What Is Content Decay? It's a Pain, but You Can Fix It

Dan Silber
April 14, 2024
8 min read

Content decay is a content marketer's worst nightmare.

You pour your heart and soul into creating an incredible piece of content. You hit publish and boom—after a while, the results start rolling in.

Traffic is surging, conversions are happening, and you're feeling on top of the world.

But then, slowly but surely, things start to change.

😢 The traffic begins to dwindle.

😢 The conversions dry up.

Your content is decaying right before your eyes.

It's a gut-wrenching feeling that every content marketer has experienced at some point.

Content decay is a major problem that impacts almost every piece of content eventually. But the good news is, it's not a death sentence for your content.

In this post, we're going to dive deep into what causes content decay, how to identify it, proven strategies to revive decaying content, and how to prevent it from happening in the future.

Short on time and prefer audio? We've got you covered 👇

What is content decay?

Content decay is the gradual decline in traffic and conversions that a piece of content experiences over time.

It's a widespread issue that happens to almost every piece of content eventually, regardless of how well it initially performed.

Think about it—when was the last time you published a piece of content that maintained its initial surge of traffic and conversions indefinitely?

Probably never.

The harsh reality is that content has a limited lifespan.

In fact, a study by IZEA found that the average lifespan of a piece of content is only 1 year and 9 months.

Source: IZEA

After that, traffic and conversions start to steadily decline.

And if you don't take action to revive that decaying content, it will eventually flatline altogether.

What causes content decay?

So what causes content to decay in the first place?

There are a number of forces at play:

Google algorithm updates

Google is constantly tweaking their algorithm to improve the quality of their search results (I know, there’s a lot of discourse about this these days.).

While this is great for users, it can spell trouble for your content.

A single algorithm update can cause your rankings and traffic to tank overnight, especially if you’re regurgitating what’s already on the SERP.

Fortunately, Google is pretty transparent about when they release major algorithm updates.

Google search status dashboard

You can use tools like GSC Guardian to overlay the dates of known Google updates directly into your Search Console data (red lines are algorithm updates).

GSC Guardian shows each algorithm update as a red line in GSC.

This makes it easy to correlate major traffic drops with algorithm changes.

Changes in SERP features

Even if your ranking position remains unchanged, the appearance of new SERP features can dramatically impact your click-through rates.

Let's say you're ranking in position 3 for a high-volume keyword.

You might be getting a ton of traffic...until Google decides to place a featured snippet or a sources from the web grid above your result.

Sources from the web SERP feature

Suddenly, your CTR plummets as clicks are siphoned off by these new features.

To combat this, make a habit of regularly analyzing the SERPs for your key pages. You can use tools like SpyFu & Ahrefs to quickly spot which features are showing on the SERPs your URLs on ranking on.

Take note of any new features and look for opportunities to optimize your content for them.

For example, you might adjust your heading tags or page structure to increase your chances of winning the featured snippet spot.

👉 Tip: defining the keyword early on in the article will increase your chances os capturing the featured snippet position

Shifts in search intent

Sometimes, the type of content (specifically, page types) that Google chooses to rank for a particular query will change over time.

For instance, you might have a landing page that ranked well for a query, but if intent shifts, Google may start to favor long-form blog posts over landing pages for that query, and your rankings and traffic will inevitably start to decline.

Again, analyzing the SERPs is key here.

If you notice that the pages outranking you are a different type or format of content, it's a sign that intent has shifted.

In this example, our homepage is the only homepage ranking page 1 for this query. Historically, we ranked position #1 for this query, but intent has shifted and Google is rewarding long-form content (buyer's guides). In this case, we may need a net-new piece of content targeting the query to better align with what searchers are now looking for.

Decrease in overall search demand

In some cases, your rankings might remain stable but you'll still see a decline in overall traffic.

This usually happens when there's a decrease in search volume for your target keyword.

For example, Copy.ai had a collection of AI writing assistant templates that were driving a ton of organic traffic—over 700,000 clicks in a single year.

