What Is Content Decay?

After putting in so much work for your website content and seeing performance numbers you’re proud of, it’s disheartening to watch your growth slow down or stall.

When traffic and revenue go down despite the fact that you’re posting fresh content all the time, you may be at a loss. Oftentimes, this is the result of content decay, but if you don’t know to watch out for it, you’ll be left confused and stuck.

It’s important to know about content decay in order to grow your business and website so you can drive the results you’re after. Let’s get into it!

What Is Content Decay?

In a nutshell, the term content decay refers to one or several blog posts that experience an ongoing organic traffic decline and ranking.

The content’s stats don’t all of a sudden plummet. Instead, they slowly “decay” over time. And while the change may be subtle enough to go unnoticed for a while, the ultimate loss can be severe.

The Typical Content Life Cycle

Understanding content decay is easier when you break down the life cycle of a piece of content. The life cycle is divided into four stages:

  1. Early traction
  2. Growth
  3. Peak
  4. Decay

Let’s go over each one.

Early Traction

After publishing a new piece of content on your website, it’ll take a bit of time for it to rank in search results and get a good amount of organic traffic. While this ramp-up period varies, in general, it takes time for performance to gain traction; rarely does a new blog post see its best stats right away.

Here’s how the “early traction” stage generally works:

  1. You post a new piece of content.
  2. Search engines index the content.
  3. Search engine algorithms begin to understand the content, like how it competes with other content, its search intent, etc.
  4. You’ll see small, random spikes in traffic for 1-2 weeks. This means the content is being crawled and analyzed. (If you have a solid email list and social media audience, these spikes may be higher.)
  5. Assuming the content is competitive and optimized, you’ll notice a consistent build in traffic.

By that point, you’ve reached the early traction phase. Note that early traction doesn’t refer to those first traffic spikes. It refers to the slower, steadier build in organic traffic that happens afterward.

Growth

The growth stage builds on the early traction your content gets. Hopefully, your content will get backlinks, which will help it rank higher and rank for more search queries. This will continue to grow the organic traffic.

There are no set numbers for how fast the growth will happen and how long it will continue. Growth rate varies by post.

Peak

At some point, your content will peak, which means growth reaches its pinnacle and then begins to taper off. There are a few reasons why this happens:

  • The content stopped getting backlinks, so it’s no longer rising in rank on the search engine results page (SERP).
  • The post was so well optimized that it reached the top spot for its keywords. Since it can only perform as well as the total monthly searches for those keywords, it hit its ceiling.
  • There’s a new or updated post that’s performing better than yours.

Like the growth stage, there’s no set amount of time that content peaks for. An article can be in the peak position for a few days or a few weeks before moving to the next stage. Or, it may hit a plateau at the peak stage and stay there for months.

Decay

Once content hits its peak and starts to go back down, it’s in the decay phase. This means the content is less competitive, fresh and/or relevant.

This doesn’t only happen with older content. If you’re covering a trending topic and a lot of posts are being published about it, you could start to see decay early on.

Common Causes of Content Decay

There are a number of reasons why content decay occurs, and one or more of those reasons may be affecting your posts. Here are the most common causes of content decay. Knowing what they are gives you something to watch out for.

Content Age and Freshness

Search engines prefer to rank fresh content when possible, especially when it comes to certain time-sensitive topics, like news or trends. We covered the Google freshness factor here if you’re interested in learning more.

You’ve likely seen this in action. Even when searching for an evergreen topic (meaning one that’s not time-sensitive), you probably won’t find results from 10 years ago on the first page.

Even far down the first SERP for “weight loss tips,” the results are only from the past year or so:

Dates of content on the SERP to illustrate freshness and content decay.

It’s not that content posted several years ago is necessarily bad or incorrect. But if newer content has been published on the topic, search engines know that users want to read that content instead of something much older.

It’s also probable that newer content is better optimized for search intent, incorporates more modern phrasing, etc.

Topic Depth

Even if you covered a topic in-depth, over time, that depth may become more shallow. As more information comes out about a topic, a once-thorough article can start to have gaps. Plus, as competitors create newer, more exhaustive posts, they’ll push yours out of its ranking position.

Changes to Search Intent

“Search intent” refers to the reason why a user is searching for a query. For example:

  • A search for “Disney World summer travel tips” is informational. The user wants to learn something.
  • The query “Disney World tickets for August” is transactional. The user wants to buy something.

Understanding the search intent of a query and designing your content to match is important for SEO.

