You wrote it years ago. It did well at the time. People liked it …they clicked and opened, commented and shared. But your readers moved on. And you never looked back.
Maybe it’s time to revisit that old blog post, update it and promote it again.
Updating old blog posts has been one of the most effective SEO strategies we’ve found.
We’re not the only ones.
For the past four years, we’ve included this question in our annual blogger survey: “Is it part of your strategy to update old articles?” Every year, more bloggers answer yes.
The bloggers that update past content are roughly 20% more likely to report “strong results” from content marketing. It’s a powerful strategy for any content marketing program.
Why is it so effective to update old articles?
There are at least five reasons to update an old post then write something new:
- The topic has been vetted because you have data from the first version
- It’s faster to make because some of the research is already done
- It’s higher quality because the updated article goes deeper into the topics
- It’s easier to promote in social media because you’ll know just who to share it with
- It may rank higher in search because the URL may already have backlinks and authority.
In other words, you’ll get better results with less effort.
Here is our guide for updating content. We’ll show you which posts to revisit, how to update them and finally how to promote updated content. By the time you get to the examples below, it will already be obvious just now effective this content strategy can be.
Which blog posts should you update?
This works well if you’ve been blogging for a while. You have 100+ published articles. You’ve been checking Analytics and you know that some blog posts are getting 10x the results of others.
Our goal is to push more articles into that 10x results category. Certain types of articles have the best opportunities to become big winners:
- Articles that almost rank high. They could become traffic magnets with a little boost.
- Articles that are already high ranking traffic magnets, but at risk of being surpassed by rivals.
- Articles that created a lot of buzz when they were first published
- Research articles that have gone out of date
Two of these are specific SEO opportunities, easily discoverable through our 8-step content marketing audit.
erin balsa, THE PREDICTIVE INDEX
“Start by doing a content audit. This will help you prioritize which pieces of content to update and optimize vs. which to leave alone, redirect or kill. I like to optimize blogs that have 10 or more backlinks going to them, blogs that are ranking (but not on page one) for high-value keywords, and blogs that get a ton of traffic but low time on page and low goal completions.”
Update articles that almost rank high
You probably have some older content that ranks high …on page two of Google. Find them, improve them and within a few days, they’ll likely bump up to page one of Google.
Unlike classic keyphrase research (find phrases, create content, check rankings) this is Google telling you what phrases to target (check rankings, find phrases, improve content). It’s backwards and way more effective.
The data is in your Google Search Console (GSC) reports. You can access this report directly in GSC, in Google Analytics (if you connected them) or in any rank tracking reports in your SEO tool of choice.
- In Analytics, go to the Acquisition > Search Console > Queries report.
- Choose a date range that gives you enough data for analysis, usually several months.
- Create an advanced filter to show only queries for which you don’t already rank high:
Include queries for which the average position in search results is greater than 10. Here’s what it will look like.
The report will now show you the best SEO opportunities, each of which you can capture by updating the associated page.
Caution ⚠️ Before updating a page, find all the phrases that page ranks for. You need to know if it’s already ranking even higher for other phrases. You don’t want to accidentally de-optimize it by making it less relevant for other high ranking phrases. We’re here to improve quality and rankings, not change keyword targeting.
Update articles that rank well but are starting to slip
This is the second big SEO opportunity. There are two ways to find them. The first is traffic. Just check changes in traffic over time to any page in the Behavior > Site Content > All Pages report.
That’s fine, but not ideal. That traffic may not be from search and those pages aren’t necessarily landing pages. Far better to go to Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages report, add a segment to see just Organic Traffic and then compare traffic to a previous period.
If you like building reports, you can set this up in Google Data Studio, which is easier to scan. I called my report an “Early Warning System.” It shows which landing pages have declining traffic from search month-over-month.
Another way to monitor changes in rankings is with SEO software, such as SEMrush or Moz. These aren’t free, but they’ll give you a report that you won’t find in Analytics or Search Console: changes in rankings for specific keywords over time.
Here’s what it looks like:
Now that we know exactly which articles need a little love, and which posts to update for SEO impact it’s time to start improving them.
How to update old blog posts for SEO and higher rankings
There are two approaches to updating blog articles, one small and one big. Some bloggers use a light touch and simply update the headline and a few sections. Others go big and actually rewrite the entire post.
We typically take the second approach. Go big and completely overhaul the article.
To take the blog post to the next level, we step back and look at the topic again.
- Is there new research on this topic?
- Has our thinking or approach changed?
- Do we have new examples to include?
- Which visuals could best support this content?
- What influencers should we collaborate with?
In the end, some sentences and sections will be kept, but it’s really a rewrite. The process for blogging is similar to that of any new article, from researching the keyphrase research to designing the final image. Here’s our typical process looks like minute-by-minute.
