We've all seen it before—a neglected, haunted corner of a corporate website where stale, uninspired content has taken root like fungus. Nothing sends potential customers away faster than dead content.

Those of us who make content for a living sometimes forget the various ways that content meets a slow or untimely demise: The message goes stale, the humor is off-kilter (even for 2005, when it was published), the content has failed to attract a readership, or it reveals a lapse in the corporate persona.

There are dozens of ways content can expire. But how do we find it, then remove it without disrupting the flow of marketing work and causing the SEO manager's blood pressure to spike? Should content ever come down from a corporate blog or website? If so, how?

Here are three suggestions for managing the content archiving process.

1. The Content Audit

The very word audit invokes visions of forensic accountants poring over columns of data. But a growing number of marketing organizations have warmed to the idea of periodic content audits.

As Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach point out in their book Content Strategy for the Web, there are three types of content audits:

  1. A quantitative audit aggregates all the content you have by title and type, serving as a kind of inventory and road map of where you're been.
  2. A qualitative audit/best-practices assessment compares all your content against industry best practices and is usually performed by a third party.
  3. A qualitative audit/strategic assessment is a deep-dive into how your content compares withe strategic goals, usually performed by folks from within the marketing organization.

What if your organization has 10,000-50,000 pieces of content, and so the thought of a comprehensive audit is enough to make your head swim?

Start small.

When I complete a content audit, I do it in the context of developing or refreshing a content model for a specific persona. Maybe we're writing for a tech-savvy marketer or an application developer, so we assess all the content we've produced in terms of how it speaks to that persona. We throw all the content URLs that target the persona into a spreadsheet, line them up in the right phase of the conversation, from awareness to purchase and loyalty. