Episode Overview: Flowers can’t truly bloom and stand out amongst the foliage without a little pruning – the same can be said for content on your website. Trimming excess content may sound harmful to your content strategy, but pruning excess content to enhance your high-performing content can significantly improve your content marketing efforts. Join Ben as he welcomes back Eric Enge, general manager for digital marketing at Perficient Digital, to discuss successful approaches to content trimming and how to prevent trimming too much.
- There are two approaches to content trimming – The first is finding pages on your site that are of poor quality and removing or no index tagging them, and second is finding articles with poor topics that don’t add value to core content pieces.
- You can prevent the need to prune content by “Writing tight,” or writing concisely to stay on topic and consistent with other content throughout your website.
- Pruning unnecessary pages allows Google’s crawlers to operate faster on your site and devote more resources to scanning high-quality pages that can boost traffic to your site.
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Ben: Welcome back to Optimization October on the Voices of Search Podcast, I’m your host Benjamin Shapiro. This month we’ve been pointing the microscope at your content for what we’re calling Optimization October. Joining us for the last episode of Optimization October is Eric Enge, who is the General Manager for Digital Marketing at Perficient Digital, which is a leading digital transformation consulting firm serving enterprise customers with unparalleled information technology, management consulting and creative capabilities. Today, Eric and I are going to talk about trimming your content to maximize its output.
Ben: But before we hear from Robert, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data-driven decisions. To support you, our loyal podcast listeners, we’re offering a free trial of the Searchmetrics Suite. That’s right. You can now start a trial of both the Searchmetrics SEO and content experience platforms without paying a dime. To start your free trial, head over to searchmetrics.com/freetrial. Okay. On with the show. Here’s my conversation with Eric Enge, General Manager for Digital Marketing at Perficient Digital. Eric, welcome back to the Voices of Search podcast.
Eric: Thanks, Ben. Glad to be back.
Ben: Honor and a privilege. We’ve been doing this long enough that we are finally able to welcome some of our favorite guests back onto the show. You were here I believe about a year ago. I think it was at the beginning of the year talking about what you thought was going to happen in 2019. A lot’s unfolded, a lot’s changed and a lot’s stayed the same. Today we’re going to welcome you to talk about some of the ways that you recommend SEOs optimize their content. Specifically, how do you get rid of the bad stuff so you keep the focus on the good stuff? When you think about content trimming, tell me what it means to you.
Eric: Well, I think there’s two ways to think about content trimming. One is basically finding pages on your site that are poor quality and, well, removing it or tagging it with the canonical tag or a no index tag or something like that. You get it out of the Google index. The other is finding articles that have, well, off topic fluff in them that just isn’t really adding value to the core content piece. Those are the two different ways I think of content trimming.
Ben: So, I’m going to use a lot of gardening metaphors in this episode.
Eric: Let’s dig in, then.
Ben: When I think of trimming content, I think of pruning. I think what you’re saying is there’s two things you need to do to make sure all of the SEO juice, all the value, all of the lifeblood that’s coming out of your site is being directed in the right place so sometimes you need to cut off some branches and sometimes you just need to cut off some leaves. When you are thinking about doing your content trimming, you have good performing content but there’s some fluff in there. Let’s start there. How do you know what content has excess verbiage, imagery that doesn’t make sense? When you’re just cleaning up your content and making it more concise, how do you figure out what articles need something to be cut out and what do you cut out?
Eric: There’s a saying that some copywriters use which plays into things here and that saying is, “Write tight.” What that means is stay on point with the core message. If you are writing, well we’ll stay with gardening, you’re writing about strategies for managing your annuals and your perennials and I’m going to be stretching my knowledge base rapidly here.
Ben: I was going to say, good gardening knowledge. For everybody who doesn’t know annuals and perennials, some of those are plants that lasts for one year and some of them are plants that rebloom every year. Go on. I’m not sure which one’s which.
Eric: Yes. No. In any case when you’re trading content, especially written content to publish on the web, let’s say that’s your topic and you start writing about that and then you take some time and you go off on a riff about how bad last fall was. Well, if that sidebar that you take on talking about how bad last fall was isn’t specifically pertinent to some aspect that impacts your strategy of planting your annuals and perennials, then maybe it doesn’t belong. I had to phrase that carefully because there are certainly cases where the weather conditions in which you’re doing the planting might impact your strategies. Again, I’m not trying to stretch my knowledge of gardening too far here. But when you wander off topic and you go down a bit of a sidebar rat hole then maybe you’re creating stuff which is fluff, which is interfering with the person getting to what they really want, which is the hardcore advice on how to manage their planting.
Eric: I think that’s something that you have to be careful about. The reason why I use the phrase, “Write tight,” it also can be just as simple as your sentences being over wordy rather than just getting right to the point. I know I do this sometimes. My first draft of articles, I’ll go back and read them and say, “Oh man, I can rewrite this paragraph and it has all the same stuff and it’s a sentence and a half less than I had before.”
Ben: It can be very challenging to write concise, short content. Right? “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you this long paragraph.” That’s the gist that you’re talking about.
Ben: Great writers, that’s why editors exist to make sure that you’re staying on message and focused. Talk to me about some of the technology you use or some of the things that you look for to understand what content has fluff. Or is this purely just an anecdotal feeling you get in the content reviewing process?
Eric: Yeah. On our part, we have a really good editorial staff here that knows how to go through and find things which are, shall we say, over expressed. They know. It’s pretty easy, with an experienced eye, to recognize things that are drifting away from the main topic in a way that’s not helpful to the main topic and/or content that is just written in verbose mode rather than really good concise mode. That’s my experience in how we approach it here. Quite frankly, the simplest thing is let’s get a second set of eyes on the content.
Ben: Right. There’s what I call anecdotal feedback. There’s instinct, figuring out whether the content reads closely. There is a human process to evaluate whether your content is on topic. One of the things, and I’ll give the soft sell here for Searchmetrics, the creator of this podcast. One of the things that we’ve done at Searchmetrics is there is the content experience tool which helps you understand, what keywords you have that are over indexed and what keywords that you’re missing that are going to help you rank for a given topic. There are, and I’m sure there are other ones, if you’re not a Searchmetrics user, that do similar things to help you understand what type of language you should be including and excluding. Are you using any tools or services or any data to try to evaluate what content is overly verbose or are you purely operating on instinct?
Eric: Yeah. First of all, we use the content tool within Searchmetrics and similar tools that others provide. We tend to use the tools that the client has because they tend to have a preferred platform and we like to speak in their platform. It’s really helpful to see those kinds of things. We actually have our own tool as well. We call it Semantic Content Optimizer, which does a very similar thing. It-
Ben: Sounds fancy.
Eric: Yeah, basically it examines competitive content and your content and finds gaps and also excesses very similar to what you described. That’s a very useful thing to do. I think of that as being a slightly different slice of the problem than content trimming, per se, but it’s actually an important part of the puzzle in terms of the overall content quality. To draw that out a little bit, a simple concept is if you are trying to rank for a given term in the search results, call it the best time to plant annuals, let’s make that a search phrase we want to rank for. You look at your content and compare it to competitive content that ranks higher than you in Google, you might find that that competitive content is talking about things that you are not. You also might find that you’re talking about things that they’re not. To stay on the trimming side of things, you can look at the things that you’re talking about with your content that competitors aren’t. You need to decide whether it’s actually a value add to the piece.
Ben: Yeah. There’s technology tools. Right? Understanding your semantic evaluation tool that helps to do a little keyword optimization, data-driven pointing in towards the term that you’re trying to rank for. But a lot of the content trimming comes down to intuition and understanding whether you’re staying on topic. This goes back to understanding what your keywords are, what’s the purpose of a piece of content, how you expect it to fold into your larger SEO strategy.
Ben: On the flip side, there’s also the idea of just trimming content altogether. Right? This is cutting off the branch, not taking off a couple of leaves. Going with the gardening metaphor, when you’re evaluating a website, [inaudible] stays and what should go?
Eric: It varies greatly by site. Right? If you have an ecommerce site, a lot of times you have sites with faceted navigation that spew out hundreds of thousands or even millions of pages. It may be far more than Google really wants to see from your site. Just staying at a conceptual level for now, in those cases, you can find that you have a really big problem with maybe you’ve created too big a crawl space for Google, or maybe you’ve made the site seem less relevant to your core topic because there’s things that are off topic. Classic case is a faceted navigation where maybe you have 10,000 products, but the faceted navigation blows that out into a million pages because of all the configurations. Right? Sorry, I’m going to switch from gardening for a moment. Clothing, you’ve got shirts, you’ve got all the shirt sizes and you’ve got colors and you’ve-
Ben: Floral shirts.
