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Content refresh: Everything you wanted to know about staying relevant

With a little work, your content could be getting organic traffic long after you hit publish.

Content shouldn’t be posted and forgotten. With a little work and a content refresh, it could be getting organic traffic long after you first hit publish. Here’s how.

Have you ever found that a large portion of your website traffic is driven by a handful of pages?

But if you think these golden geese will keep laying forever, think again. Even the most engaging content has a use-by date. After a time, most of your carefully thought-out content will fall into a void where it only receives marginal attention. It will eventually become stale, forsaken by search engines and readers alike.

This is a problem. A 2016 report by the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) found the biggest challenge for Australian marketers was producing enough engaging content.

The challenge of keeping your site updated can end up with mountains of original content – most of it relatively untouched. Content marketers don’t necessarily need to create more to stand out in an over-crowded marketplace. Quality trumps quantity, but quality takes time and resources to craft.

A strategic refresh of content can push back the use-by date of the quality content you have created.

Why refresh?

Certain stories will only be relevant for a few days after they’re published, while other ‘evergreen’ stories offer timeless advice.

Buffer shows the example of a typical blog post. It peaks on the publish date and quickly declines in the following days.

Buffer blog post

However, evergreen content continues to grow after its original publish date, mostly with the help of search engine traffic.

Buffer content refresh evergreen content

Search engine traffic can expose your organisation to potential customers who have an interest in your area. And refreshing content has benefits for search. The freshness of your content is one of the signals used by Google’s algorithm to decide ranking. Former Google Fellow Amit Singhal explained; “different searches have different freshness needs”. Essentially, Google measures all your documents for freshness and then scores each page based on the type of search query.

Of course, having the ‘newest thing’ won’t necessarily mean you will outrank everyone else. There are hundreds of factors that influence the algorithm – so don’t update for the sake of updating.

But, at the same time, refreshing your content can help you engage with your audience’s current interests and pain points, giving a much needed boost while maintaining past authority and backlinks. And rather than deteriorating views and engagement, this content builds momentum over time.

Give your audience the respect of relevant information

Refreshing your content shows your audience that you care whether the information you give them is up-to-date and relevant.

News sites are built around publishing timely information but have also found their audiences respond to refreshed content. For example, in December 2015, a slow period for the Vox’s newsroom, writers and editors were told to refresh one article published months prior. They then changed the articles ‘updated at’ timestamp (but not the publish date) and shared the articles on social media.

Over a five-day period, 88 refreshed stories brought in more than 500,000 readers. Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias noted that no-one complained that the articles were like previous ones. In fact, some people shared the articles on social media despite sharing the older version months before.

“Lots of important things aren’t new at all, they’re just longstanding patterns, structures, or systems,” Yglesias said. “Even more commonly, some new development causes an issue to get attention or seem more relevant, but once you do start paying attention you see that you’re just looking at one aspect of a longstanding issue – one you’ve written about extensively before.

“The articles generated a lot of positive feedback, and some pieces that writers really put a lot of work into but that didn’t attract much readership the first time around became hits.”

Which content gets the refresh?

You can (and should) update published content when there is a significant change to the topic such as a regulatory change or a technological advance. But for the best results this ad hoc approach should supplement a more scheduled approach.

Your resources and publishing volume will determine the timeframe for a revisit and refresh. However, you might want to carry out this process every three to six months. It also might not be workable or even worthwhile to refresh too much of your content regularly.

More often, the challenge can come from knowing which pieces to breathe new life into. This decision can be made by consulting your analytics frequently. Create an evolving list detailing which pieces are your key evergreen content to focus your regular refreshing efforts on. Your approach may be a content audit or a more simple list in a spreadsheet.

Go further than a cosmetic refresh

Google won’t be fooled by cosmetic changes. Tweaking the date or changing a few words won’t cut it. Aspects that influence the freshness of your content include:

  • Frequency of your updates
  • Amount of content changed
  • Rate of new link growth

Remember to offer value to your reader, so focus first on removing any outdated or references that are no longer accurate. Then see what new information or updates are available on the topic, and think about how your organisation’s stance on it may have shifted.

Features you can consider changing include:

  • Relevance: Is it no longer relevant and does it offer outdated advice? Are there any broken links? Has the marketplace changed?
  • Usefulness: Does the audience gain anything from your content? Does it encourage users to take the actions you want them to take? Actions can include subscribing to a newsletter or more bottom-of-funnel actions such as talking to a sales person. Also, can they immediately take the action your organisation desires after interacting with the content?
  • Clarity: Is there confusing terminology or jargon? Does the content flow logically?
  • Consistent: Is it consistent with the newer content on the site? Is the tone consistent or is it a blog post that reads like a mismatched viewpoint?
  • Best practice: Does your content conform to relevant best practices such as using short, skimmable paragraphs and, where appropriate, bullet points? Does it match Google’s current length preferences? In the past, a 500-word article was long enough to rank but now search engines expect high quality and, often, longer content that covers every aspect of a problem. Do you have high quality, relevant images?
  • Format: Could you repurpose the content into a new format? For example, including an infographic on the page of an in-depth article.
  • Results: Did it bring the results you expected or planned? Perhaps it was released at the wrong time or not publicised well. Apply what you have learnt to do better the second time around.
  • Shareability: Have you made it easy to share the content on social media? Test different titles, subheadings and imagery on your evergreen content to optimise the piece across your platforms and make it more likely readers will engage with the piece. You could even change the header image every couple of months so that it will appeal to new audiences when reshared.

There is debate about whether changing article publish dates is a risky approach to refreshing content. If you do change the publish date, you may annoy readers who know they have seen the content previously. If you don’t change the publish date, it’s worth adding a line at the top explicitly telling readers when the post was last updated to reinforce the currency. And finally, make sure to re-promote the content on your social channels, flagging that it’s from the archive but mentioning why it’s relevant right now. Social media cues can also influence freshness and bring more attention to your work.

Just like that, you have brought you content back from the ether so that it is once again useful for your audience.

Hannah Dixon contributed to the writing of this piece.

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