Today, Google and other search engines care increasingly about 'content quality' as a ranking signal.
That doesn't mean traditional ranking signals like title tags, internal links, anchor text and other DOM-level formalities are going away any time soon. But the growing ability for machines to actually "understand" content itself has led content marketing professionals to push for better-written, more relevant content.
As thousands of companies rush to overhaul their digital marketing assets to appeal to Google's AI-enhanced abilities to perceive content quality, one thing that keeps them up at night is a dreaded dip in search position.
The 'dip' is best described as a "temporary drop in rankings which immediately follows content optimization" -- and it can be terrifying.
You work for hours to improve your content, and two or three days later, the result seems to be the opposite of what you intended. Instead of ranking higher, your ranking in SERPs suddenly ticks downwards. Organic traffic drops and seems to stay there at a lower plateau.
If you've ever stared at Google Analytics or search console and wondering what on Earth you just did, read on.
Why do rankings temporarily drop after content optimization?
The dip is most commonly attributed to search engines' reindexing phase. When search engines detect new content, they watch that content for a number of new ranking metrics. During this "observation phase", it's not uncommon to see rankings dive.
As much as we all wish search engines would immediately re-index our blog posts and re-rank them higher after we optimize content, search engine optimization is almost never fast.
Why? Because search engines need to measure how things like dwell time and user engagement change. Has bounce rate changed? Is the new content "topically complete" enough to match the user-intent behind the search query? Or do users return to search after being on your page for 5 seconds?
The answers to these questions require behavioral data which search engines get by watching how users interact with your page. With low volume keywords, behavioral data can sometimes take weeks to gather. And during that time, your brilliantly written, compelling content takes a plunge.
Is there anything you can do?
Most content-marketers and SEO experts will tell you that the "dip" is a fact of life. Try to minimize it, and you're likely not optimizing very much either.
But that doesn't mean we can't approach content optimization strategically -- and weigh the odds of a drop in web traffic after adding new content.
New content vs. Old Content: The Ratio Matters
While SEO is never an exact science, the painful dip in traffic following a content update often seems to correlate with the ratio of new content to pre-existing original content. If less than 30% of page-content changes, the dip is often very minimal. On the other hand, if search engines determine that the majority of a page is newly created additional content, then it's logical to expect them to require a more lengthy re-evaluation of that page's performance.
If the reason you're doing a content overhaul is because a page's traffic is anemic to begin with, then you probably want to ignore the 30% rule and dive in for more intensive content creation. But if your page is currently ranked half-way down the first page of search results and you're hoping to bump it up just a notch or two higher: Be careful.
Keep in mind that a full 100% re-write of a blog post or article usually isn't advisable, as you're better off just creating a new post from scratch in that case.
Is Content Optimization Dangerous for SEO?
So if tweaking vast portions of a page can negatively impact search performance, and changing the page-title or header tags can force a seemingly endless reindexing phase, isn't the page better left alone?
The answer is, it depends. While taking a temporary beating in your rankings can be painful, "to the risk-taker go the rewards". Or to use another old saying, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained".
Take the example of tweaking your page title: This can often result in serious plunge in traffic.
On the other hand, title tags (and meta descriptions) are some of the most powerful determinants of search listing CTR.
Ultimately a search listing isn't much different from an advertisement in terms of its goals: You want people to click. Getting on to the first page of search is one thing, but attracting clicks on your search listing is another game entirely. Some titles just get more clicks. Tweaking your title tag to be more "clickable" is a popular strategy for behavioral SEO.
And yet it's high risk from a potential "dip" perspective.
Which brings us to the core of the issue: How do you know when to optimize your content?
To optimize or not to optimize?
If performing major surgery on your content is considered a high-risk maneuver, but it's also the road to dominating in search results, what's the right thing to do?
Content producers are constantly faced with the fundamental question of whether or not optimization worth the risk.
That question needs to be answered on a case-by-case basis.
Here are my best content optimization tips for deciding when (and what) to rewrite:
1. Optimize poor-performing content first
The easiest optimization decisions are on posts that don't rank well anyway. The risks are far lower (and the rewards higher) on content that's already underperforming. If you have a post or an article that's competing for a high-competition keyword and is currently languishing on page 5 of search, the general strategy is to go for it. Get in there and optimize that content with a no holds barred approach.
Keep in mind however that the same page of content may be performing very well for a different target keyword. Check Google Analytics to make sure that the page isn't getting lots of traffic from another search term.
2. Create Alternate Content for Already Ranking Keywords
If you're already ranking low on the first page of search results and want to get higher on the page -- the risks to content optimization are far higher. Tweaking your website content for just 3 spots higher in search rankings might not be worth the risks of offending the gods and finding yourself on page 8 of Google search.
In cases where your page is already performing moderately well, a good strategy is to create related content which targets the same (or similar) relevant keywords
3. Use an AI-Powered Content Optimization Tool to Increase Your Chances
If the goal is to increase search volume for your page, it might not be enough to just write compelling or authoritative content. You may want to consider using an AI-based SEO optimization tool like Wordmetrics for better semantic keyword optimization. These tools aren't cheap, but if you're serious about your content optimization, I think they're worth every penny.
4. Add to Your Content Rather than Rewriting It
If your content is under 2500 words, you may want to consider adding to it, rather than rewriting it. This approach not only leaves your original content in-place, but gives your post the advantage of being longer. (Writing longer articles is a well known optimization tip, as longer content generally outperforms shorter content).
5. Be Careful of Overstuffing
Most of all remember that the age of keyword stuffing is over. Simply writing the same keyword 100 times in your post is not going to work. Google looks for context, not just keyword density. Informative, well-written, easy-to-read, topically relevant content is effective content.
One last piece of advice: Every web-startup needs traffic. Never hang your hat on a single piece of content. Search engine algorithms change like the wind. Content marketing is a "numbers game".
While it's tempting to endlessly tweak and re-tweak your content to squeeze every last bit of search performance out of it, bear in mind that content marketing is about producing new, original content. Content optimization is increasingly important... But content creation is still job #1.
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