One question I’m asked a lot is: “How do I know when an old blog post needs to be updated?”
A lot of people’s first inclination is to just update old blog posts on a schedule. For example: once a year, on the anniversary of the date a blog post was published, you update that post.
And while updating content on a schedule isn’t necessarily a bad practice—it’s certainly better than never updating your old content—it won’t always generate results that justify the effort.
A better approach is to look for one of three key signs that your existing blog posts are in need of an update.
1. Declining Search Rankings
A surefire signal that a post needs to be updated is 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.
There are typically two reasons for declining search rankings.
Reason #1: Google believes the content may be outdated and is deprioritizing it in favor of more up-to-date content.
There are some cases where fresh content is definitely prioritized: news is an obvious example. But unless you’re writing about something like the news that changes rapidly, it’s almost always more complicated than Google ranking a post higher than yours simply because the competing post has a more recent publication date.
It’s more likely that there’s some signal that your post is outdated—no longer as useful as it could be to searchers—and that could be the result of a number of things.
You’re Using Outdated Terms or Sharing Incorrect Information
I recently updated a blog post for Databox that was titled “The 10 Most Important Google AdWords Metrics.” But since the post was originally written, Google changed its branding for AdWords; it’s now called Google Ads. The fact that the post still used the old branding could be a signal to Google that the post is outdated.
Two more examples include linking to outdated content or conveying no-longer-accurate information.
Users Believe Your Content is Outdated
Most search results now have dates that display next to each result’s meta description:
If users are interested in more recent content, they may see an older date and pass on clicking that result in favor of a more recent post. This lowers your click-through rate, which is a signal to Google that your content isn’t satisfying user intent. As a result, your rankings decline.
But even if you don’t have dates displayed in search results, Google can monitor how users interact with your result to determine if your content satisfies user intent.
For example, if people click into your result, see that the content is outdated, go back to the search results quickly, click another result, and spend more time on that page, it’s a signal that your result failed to answer that user’s question. Again, this causes your rankings to decline.
You’re Missing Something That Probably Should Be Included
Let’s say you have a list post: “The Best Email Clients.” You wrote it two years ago. But since you wrote it, a new email client was released, and everyone fell in love with it immediately. As a result, every post that’s been written recently lists the new email client as one of the best.
But since your post was written before the new email client was released, your content doesn’t mention it. The absence of the popular new email client from your list could be a signal that your content is outdated.
If your content has outdated (and now incorrect) terms/information or is missing key recommendations that you would provide today, it’s time to update that blog post. Refreshing your content will provide a better user experience, and a better user experience usually leads to higher search rankings.
Reason #2: Another site (or multiple sites) published content that’s better than yours.
If you’re ranked in the number-one spot for any keyword, you have a target on your back. Anyone who’s doing proper SEO is aiming to publish something that’s better than what you’ve written. Sometimes, people succeed and overtake your top ranking, and your rankings decline.
This is another signal that it’s time to update your post, refreshing the content to make it better and/or more comprehensive than every other listing on page one of the search results.
2. Page-Two Rankings
The second sign that a blog post needs to be updated has nothing to do with its publication date. It’s often worth updating pieces—regardless of how old they are—if they’re ranked on page two of the search results.
A page-two ranking is a sign that your content is pretty good—it very nearly merits a page-one placement—but it’s not quite good enough to appear on page one.
Sometimes, updating a post to make it better—more fully satisfying user intent, making it higher quality or more comprehensive, or adding additional assets like videos—can boost a post’s rankings and take you from page two to page one.
And even a low page-one ranking can deliver a significant boost in traffic to your site.
For example, on June 25th, I updated a Databox post that was ranked midway down page two for the keyword “what is a KPI?” After the update, the post jumped in the rankings and is now in position #7 on page one. But even with a low page-one ranking, organic search traffic is steadily increasing.