Eric: Yeah. Floral shirts. Yes. Thank you. Gardening shirts. Thank you for bringing me back on the gardening topic.
Ben: It’s my job as a podcast host.
Eric: Well done. Yeah. I took a look at Zappos at one point for men’s Nike basketball sneakers. I did a calculation using the expansion of the faceted navigation that looked like Zappos had maybe 96,000 pages for that topic, which is probably 95,500 too many.
Ben: When you’re mentioning faceted pages, talk to me a little bit about what specifically that means.
Eric: Yeah. Just for definition, you arrive at the page for gardening shirts on an ecommerce site and the user can pick things, often from dropdown menus. You have to pick men’s and women’s, I get the-
Ben: Men’s, women’s, colors, size, shoelace type, right? All sorts of variables.
Eric: Yeah. And often they’re drop down menus, you just pick something and the page repaints and you get new stuff on it. It could be also just sorting it. You might currently be showing it from lowest to highest price. Somebody might want to see it from highest to lowest price. Or everything under $100 might be another configuration that somebody could pick. There’s all these limitless choices that users have and Google really doesn’t thrive when you give it this huge volume of pages to deal with when maybe what they want to index from you on the topic is 20.
Ben: Right. They’re looking for an individual page for each shoe and aren’t finding much value out of whether it’s a black shoe or a white shoe. If it’s the retro 2019 Nike Air Jordans, they only need one page for that. Or maybe they need one for men’s and one for women’s and one for babies, but they don’t need red, white and blue.
Eric: For example. Right? What we’ve seen in numerous cases with clients is that cleaning this up and reducing the number of pages, not only the Google indexes but the number of pages that Google can crawl, often leads to stunningly good gains in SEO. In some cases doubling of SEO traffic just by getting Google to not spend all this time crawling pages that it doesn’t index or doesn’t send any material traffic to and having it spend all its time on the pages where the real value is.
Ben: I could see a case where this is a little counterintuitive where, if you’re going to give Google all of these options, then you’re going to capture more long tail content. Nike Air Jordan, 2019, men’s, whites, blue shoelaces, retro. Right? That’s a long keyword as opposed to Nike Air Jordans, 2019, retro. Right? If you’re stripping all the variables out, you might be able to capture more tail terms and so, therefore, more page submission makes sense. On the flip side, if you consolidate everything into one page, maybe a ranking for the head term Nike Air Jordans. How do you balance that? How do you figure out what to cut?
Eric: Part of what you want to do is make sure you take those higher level pages, and you probably don’t have to have only one, it just can’t be 96,000 or whatever I said it was before. You might even be able to support 100 and it’s not too many. It’s the 96,000 that’s out of control. With that in mind, part of what you want to do is make sure you don’t lose so much long tail traffic by making sure the words and phrases that make it clear that you have these other options are available on those higher level pages that you still have a chance of picking up that long tail traffic.
Eric: Then to get a little bit to the tools side of this, one way to attack this problem, to make sure that you’re not cutting off healthy tissue or, sorry, killing a healthy tree … Got to stay with that gardening metaphor. Discover all your pages. If it isn’t immediately evident to you, you can crawl your website and pick up your analytics tool and get data on how many of those pages that you found in the crawl of your website are actually getting Google traffic. How much downside is there in cutting off a page that doesn’t get any Google traffic? Not a lot. Right?
Ben: Yeah, I would guess none or minimal. I think that there is the concept of keyword coverage. When Google understands the purpose of a page maybe it gives a better signal for what your site is about and helps you rank for head terms. But at some point there’s judgment here. 96,000 pages just for a single shoe or type of plant, using the gardening metaphor which we’re going to beat into the ground here, which is another gardening metaphor, that seems like overkill.
Eric: Yeah, well exactly. I think again, as I said, make sure those higher level pages reference those longer tail terms. Your gardening shirt or your gardening shoes, mention the colors available on the text of the page so you’re not relying on the title tag of the page that Google may never or very rarely crawls and never sends traffic to. You’re consolidating these things on a higher level page and still exposing that to Google. Like I said, we’ve done this in numerous cases and it almost always is a win when you do this kind of trimming.