Here’s how search intent plays into content decay: Over time, the search intent for a query can change. And your content has to change its approach to keep up.

For example, before a new iPhone is released, a search for that iPhone model has an informational intent. The user wants to learn more about the upcoming device. But after it’s been released, the same search query is more likely to be transactional because the user wants to buy it now that it’s available.

Check out this article from Ahrefs if you want to learn more about search intent.

Interest and/or Relevance

Sometimes, people simply lose interest in a topic, especially if it was newsworthy once and is no longer compelling. This can cause previously high-ranking content to decay.

Even if a topic still holds interest, yours may lose relevance if you haven’t updated it in a while. As newer articles include more recent data and references, they’ll be considered fresher than yours and rank higher.

Competition

There are two types of competition to watch out for:

  1. External competition from other creators and websites.
  2. Internal competition, which occurs on your own website and is easy to control.

Let’s go over each one.

External Competition

You’re probably not the only one covering a certain topic on your website and using the keywords you’re optimizing for. As other websites try to claim the top spot on Google, your content can be pushed into the decay stage.

Here are a few characteristics that make competing content more of a threat:

  • Higher authority
  • Recognizable branding
  • Search intent alignment
  • Volume of backlinks

If you’ve lost your spot to a competitor, look into those factors to see if you can improve them and put your content in a better position once again.

Internal Competition

When you use the same target keyword on more than one page, keyword cannibalization can occur. This means that your own URLs are competing against one another, which makes it hard for search engines to know which one to rank.

Your pages won’t reach the authority or ranking they might be able to otherwise. When Google can’t choose one page to rank for a topic, the performance of all pages on that topic suffers.

Internal competition can go unnoticed because it often happens slowly over time. As you write more about a topic, you can unknowingly use the same target keywords across multiple posts. You can also have competing URLs for your category pages, product pages and any URL on your website.

If you want to learn more about keyword cannibalization, this article from Semrush is a great resource.

Search Engine Features

As search engines change how they show search results, your content can be impacted. For example, featured snippets, shopping results and other types of search features can highlight some content and make other content less noticeable.

The top-of-the-page placement and aesthetics of these shopping results are likely to get more clicks than text-heavy results below it:Search engine featured results to show how content decay can happen.

Content Decay and SEO

While the most obvious way to spot content decay is by watching your organic traffic, there are other areas of your brand and website that can suffer. Here are the different ways that content decay can impact your SEO and your business.

Search Visibility and Brand Awareness

Even though you choose a target keyword to focus on for each post (and hopefully secondary keywords as well), high-ranking content actually ranks for several keywords, sometimes as high as thousands.

Content decay leads to fewer keywords the post ranks for, which leads to a decline in visibility.

According to Moz, search visibility is determined by the percentage of clicks you receive based on the content’s organic ranking position. Put more simply, it refers to how likely a user is to discover your link when searching online.

Lower search visibility can also impact brand awareness. Having a high-ranking URL on the Google SERP means that a lot of people see your website when they search, even if they don’t click on your link.

Click-Through Rate

The higher your content ranks, the more clicks it’s likely to get. As content decay causes your content to fall in ranking, CTR will decline along with it, which leads to less traffic.

For a deeper understanding of CTR, check out this explainer from Google.

Conversions

Content decay is a sign that your post isn’t the best, most relevant result anymore. Even if a user clicks to your page, they may not stay there for long if they don’t get what they’re after. The user will then leave your site without going further or converting.

Backlinks

Content decay makes it difficult to (a) gain more backlinks and (b) retain the backlinks you currently have. Content creators and website owners don’t want to link to content that’s:

  • Low quality due to lack of depth
  • Outdated or no longer relevant
  • Poorly aligned with search intent

Website owners won’t select your content to link to, and they may even remove existing backlinks if they don’t think they’ll serve their audience any longer.

Identifying Content Decay

While a decline in organic traffic is a common indication of content decay, that’s not always the best or only way to determine if content decay is occurring.

For example, a seasonal post will naturally lose traffic once the season has passed. That doesn’t mean it’s a victim of content decay, though, or that content decay issues need to be addressed.

Here are a few reliable ways to identify content decay.

Stats to Analyze

These are the stats to look at, listed in order of importance, to determine if content decay is affecting your website.

Traffic

The first thing you want to look for is content that’s had a steady, sustained organic traffic decline. Look over the last six months of URL performance to find this pattern.

If you’re having trouble determining if a URL has experienced a decline because the downward trend isn’t severe, compare two date ranges to get a better view of the impact.