3. Page-One Rankings Without a Featured Snippet
Position #1 in organic search results is a great place to be, but position zero—otherwise known as the featured snippet—is even better. Featured snippet results appear above the #1 organic search result and get a larger and more detailed result card:
So here’s the interesting thing about featured snippets: you can earn a featured snippet even if your content isn’t ranked in the #1 spot. In fact, Google often pulls featured snippets from results that are ranked anywhere on page one of the search results.
If you have content that’s ranked on page one—but the search results for your targeted keyword display a featured snippet that contains someone else’s content—updating your post and optimizing it for the featured snippet may earn you a position zero ranking that drives significantly more traffic to your site.
How to Get the Data You Need to Identify Content That Needs to Be Updated
Premium SEO tools make it really easy to monitor keyword ranking changes and identify posts that are ranked on page two—or ranked on page one but without a featured snippet. For example, Ahrefs’ organic keywords movements report shows you day-by-day changes to your rankings for specific keywords:
But if you don’t already pay for a premium SEO tool and don’t want to invest in one, you can get the same data from either a general Google search or Google Search Console.
Google Search Console tells you what keywords you rank for, as well as what position you rank in for those keywords. To get this data:
- Log into Google Search Console.
- Click “Performance.”
- Click the “Average position” box above the graph (the background displays as purple when it’s selected).
- Deselect “Total clicks” and “Total impressions” (making the background behind those metrics white).
Now, scroll down the page, and you’ll see a list of all of the keywords your site ranks for, as well as what position you’re ranked in for each keyword.
You can then export that list to a CSV file to easily filter the results and identify any keywords you’re ranking for on page two, generally positions 11-20.
However, if you have lots of content published on your site, you may not be sure what pages are ranking for different keywords. Google Search Console provides that data, too:
1. With the “Average position” box still highlighted, click the “Pages” tab, and then click on any page.
2. Now, click the “Queries” tab. This shows you a list of all of the keywords that the page you selected ranks for, as well as what position you rank in for each of those keywords.
This gives you all of the data you need to determine whether or not that page needs to be updated. For example:
- If you’re ranking on page two for your target keyword, that page needs to be updated.
- If you’re ranking lower on page one than you were previously, that page needs to be updated.
- If you’re ranking on page one but don’t have the featured snippet (you can determine this by searching Google for your target keyword and looking for a featured snippet in the results), update your content and optimize it for the featured snippet.
You can track keyword ranking changes manually, but I’ve found an easier way to monitor rankings is using Databox—one of my client’s tools. Here’s how:
- Sign up for a free Databox account.
- Connect Google Search Console as a data source.
- Create a new blank dashboard.
- Choose Google Search Console as your data source.
- Drag and drop the “Positions By Queries” Datablock onto your dashboard.
- Edit the Datablock to show as many rows (queries) as you need. If you have lots of content, you may want to show 100, 300, 500 rows, etc.
- Add other Datablocks if you want, or just expand that Datablock to fill the dashboard.
Once you’re finished, you can scroll through all of the keywords your site ranks for, see what position you rank in for those keywords, and see an indicator showing any positive or negative ranking changes.
Updating the Right Content Leads to a Higher ROI
If you’re willing to dig into your metrics to uncover the right content to update, you’ll see greater results from your efforts than if you just update all content on a schedule.
But like I said in the beginning, updating on a schedule is still better than never updating your old content. If you absolutely don’t want to dig into your metrics to find the best opportunities, updating on a schedule is fine. I’d recommend updating content once a year in this case.
However, I’d also recommend evaluating whether or not there’s a good reason to update each piece you’re considering. Was it popular in your newsletter or on social media after it was originally published? If so, republishing an updated version may drive a surge of traffic from subscribers/followers who missed it when it was originally published.
But if neither of those things is true, it might not be worth updating—or at the very least, updating it should be a lower priority than posts that initially saw success on one or more channels.
Is updating old blog posts worth the effort? Find out by reading my recent Zapier case study where I look at the impact on traffic for 21 blog posts that Zapier updated in late-2018 and early-2019.
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I help brands refresh their old, outdated blog posts to boost traffic and search rankings.