn't always bad – if you're using a page to link to an affiliate product, a high bounce rate could be an indication of your page being effective at selling the product. Many times though, it means your page is not very relevant to the search topic.
Once logged in, click on ‘Behavior’ located on the left navigation menu, then ‘Site Content’. Select ‘All Pages’ and look for the ‘Bounce Rate’ column. Simply click on the column title (Bounce Rate) to sort by descending order.
The web pages with the highest bounce rates are the ones you’ll need to investigate.
Here, you can see I have very high bounce rates (90% – 100%). Look at other metrics before making your decision on what to do with the page though!
One page has an average time on page of 14 minutes. People are reading the full page, then leaving. Another has a bounce rate of over 90%, but with 2+ minutes on the page. Someone's reading that one too! The real problem pages are the ones with 100% bounce rates and 0:03 time on page. I could improve that page, or delete it and try again. These are my top pages though, so I'll probably do a rewrite!
Video: Tips For Updating Old Content
The visual quality of this video is quite low, but the topics they cover are solid. It's some ideas on how to improve old content.
Should Deleting Pages Be Part Of Your Monthly SEO Work?
I'm of two minds about this, and have seen conflicting advice. On the one side, keeping everything on your website rock solid, helpful, and the best it can be is a surefire way to make an online business that is algorithm proof and ready to earn money for the next couple decades.
On the other side, old content just gets de-indexed, and is it really worth a your time go through making sure every single page is perfect, or would your time be better spent creating new content, then simply using internal links to show visitors where the better pages are?
I wish I was the former – the person who maintained a tight ship, and all pages on my site were something to be proud of. In reality, I'm the latter example, pretty much just letting things slide.
Actually, in 2019 I did a whole “audit” of my site, improving content, deleting old pages, and linking from outdated stuff to updated stuff. It cost me a good chunk of money and took up plenty of time. I did not see any improvement in traffic or conversions. Was it worth my time? Hard to say. I guess I feel better about my site now. Realistically though, on paper, it was probably just a waste of time and money.
The jury is still out!
How do you treat old content on your site?