In this post, we look at why quality across all of your web pages matters for your search rankings, and the role of content audits in helping bring a site up to scratch.
It’s official. Kind of. As far as anyone can be certain of anything in the murky world of SEO, we can now work on the assumption that search engines take a whole site snapshot of quality into account when determining rankings for individual web pages.
Quality content matters
Digital marketers suspected as much for years. It explained, for example, why sites with beautifully curated and crafted front-end content, but with piles of shoddily written blog posts, struggle to reach the highest echelons on results pages.
Then Google confirmed everyone’s assumptions. Kind of. More accurately, during a Google Webmaster Hangout, Google’s John Mueller answered a question to the effect that it was theoretically possible that their algorithms would penalise even the highest quality pages if the rest of a site was populated by rubbish.
Theoretically possible? You’d have thought Google might be able to answer with a touch more certainty, seeing as they programme the things. Unless they’ve been experimenting with AI on their search bots and things have progressed a little further than expected…
Anyway, the SEO community has taken Google’s poker-faced stance as confirmation of a pretty open secret – the quality of your content really, really matters for page rankings, and not just the quality of those core pages – your services and your products – that you want to prioritise.
Playing the Google game
To play the Google game (other search engines are available), the quality of content across the whole of your site matters. Anything that is not up to scratch could be dragging the whole lot down with it.
The problem for site owners is that things have not always been this way, and old habits die hard. Way back when internet marketing was in its primeval soup phase, SEO was purely a numbers game. To rank high, you simply had to throw up as many pages as you could, loaded with as many keywords as possible. It barely had to be literate.
We all know those dark days are long gone, and thankful we are for that. But elements of the concern for quantity over quality have persisted. Think about business blogging, for example. Why does every business website worth its salt have a blog?
Is it to charm and educate their readership by sharing erudite wisdom? Or is it to make sure the site ticks over with fresh content on a regular basis so the site isn’t penalised by the search bots for being stale?
When you add a blog or a news update or a case study, quality might not be your most pressing concern. If your latest post doesn’t rank at number 1 in the search engine results pages (SERPs), you won’t be too bothered, as long as traffic to your product pages and conversions remain high. But according to the Google organic quality score theory, that is a dangerous game. Any slip in quality at all could be hampering your whole site.
Growing awareness of this – not least because SEO marketers are making a point of shouting about it – has led to a scramble to look at websites with fresh eyes. Fearful of having their most important content penalised because they never bothered to spell check their company news updates, site owners now want to know what content does and does not live up to the search engine quality criteria.
This in turn has created a booming market for so-called content audits – evaluative reviews of website content aimed specifically at judging whether the stuff on your site is fit for purpose.
Do I need a content audit?
Most businesses change and update their websites on a fairly regular basis. One review of large marketing companies found that the average lifespan of sites between major redesigns was just two and a half years.
The need to overhaul sites on such a regular basis may be driven by many things – new brand strategies, a desire to target new markets, keeping up with new web technologies, an attempt to improve SEO performance. Whatever the reason, a redesign usually requires the creation of new content.
The lifespan of your website content is therefore relatively short. And given the fact that the major search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo! Search are constantly tweaking the algorithms they use to collate search results, aiming to refresh content every two to three years certainly makes sense from an SEO perspective.
You can, of course, choose to update the content on your site without redesigning the whole thing. But the purpose is the same either way – improving on quality to drive better performance.
If you want your new site to perform better than the old one, with better search rankings, more traffic and higher conversions, improving the quality of the content is a key area to focus on.
This is where carrying out a content audit comes in.
A content audit will give you the complete picture of the relative strengths and weaknesses of your site. Going back to the idea of a whole-site snapshot of quality mattering for SEO purposes, this has become essential information to have.
Certainly, if you have not significantly updated your website content for several years, there will likely be pages and sections which don’t come up to scratch according to the latest SEO theories.
So a content audit is strongly recommended if you are planning a major overhaul of your website, as it will give you the intelligence you need to improve on content quality. It would also be advisable to carry out an audit if you haven’t updated your site for two, three years or more, as there are likely to be improvements that can be made.