Also, pay attention to content that’s performing well but has plateaued. While it’s possible that your content is so well-optimized it’s hit its ceiling, more often, a plateau means that it’s not reaching its potential.

Impressions and Keywords

Even with content that’s growing traffic-wise, impressions and the number of ranking keywords can go down. This is a symptom of content decay because it tells you two things:

  1. You’re continuing to rank for target keywords, but additional keywords are losing ranking.
  2. You’re not getting the same impressions as before as a result.

This can happen if your content is no longer providing thorough coverage of a topic or your search intent isn’t on point anymore.

Click-Through Rate

Let’s say you’re still ranking highly for every keyword in your content. You assume your content is fine and doesn’t need any work. However, it’s possible the CTR is declining without you realizing it.

It’s helpful to look at the URLs that have had a CTR decline and analyze them to figure out what’s going on. For example, a competitor with a lower ranking but a better title may be getting more clicks than you, even if their content isn’t optimized as well.

This may or not be an indication of content decay, but figuring out the problem early and fixing it can prevent bigger problems.

Tools That Help Find Decaying Content

Hopefully, you’re already tracking search engine and website stats. These tools (both free and paid) can help you identify the content that’s decaying.

Ahrefs and Semrush

Tools like Ahrefs and Semrush can point you to URLs that are possibly experiencing decay. By comparing URL performance from two different time periods, you can view the content that’s had a decline in traffic and the number of ranking keywords.

Google Analytics

Comparing the organic traffic of your URLs from two different time periods can show you which URLs have experienced the most traffic decline. You can then look into those URLs more to see what’s actually happening with them and if content decay is occurring.

Google Search Console

While Google Analytics can show you data about website visitors, Google Search Console provides insight into how your content is performing in the SERPs.

Use Google Search Console to view your organic search performance by URL. Compare two different time ranges to see the URLs that have been impacted the most.

All in One SEO

Google Search Console can be intimidating, and if you’re not used to using it, figuring out your stats is tough. The AIOSEO plugin for WordPress includes a Search Statistics section that collects your Google Search Console data and makes it easier to understand.

How to Fix Decaying Content

Once you’ve identified the decaying content on your website, here’s how to address those posts for better performance.

Prune Your Content

If you have content that’s no longer relevant — maybe you don’t sell a certain product anymore — remove the page from your website. For a page that’s this unimportant, you wouldn’t get any benefit from updating it. By removing it, the page’s low performance won’t pull down the stats of the entire site.

Pro Tip: It’s smart to set up a 301 redirect so that any link juice the URL acquired can be passed along. This also preserves the user experience because visitors won’t end up on a dead-end page.

Update Your Existing Content

Refresh the content so it no longer feels outdated. For example:

  • Add more images or replace the ones you have
  • Include additional statistics from recent studies
  • Insert more internal links
  • Swap out old references for newer ones
  • Update wording to be more modern

Sometimes, these small tweaks are enough. Other times, though, you’ll need a more in-depth update that includes adding or removing content, updating the headers, etc.

To figure out what needs to change, you can run a page audit with a tool like Surfer. Or, you can look into the high-ranking pages for that query to see how the content is presented. Compare it against yours and make changes as needed.

Consolidate Existing Content

To fix an internal competition issue or to get more traction from small, low-performing pieces, consolidate two or more posts into a larger piece. You’ll create long-form content that targets more keywords and has a lot of room for optimization.

Again, set up 301 redirects to pass along link juice and send visitors to content they’re interested in.

Promote Your Content

Once your content is up to par, promoting it again helps people discover it. For example, share it on your social media accounts or write guest posts for other sites that let you add a backlink.

This can also lead to getting more backlinks, which can improve your ranking.

Expect Content Decay to Happen

One of the best defenses against content decay is knowing that it’s bound to happen. Fixing content decay isn’t a one-time pursuit — that piece is going to go through the content lifecycle again (and again), ending in the decay stage.

When you know that this is going to happen, you can create a system to continually address it. Regularly monitoring your stats and having a process for consistently updating your content will help you maintain or quickly regain your performance.

Wrapping Up

Left unchecked, content decay can eat your website alive. When you know to expect it, though, you’re able to plan for it, identify it and, most importantly, fix it before it becomes an out-of-control problem. You may even start to enjoy the part of your content strategy that deals with content decay! It’ll keep you on top of industry changes and trends, making it easier to become an authority in your niche.

You may also like our article that covers What is Position in SEO and Why Does it Matter?

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