“Ask an Expert” is an occasional feature where we ask ecommerce experts questions from online merchants. For this installment, we address a question about removing outdated web pages that are indexed on search engines. It comes from Biba Pearce, a web copywriter and search-engine-optimization specialist, who works out of South Africa.
For the answer, we turn to . He is vice president of SEO strategies at Covario, an SEO technology firm, and a long-time contributor to Practical eCommerce on the subject of SEO.
If you’d like to submit a question, email Kate Monteith, staff writer, at email@example.com and we’ll attempt to address it.
Biba Pearce : “I noticed that some of my client’s web pages contain old, outdated content from several years ago. While I realize that this is not good for web users, the pages are well-indexed, and they come up in the number one spot on the search engine results pages (SERPs).
“Where should I draw the line between old content that is well indexed, and fresh content that is not? In other words, is it better to remove the old content and remove the indexing of those pages for the sake of web usability, or to leave it alone since the pages are so well indexed? And, if it is better to remove those pages, what is the easiest, most effective way to do it?”
Stephan Spencer: “Just because an old web page is highly ranked in Google doesn’t mean that it should be left untouched. In fact, a web page that’s kept up-to-date is likely to continue garnering more links, whereas an outdated page tends to stagnate in terms of its link authority.
“I know sometimes folks are wary of making changes to a page for fear of ruining what Google likes about the page and possibly tanking the page’s rankings. But, don’t worry; if you somehow ‘break’ the page’s SEO while tinkering with its content, you can always restore it to the original version.
“Good SEO [search engine optimization] is all about continually improving and optimizing. The ‘set it and forget it’ mentality isn’t compatible with top-notch SEO. You can always wring more performance out of a web page or document by optimizing it further with improvements to the keyword targeting, keyword prominence, HTML markup, and other means.
“Actually, a website is never finished. In other words, no website is ever the very best it could ever possibly be, right? The same could be said for a website’s SEO. Ask yourself if the page have the very best title tag it could ever have, and would it be impossible to improve upon it? If not, then get in there and tinker.
“When you ask if you should remove obsolete, highly-ranked content, the answer is almost certainly ‘no.’ If you remove the page (such as through a robots.txt disallow, or a meta robots noindex tag, or the URL removal tool in Google Webmaster Central), then it will no longer show up in the results, and thus it will no longer bring in visitors. Instead, update the content by revising it and annotating it so that it continues to be useful and usable.
“Take, for example, an old article about SEO tools that I published on Practical eCommerce several years ago. Some of the tools I cited are no longer online, some were completely overhauled and bear little resemblance to their predecessor, and many new tools now exist that are worthy of inclusion. But, rather than de-index the old article, we could revise the article to include all the new updates, or write a new article and 301 redirect the old URL (and all its link authority) to the URL of the new article.
“Also, consider the example of CNET. Every year it has a new holiday gift guide, and when it’s time to launch the updated guide, CNET will archive the previous year’s guide to a URL that contains the year (e.g., www.cnet.com/holiday-gift-guide-2009.html). Then the brand-new guide is published to the URL that hosted last year’s guide (e.g., www.cnet.com/holiday-gift-guide.html). This URL has hosted all the holiday gift guides of years past until they were retired. This allows for the ongoing accumulation of link authority year after year to the same stable URL.”