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A Rotten Name For A Real SEO Issue


Google’s Lizzi Sassman and John Mueller answered a question about Content Decay, expressing confusion over the phrase because they’d never heard of it. Turns out there’s a good reason: Content Decay is a just a new name created to make an old problem look like a new one.

Googlers Never Heard Of Content Decay

Google tech writer Lizzi Sassman began a Google Search Off The Record podcast by stating that they are talking about Content Decay because someone submitted that topic and then remarked that she had never heard of Content Decay.

She said:

“…I saw this come up, I think, in your feedback form for topics for Search Off the Record podcast that someone thought that we should talk about content decay, and I did not know what that was, and so I thought I should look into it, and then maybe we could talk about it.”

Google’s John Mueller responded:

“Well, it’s good that someone knows what it is. …When I looked at it, it sounded like this was a known term, and I felt inadequate when I realized I had no idea what it actually meant, and I had to interpret what it probably means from the name.”

Then Lizzi pointed out that the name Content Decay sounds like it’s referring to something that’s wrong with the content:

“Like it sounds a little bit negative. A bit negative, yeah. Like, yeah. Like something’s probably wrong with the content. Probably it’s rotting or something has happened to it over time.”

It’s not just Googlers who don’t know what the term Content Decay means, experienced SEOs with over 25 years of experience had never heard of it either, including myself. I reached out to several experienced SEOs and nobody had heard of the term Content Decay.

Like Lizzi, anyone who hears the term Content Decay will reasonably assume that this name refers to something that’s wrong with the content. But that is incorrect. As Lizzi and John Mueller figured out, content decay is not really about content, it’s just a name that someone gave to a natural phenomenon that’s been happening for thousands of years.

If you feel out of the loop because you too have never heard of Content Decay, don’t. Content Decay is one of those inept labels someone coined to put a fresh name on a problem that is so old it predates not just the Internet but the invention of writing itself.

What Is Content Decay?

What people mean when they talk about Content Decay is a slow drop in search traffic. But a slow drop in traffic is not a definition, it’s just a symptom of the actual problem which is declining user interest. Declining user interest in a topic, product, service or virtually any entity is something that that is normal and expected that can sneak up affect organic search trends, even for evergreen topics. Content Decay is an inept name for an actual SEO issue to deal with. Just don’t call it Content Decay.

How Does User Interest Dwindle?

Dwindling interest is a longstanding phenomenon that is older than the Internet. Fashion, musical styles and topics come and go in the physical and the Internet planes.

A classic example of dwindling interest is how search queries for digital cameras collapsed after the introduction of the iPhone because most people no longer needed a separate camera device.

Similarly, the problem with dwindling traffic is not necessarily the content. It’s search trends. If search trends are the reason for declining traffic then that’s probably declining user interest and the problem to solve is figuring out why interest in a topic is changing.

Typical reasons for declining user interest:

  • Perceptions of the topic changed
  • Seasonality
  • A technological disruption
  • The way words are used has changed
  • Popularity of the topic has waned

When diagnosing a drop in traffic always keep an open mind to all possibilities because sometimes there’s nothing wrong with the content or the SEO. The problem is with user interest, trends and other factors that have nothing to do with the content itself.

There Are Many Reasons For A Drop In Traffic

The problem with inept SEO catch-all phrases is that because they do not describe anything specific the meaning of the catch-all phrase tends to morph and pretty much the catch-all begins describing things beyond what it initially ineptly described.

Here are other reasons for why traffic could decline (both slow and precipitously):

  1. The decay is happening to user interest in a topic (declining user interest is a better description).
  2. Traffic slows down because Google introduces a new navigational feature (like people also ask.
  3. Traffic slows because Google introduces a new rich result (video results, shopping results, featured snippets)
  4. The slow decline in search traffic could be a side effect of personalized search causes the site to rank less often and only for specific people/areas (personalized search)
  5. The drop in search traffic is because relevance changed (Algorithm Relevance Change)
  6. A drop in organic search traffic is due to improved competition (Competition)

Catchall Phrases Are Not Useful

Content Decay is one of many SEO labels put on problems or strategies in order to make old problems and methods appear to be new. Too often those labels are inept and cause confusion because they don’t describe the problem.

Putting a name to the cause of the problem is a good practice. So rather than use fake names like Content Decay maybe make a conscious effort to use the actual name of what the problem or solution is. In the case of Content Decay it’s best to identify the problem (declining user interest) and refer to the problem by that name.

Featured Image by Shutterstock/Blueastro


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