But shortly after the release of ChatGPT, we saw demand for those keywords drastically decline.

Queries like "paragraph generator" and "sentence rewriter" that we used to rank highly for were no longer being searched as frequently.

Decrease in demand from Google Trends

Unfortunately, there's not much you can do when search demand dries up, other than targeting new keywords.

But it's still important to be aware of demand shifts so you can adjust your content strategy accordingly.

Changes in the topic

As time passes, the information, statistics, examples, and references in your content may become outdated, reducing its relevance to users and search engines. Freshness is a crucial ranking factor on some queries (not all), and stale content can lead to a decline in search visibility.

Ask yourself: has the discussion and context around the topic changed dramatically over time or based on current events in your industry?

It's more than just updating dates and facts. Sometimes the entire context of a topic is different, and content that doesn't reflect that will be seen as stale.

For example, content on internet privacy and data security practices written before the widespread adoption of remote work and cloud computing may need an overhaul to account for the new cybersecurity risks and compliance requirements companies now face.

Topics don't exist in a vacuum.

The surrounding context—whether driven by new technologies, societal shifts, regulatory changes, or global events—can evolve rapidly.

Content that fails to adapt to these new realities will quickly become outdated and lose its value to the audience, even if the core facts and figures are still technically accurate.

Technical issues

Finally, technical SEO issues are a common culprit of content decay.

Something as simple as an accidentally adding a no-index tag to a page or a rogue disallow in your robots.txt file can tank your rankings.

Other technical issues like redirect chains, slow page speeds, and mobile usability problems can all contribute to content decay over time.

Monitoring your site's technical health and fixing issues promptly is crucial for preventing decay.

How to spot signs of content decay

The most obvious sign that your content is decaying is a decline in traffic and conversions.

But if you're not regularly monitoring your content's performance, decay can sneak up on you.

Here are a few ways to proactively identify decaying content before it's too late:

Use Google Analytics to compare traffic period-over-period

Look for major declines in sessions, pageviews, average time on page, and conversions. If a page's metrics are trending downward quarter-over-quarter, it's a sign that decay is setting in.

Quickly compare content period-over-period in Google Analytics

Check Google Search Console for drops in impressions, clicks, and average position

Go to Performance (Search Results). I like using the last 3 to 6 months, so choose either setting depending on how much traffic your site gets.

Make sure to select "average CTR" and "average position" so that these metrics are added to your columns.

Click the last two metrics on the right when you open Search Console.

Your list below should default to "Queries." These are the keywords that bring up your pages in search results. Click the "impressions" column header to sort your keywords.

Glance down the list, and look for average positions somewhere within the 4 to 14 range. These are bottom of the first page through top of the second page. Any ranking improvement you make will much further than moving something from page 4 to page 3.

Watch for keywords that match these criteria:

  • It's not a branded query
  • The keyword is highly relevant to your business
  • It gets at least 3000 impressions per month

👉 Tip: use this regex to quickly removed branded queries from GSC

brand name|variation of brand name|variation of brand name 2|variation of brand name 3|

Click the keyword, and then click "pages," the second column in your chart. This will identify the piece of content getting all of those impressions.

Review their positions to find high impression searches where even a small bump in your position would make a substantial difference.

Now you have your piece of content to refresh for an SEO boost, and the keywords to optimize it for.

👉 Tip: refreshing existing content (get our checklist) can be one of the fastest ways to put SEO wins on the board

Audit your top pages on a quarterly basis

Content audit template h/t Ahrefs

Don't wait until your content is completely dead to take action. Make it a habit to audit your most important pages every quarter. Check for any signs of decay and make updates as needed to keep your content fresh.

Use RivalFlow AI

Manually auditing your content for decay is tedious and time-consuming.

RivalFlow AI automates the process by proactively surfacing pages that are at-risk of decay AND gives you actionable recommendations to prevent decay.

It's an easy way to stay ahead of the curve and prevent small issues from snowballing into major traffic losses.

How do you fix content decay?