For us, updating content is time intensive. Often the new version takes more time to write than the original.
What is URL Recycling?
By writing a new article where an old article used to live, you are basically recycling the original URL. If that URL has been linked to from other websites, you are leveraging the existing authority of that page, which could be substantial.
You can check to see if a page has been linked to using Google Search Console, which shows you the number of domains that link to a given page.
Or you can use SEO software to count the links and estimate the authority of that page. This should give you a better idea of the ranking potential.
Either way, by reusing an old URL, you can target keyphrases that would otherwise be out of reach for a new post. The URL is “pre-authorized” to rank well if it has been linked to by other websites. The foundation is in place to build higher.
With this in mind, I can imagine a two-step SEO strategy, based on building then recycling URLs.
- Publish short-form content that is likely to attract links (infographics, strong opinion, quick research pieces). Don’t worry too much about on-page SEO.
- After the URL has attracted links (could be months or a year later) recycle it by writing a long-form keyphrase-focused article at that same address.
Now the page will have both authority and relevance, the two main search ranking factors.
This strategy might be slow (literally 1+ years) but allows the SEO to target impossible-to-rank-for phrases. See example #2 below.
URL best practices for bloggers
Once you start recycling URLs, you’ll quickly realize that all new URLs should be created with this approach in mind. Make these your new rules for making URLs that are easy to reuse later:
Never put a number in a URL
…that’s bad because when update it next year, it may have 12 best practices. If you recycle the URL, they’ll be a mismatch with the title and header.
Never put a format in a URL
…that’s bad because you may want to publish an article on this URL later. It may not mostly be an infographic (or webinar or ebook) when you update it next year.
Every article’s URL should be short, simple and descriptive. No numbers. No formats.
This took me years to learn.
How to promote updated blog posts
Rewritten articles have special opportunities that fresh content does not. There are specific content promotion tactics for every channel: search, social, email and influencer marketing.
1. SEO: The keyphrase research is already done
You may have selected the article based on keyphrase performance. We showed this process above. You can use that same analysis to do semantic SEO, incorporating all of the related phrases and subtopics into the new piece.
2. Social: Share with people who shared it last time
Using a paid tool such as Buzzsumo, you can look up the “top shares” of the original version. Scan through, find some good ones, then reach out. Or tag them when you share again.
3. Email: Data-informed subject lines
Social is high-data, low-engagement. Email is low-data, high-engagement. But you can leverage social data to guide email marketing decisions. Find the social posts of the article that were engaged with the most (using Buzzsumo or your social media management tool) and use those words in the email subject line.
4. Influencer Marketing for SEO
Find articles that linked to the original (using SEMrush, Moz, Buzzsumo, etc.) and then let the author know that the article has been updated. They may cover it again, especially if the new version includes updated research. (Related: 29 Ways to Promotee Original Research)
5. Influencer Marketing for Collaboration
The outreach to influencers is easier this time around: “This piece was a big hit, so we’ve decided to revisit it…” or “I’m hoping you’ll contribute to one of our most successful articles…”
Definitely don’t miss the opportunity to collaborate with influencers when updating your content. They can improve the content quality, social reach and backlinks. They also grow your network and make your job a lot more fun. Making friends is the best part of life.
3 examples of updated content and SEO performance
In the examples here, I’ll show you the fruits of the labor. Each is like a little story with ups and downs..
1. “Byline takeover” rewriting an old guest post
Back in April 2013, a friend wrote an article for us about the basics of SEO. A few weeks later, I noticed that it was ranking for “SEO basics” so I started tracking the phrase.
Over the next few years, we watched it slide into oblivion.
It went from 200+ visits per month to less than 20. Rather than leave it there in the abyss (or asking my friend to go write it again) I recycled the URL and write a new post at the same address.
The new post went live in 2018. Almost immediately the rankings recovered as did the traffic. It’s ranked on page one ever since …although it’s since starting to slide again.
Here you can see the SEO and traffic results. I’ve overlaid the rankings with the pageviews so you can see the correlation.
And here’s the before and after for the content and engagement, showing just how much bigger the updated blog post is.
Bonus! I recorded a video version of me presenting the content and added it to the top of the post. This is part of our YouTube content strategy and that video has attracted 2,800+ views.
The byline takeover works the other way too. When our 2015 article about social media automation went out of date (and rankings dropped) we reach out to our friends at CoSchedule. Ben Sailer rewrote it on the recycled URL and rankings recovered for the next year. Thanks, Ben!
2. “Second chances” how to win for an impossible phrase
I remember thinking “I have no chance at this keyphrase.” I was doing keyphrase research for a new article and I was right. I had no chance.
