In any given day, approximately two million new blog posts are published on the web. In just 60 seconds, approximately 3.3 million updates are posted on Facebook. According to Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs, 70% of B2B marketers plan to create more content in 2017 compared to 2016.
These stats clearly show that content marketing is now mainstream. But they also highlight a major challenge in using content for inbound marketing: standing out has and will only continue to become a real challenge. We’re now in what marketing influencer Mark Schaefer calls the age of content shock.
As marketers, we need to figure out how to get the most out of the articles, tweets, infographics and other content that we publish.
One promising—but very underutilized—solution is to produce less new content…and double down on the content you already have.
Why optimize old blog posts
I first heard of the tactic of ‘optimizing the past’ when I went to the 2015 INBOUND conference. At one of the breakout sessions, Hubspot’s Pamela Vaughan talked about revisiting blog posts, optimizing them and then republishing them as new.
Here’s Pamela’s explanation of how ‘historical optimization’ works:
Historical optimization means optimizing your “old” blog content so it’s fresh, up-to-date, and has the ability to generate even more traffic and conversions than it already does. By “old,” I just mean posts that already exist on your blog — whether you wrote them last month or three years ago.
Side note: Pamela got the idea of optimizing old posts by looking at analytics and realizing that a 46% of the blog leads came from just 30 blog posts. Thirty! If she could optimize those high-performing posts, she explained, she could boost her lead numbers very quickly.
So how did this strategy go for Hubspot? In one word: incredible. According to Pamela, historical optimization lead to double the blog leads from old blog posts and a 106% increase in organic search traffic to those posts.
With those impressive results, I’d be crazy not to try this tactic for our corporate blog. And so try it, I did…
Choosing which evergreen blog posts to optimize
My first step was to select old blog posts to optimize. Our company doesn’t use the Hubspot CMS and marketing automation tool, so unlike Pamela, I couldn’t easily figure out which blog posts were bringing us the most leads. So I used traffic (unique page views) as proxy.
When selecting posts for this experiment, I came up with these requirements:
- The topic must be evergreen. We do newsjacking posts, but I didn’t feel like updating those posts made sense since, by definition, those posts covered topics that were relevant and timely only for a limited time.
- The blog post must already be attracting some decent organic traffic. This was mostly for analysis purposes. If I were to update a blog posts with very low traffic, the “after” numbers could appear too skewed.
- The article must be old enough. I only wanted to update articles that we could rewrite significantly and in a way that actually added more value to the piece. If I were to update a post, I must be able to add stats and information that have changed significantly since we last published the article. Blog posts that were at least two years old fit the bill.
Updating old blog posts
Once I’ve identified an article to update, I took the following steps:
- Identified the keywords that were driving organic traffic to the affected article. I kept these keywords in mind as I was rewriting the articles. The goal was to avoid messing up and losing our current keyword rankings.
- Used the Moz Keyword Explorer tool to identify current SERP competition and new keyword opportunities we haven’t tapped into yet. I aimed to answer this question: What similar information about this topic did we fail to cover the first time, and is it worth including it this time? Are there additional questions about the topic we could answer?
- Reviewed the article to learn the scope of the rewrite, identify information gaps and pinpoint any stats or insight that should be included. I also looked at our ever growing library of resources (both gated and ungated) that should be linked to or at least referenced in the rewritten piece.
- Rewrote the article with new information, stats and tips. The new articles went through our editorial approvals again to make sure it fit our evolving style guide.
- Updated the current article with the new copy (and in some cases, new image and updated author byline) and—this one’s key—changed the publication date.
Other notable tactics as I did the rewrites:
- I did NOT change the URL. I didn’t want to lose any backlinks that the original post already earned, so I left the original URLs alone.
- I also left the original title as is. (There’s a small exception for one of the articles, where I changed a single word from plural to singular because of a change in our internal style guide.) I figured if the original title worked from an SEO perspective, why mess with it?
- Added a disclosure at the bottom of the page that the article was republished.
So, how did my experiment go?
The revised articles didn’t all go live around the same time, so I waited a few weeks after the last one was published before analyzing the results. To make sure that I was making apple-to-apple comparisons, I restricted my analysis to 11 weeks before and after the new publication date of each article.
The first thing I looked at are unique pageviews. As you can see from the chart below, all of the articles I updated saw increases—in one instance, up to 439%.
While these increases are impressive, they aren’t necessarily surprising. When its publication date is updated, the article gets republished on our blog’s home page. It also gets pushed on RSS feeds—so if a reader was subscribed to our blog via Feedly, Flipboard or any other similar services, they’ll see the articles again. And, of course, I repromoted the articles on social media, as I’d do for any new blog posts. (Note: In this case, I didn’t run any advertisements to get extra exposure.)
Digging deeper—the impact on SEO
If you restrict the data to just organic search traffic, the results get a lot more interesting.
As you can see, with one exception, the delta (change in percentages) is higher for the articles when just looking at organic search compared to all traffic. This suggests that search engines did not punish us for updating the blog posts and changing the date. In fact, we saw organic search increase as a result of this experiment.
(Side note: You may be wondering why ARTICLE 2 was the only article that had a lower percentage of increase in search traffic compared to overall traffic. The article had a significantly lower traffic to begin with compared to the other one—which made the boost to overall traffic after republication much more impressive. In other words, it’s not that the article got punished by Google—it’s just that the overall traffic boost was a lot more prominent than the other articles. That said, the boost in organic traffic is still very impressive.)
Best practices when refreshing old blog posts
The results of this growth hacking experiment suggest that updating evergreen blog posts should be a regular part of your marketing strategy.
If you want to try this tactic yourself, keep the following tips in mind:
- Do your homework. Before you mess with high-performing pages and blog posts, make sure you understand why they’re doing well. Which keywords are they ranking for? Why are people linking to those posts? Doing your research will help ensure that your rewrite is an improvement over the original.
- Look for new opportunities. Rewriting your blog post is a chance to make the article more epic. “Comprehensiveness” is increasingly becoming a ranking factor, so take this opportunity to make your blog post more meaty and informative. Provide more value for your audience by adding more relevant tips, examples and information.
- Keep track of relevant metrics. Optimizing evergreen blog posts has worked for our corporate blog, but, just like many marketing experiments, success isn’t 100% guaranteed. It could be that this tactic worked for us because we’ve already built up our domain authority, for example. (I don’t know what this tactic’s impact would be for a site with a lower domain authority.) Whether it’s total pageviews, organic traffic or lead conversions, make sure you’re tracking the numbers that relate back to your goals and adjusting your approach accordingly.
Are you already optimizing old blog posts?
The best inbound marketing tactics are those that provide the most value to your target personas. My experiment shows that refreshing existing content to make it more timely and relevant is an effective way of doing that—and potentially a source of immediate ROI.
Have you run a similar experiment? If so, I would love to hear your experience, insight and tips.