A content audit is also a good place to start if you are unhappy with any aspects of your website’s performance, be it poor search rankings, dwindling traffic or low conversions.
Content audits are sometimes depicted as complex, technical, specialist processes. It is in the interests of SEO agencies to make them sound thus, as they want to generate business by offering their services to carry them out.
But in truth, there is nothing all that complex about a content audit. Anyone with a Google Analytics account and a spreadsheet programme can do one. The main challenge is that they can be quite time consuming, especially for larger sites, with a high volume of fairly repetitive, dull admin and data logging to plough through. This is the main reason why businesses choose to outsource content audits.
For the purposes of this blog, we are not going to go into detail about how to carry out a content audit – there are plenty of very good guides already out there, like this one from Quicksprout. Rather than go into great technical detail analysing SEO performance, Neil Patel recommends regularly checking the following on all pages on your site:
- The page title is under 65 characters and contains keywords
- The page description is under 160 characters and offers a clear, concise, intelligible summary of the page content.
- The main body content is a minimum of 300 words, grammatically accurate, readable and helpful.
- Keywords are used naturally and not ‘stuffed’ into content for the sake of it.
- All images should have an alt tag, preferably containing a keyword.
- Pages have been reviewed or edited within 24 months as a minimum.
- Every page contains at least two or three internal links to other pages on your site.
All of this is easily done from any standard content management system. The point about it is, there is nothing overly technical here – these are simple SEO strategies that are proven to work, and if you can keep on top of them on every page, the overall quality of your site will improve.
Above all else, carrying out a content audit is about making quality judgements across your site – because this is exactly what search algorithms will do. Deciding whether a page description is a clear, concise, intelligible summary, for example, is a quality judgement, as is determining whether the main body content is readable and helpful.
Rather than being blinded by the science of SEO, a content audit should be driven by the same principles you would use to judge whether a blog, ebook, press release, article or pamphlet is fit for purpose – is it well-written? Is it interesting and informative? Is its purpose clear?
Google wants search rankings to be based first and foremost on the criteria of what real web users find most useful. It has said explicitly:
“Creating compelling and useful content will likely influence your website more than any of the other factors.”
What it means here is that ‘useful’ content will influence how your site performs in search. The key is quality. If you focus on making web pages that are easy to navigate, easy to read, informative and useful to real people, SEO will take care of itself.
Bin a blog, or better it?
So what happens when you carry out an audit and find pages that are not up to scratch? If the content is old, obviously outdated, full of links that no longer work, stuffed with keywords and generally poorly presented, is it better to just scrap the page and start again?
You should be very careful about deleting pages from your site. Sometimes, it is perfectly justifiable and even necessary, for example if you have a product range or service that is no longer available. A content audit might also reveal that you have information duplicated in different places across the site, and that some pages are obsolete.
In these cases, there are proper processes to go through when deleting a page. If you simply get rid of a page and its URL is no longer ‘live’, anyone who clicks a link to that page, from a search engine or from other sites, will get a 404 ‘Content Not Found’ error notice. Such ‘broken’ links will damage the overall quality assessment of your site for search purposes.
If you need to delete a page completely, setting up a 410 ‘Content Deleted’ Notice will at least tell search algorithms that it is an intentional step, not just an error. If possible, it is better to redirect users to other pages on your site using a 301 notice.
In most cases, it is better to improve a low quality page than delete it altogether. Again, Google has suggested that what it calls ‘pruning’ low quality content could actually affect your search rankings negatively. Apart from the risk of leaving links that do not work, the reason seems to be that Google wants to encourage site owners to create more content, not less.
How we can help
If you are looking for some advice on improving the overall quality of the content on your website, we can help. We offer a content audit service that is first and foremost focused on the quality of your pages.
Across main static pages, product and service landing pages, blogs and news sections, we can cast a critical eye over your content, applying our editorial expertise and SEO experience to give you simple, honest advice about where improvements can be made.
Then, if you want someone to freshen up your content where required, we can do that for you too. Feel free to get in touch and we can have a chat about how we can help.