Ben: It seems like there’s a couple of different things that you need to go through when you’re thinking about trimming content. First, look where you have content or pages that are duplicative. Right? See if you can consolidate those and give some filtering options. Now you’re pointing all of the lifeblood, the juice, back towards the, the branch that you want to grow. The other thing is you’re going to look at your search traffic and see what pages are being crawled and are they actually being searched for it. Right? Are they actually creating any value? If they’re not, those seem like the pages that are most likely should be cut. Now you don’t want to trim out your entire site. Right? You’re going to kill the whole thing if you take out all of the pages. If you’re not getting SEO traffic in general, that may be a different problem. But if you have a bunch of pages that aren’t getting any traffic, you can cut them and still try to point Google and basically give Google more directed signal.
Eric: Right. To nail it and bring it home with our gardening metaphor, we’re taking the tree with the dead branch, we’re cutting off the dead branch, which allows more of the lifeblood juices to go to the healthy parts of the tree.
Ben: I feel like we’ve really grown a beautiful metaphor from seed to a flower that’s lasted for at this point, 20 minutes. Any last word on content trimming? How do you know when you’re trimming too much? Do you ever think about trying to put the branch back onto the tree?
Eric: Yeah. It’s a fair question. A strategy first, let’s talk about it this way so that we hopefully don’t get to over trimming. Let’s say you identify a million pages that you think are strong candidates for trimming. Take the half million most obvious ones and lock them off first and see how you do. Right?
Eric: Does it help? Is there no impact? Is there any benefit, no benefit, no downside, any downside? If that goes okay, then take some more. You don’t have to take it all in one glorious chainsaw moment. You can take them down one at a time with the most obvious prospects first.
Ben: It’s the Mr. Miyagi style of trimming. For those of you who haven’t seen “The Karate Kid,” you cut one leaf at a time, you cut one branch at a time, and you shape the tree to look like what you want it to look like.
Eric: Yes. That’s what we do when we have situations where we think there’s some potential for trimming too much is we take it in stages. Other times it’s pretty clear to us. We had one site that what we looked at is we saw that 80% of Google’s crawling was being spent on pages that was getting less than 2% of their traffic. 80% of crawling time and only 2% of traffic. So we blocked crawling to all of those pages, which were actually essential pages to the site in one regard, but we had to prove a point. Within 30 days, traffic was up 30% because we just focused Google on the things that it already loved. Then what we did is we went back and we worked on the things that we … We didn’t actually literally lop them off. They were still sitting there, but we worked on the quality issues on those parts of the site. Then piece by piece we turned them back on and then traffic just continued to grow from there.
Ben: Yeah, I think it’s valuable advice and I think even going back to when you’re trimming content and shortening it, there’s data that you can use to try to understand what should be trimmed out. Right? You need to look for what signal you’re getting, whether a piece of content has bloat in it. When you think about trimming pages of content, you also get the signals from Google. Where are they spending time crawling your site? What are the pages that are actually getting your traffic? The more that you have an understanding of where Google’s resources are going as they investigate your site, and are those paying off, the more that you can figure out which branches you do want to cut to shape the tree the way that you want it to look.
Eric: Right. You’re absolutely right to turn that analytics focus back to the original conversation about cleaning up the existing content and removing bloat from it as well. Always a good clue to see what’s clearly underperforming.
Ben: Great. Well, Eric, I appreciate you coming on the show and walking us through your thoughts on trimming. I think it’s incredibly important to understand, mostly as we talk about content optimization, you understand what content’s performing, you understand what’s taking Google’s resources and you can grow a beautiful flower of a website.
Eric: Awesome. I think we planted the seed and hopefully the audience will run with it and grow it.
Ben: All right. That wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Eric Enge, General Manager for Digital Marketing at Perficient Digital. We’d love to continue this conversation with you, so if you’re interested in contacting Eric, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can contact him on Twitter where his handle is, stonetemple, S-T-O-N-E-T-E-M-P-L-E, or you can visit his company’s website, which is Perficient Digital, P-E-R-F-I-C-I-E-N-T-digital.com. If you have general marketing questions or if you’d like to talk to me about this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes or you can send me a tweet @benjshap, B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P.
Ben: If you’re interested in learning more about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic online visibility, or to gain competitive insights, head over to searchmetrics.com/freetrial for your test run of our SEO suite and content experience platform. If you like this podcast and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app and we’ll be back in your feed next week. All right, that’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.