The article was about how to write headlines. It’s an important topic that I felt strongly about. I’d written hundreds of headlines and I wanted to share what I’d learned.
But the high ranking pages were written by the content marketing greats. Their content was deep, concise and practical. Their articles all had lots of links and high Page Authority.
But I decided to write my article anyway. There’s more to life than search, right?
Even though the phrase was out of reach, I optimized the post for “how to write headlines” by simply incorporating it into the title, header, body text and URL. It went live in September 2014.
It didn’t rank. No surprise.
But I kept promoting the article for years.
- I mentioned it in presentations
- We kept it in social media rotation
- I wrote guest posts on the topic and references the article
- I talked about it on podcasts
- I referenced the diagram from the post in contributor quotes whenever possible
Referencing images in contributions is one powerful example of how images can affect SEO. Here’s the diagram from that post. Nice right?
Eventually, the article began to age. Over time, we found new research, we had new ideas and we earned more experience writing another 1000+ headlines. So in May 2019 we updated the article.
But this time, the URL had an advantage. 100+ linking domains gave it a Page Authority of 45. That target keyphrase didn’t seem so out of reach this time around.
The rewrite wasn’t longer, but it definitely was more complete. We recorded a video for it, added those diagrams and collected new contributor quotes.
The results? The average time on page doubled. And it now consistently ranks at the bottom of page one of Google. We are thrilled.
Here are the rankings and traffic together. The 200+ visits per month might not seem like much, but it’s an honor to rank among the other great articles on the topic.
Since the rewrite, the post has started attracting more links, probably because it’s now more visible. Each link improves it’s ranking potential, while also strengthening the authority of our entire domain.
…and we’re not done yet. Maybe the next version will crack the top five search results. Never give up! 🙌
Could it actually work to write an article a third time? Here’s your answer:
3. “Never surrender” …write, rewrite then rewrite again
In June 2012, we published an article with tips for promoting content. Keyphrase research quickly showed that “content promotion” was a very competitive phrase, so I used the longer, less competitive phrase in the title, header and URL “content promotion strategies”
It actually ranked well for both phrases, attracting 150-250 visits per month. But the rankings gradually declined and it got very little traffic for several years. So I finally sat down and rewrote it in August 2016, adding all of the content promotion tricks I’d learned since 2012.
The headline changed from “33 ways to promote content” to “50 ways to drive traffic” and the rankings and traffic soared. So did the average time on page (see below).
The article enjoyed three years of high rankings and 300-500 visits per month, always performing a bit better for the longer, less competitive phrase. But eventually, new (and better) articles were written and began to push both rankings down.
But we didn’t give up.
We re-rewrote it in May 2020, this time adding more tactics and more depth. This post is now 76 ways to promote content (did I miss anything?) and the rankings have partly recovered. Here’s the timeline of rankings and traffic since 2012.
And here you can see the evolution of the article with the headlines, length and assets. Again, we’re showing a few behavior metrics so you can see how the content attributes correlate with engagement.
You don’t need 1000 articles. You need 100 great articles.
Since 2016, when we first discovered the value of updating content for SEO, it’s become central to our content strategy. Currently, around 20% of our articles are actually rewrites of older articles.
In fact, the article you’re reading now was originally published five years ago. But this new one is better.
Altogether, there are at least 36 posts on this blog that have been rewritten at least once. And our annual blogger research is in its seventh year and it’s always published on the same URL. Even our content marketing handbook is in its fifth edition.
Commit to keeping your content current
Of course, it’s important to publish articles and put new URLs and keywords into the world.
But you’ll get faster results by going back and keep those top performers updated. You’ll capture more search volume from the same phrases with less effort.
Aaron Orendorff, iconiContent
“There are two ways to breathe new life into old posts. First, use the old post as a base and create a fresh, stand-alone article. I did this recently for my most popular post on Content Marketing Institute: from the original with 2k words and 11 points to the update with 4k words, 19 points, and a downloadable PDF.
Second, simply update your old posts themselves and keep the original URL. I do this on my site, and it’s one of the first low-hanging fruits I identify with clients to minimize my workload and maximize their existing SEO.”
Here are a few final considerations…
- If your blog post doesn’t rank, maybe that’s because you’ve only written it once.
This is what the search engines want you to do: create an amazing piece of content.
- If your content is search optimized, you’ve basically committed to this strategy already.
Your search optimized content has durable visibility. People are still reading it. Don’t let them down. Especially if you don’t have dates in your blog template (we don’t)
- If you’re about to write a new article, first look to see if you can recycle an old URL.
If it’s a URL that has been linked to, it will have a natural advantage in search.
Now go teach your old blog new tricks!