Once you've identified decaying content, it's time to take action.

Here are some proven strategies for bringing your content back to life:

Refresh and Improve Content Quality

Google has made it clear that they're prioritizing high-quality, helpful content in the search results.

Helpful content FAQ

If your content is starting to decay, it's likely because it's no longer meeting that bar.

To give your content a quality boost, put yourself in the shoes of your target reader.

What questions are they trying to answer?

What problems are they trying to solve?

Your content should address those needs in a comprehensive, user-friendly way. It shouldn't regurgitate everything else ranking on the SERP.

Tools like RivalFlow AI can help by identifying content gaps and providing specific improvement recommendations. RivalFlow AI does the hard work for you by:

✓ Automatically analyzing your top decaying posts

✓ Comparing your content to higher-ranking competitors

✓ Surfacing missed questions and areas to improve

✓ Providing AI-generated content suggestions to fill the gaps

With RivalFlow AI, you get a clear roadmap for reviving your old content and stopping future decay in its tracks. No more guesswork - just data-driven optimizations.

Optimize for search intent

As I mentioned earlier, search intent can shift over time.

The type of content that used to rank well for a particular query may no longer be what searchers are looking for.

To optimize for intent, start by analyzing the current SERP for your target keyword.

What type of content is ranking on page one?

Are they mostly blog posts, product pages, videos, or something else?

Has the discussion and context around the topic changed dramatically over time or based on current events in your industry?

If the intent appears to have shifted, adjust your content to match.

For example, if you're trying to rank a product page but the SERP is full of blog content, you may need to create an informational post to compete.

Improve internal linking

Internal links are a powerful but often overlooked tool for reviving decaying content.

By linking to your declining page from other relevant, high-authority pages on your site, you can give it a much-needed boost.

The key is to use descriptive, keyword-rich anchor text and only link from pages that are truly relevant to the topic at hand.

Example of great internal linking from NerdWallet

Stuffing your page with irrelevant links will only hurt your chances of ranking.

👉 Tip: use the site: search modifier to find internal linking opportunities (site: domain.com "related keyword). You can also use our AI tool below  👇

How to prevent content decay (your future self will thank you)

As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

While it's important to have a plan for reviving decaying content, it's even better to prevent that decay from happening in the first place.

Here are a few ways to future-proof your content:

Build a content refresh process

Don't wait until your content is on its deathbed to give it a refresh.

Build content refreshing into your regular workflow so your pages always stay fresh and relevant.

Prioritize which content to update based on traffic potential, business value, and other key metrics. Set a schedule—whether it's monthly, quarterly, or annually—and stick to it.

Diversify your traffic sources

If your content starts to decay, you could see your traffic organic evaporate overnight.

To mitigate this risk, focus on diversifying your traffic sources.

Build an email list so you have a direct line to your audience.

Experiment with paid promotion to drive traffic to your most important content assets.

And repurpose your content into different formats like videos, social posts, and podcasts to reach new audiences. Doing this manually is a drag. Thankfully, you can use tools like Copy.ai to quickly repurpose your blog posts.

👉 Here’s an AI template to get you started

Monitor content performance regularly

Finally, make it a habit to regularly monitor your content's key performance indicators.

The sooner you spot signs of decay, the easier it will be to reverse the trend.

At a minimum, check your traffic, rankings, and conversions on a monthly basis.

If you want to be extra proactive, consider using a tool like RivalFlow AI that will automatically alert you to decaying content.

The less time you spend manually digging through data, the more time you can spend actually improving your content.

It’s all about being proactive

Content decay may be inevitable, but it doesn't have to be a death sentence for your content marketing efforts.

By understanding what causes decay, knowing how to spot it, and having a plan to reverse it, you can keep your content performing at a high level for the long haul.

Remember, the key is to be proactive.

Don't wait until your content flatlines to take action.

With a little TLC and the right strategies, you can bring even the most decayed content back to life and enjoy the traffic and conversions you deserve.

Ready to put an end to content decay for good? Try RivalFlow AI for free today.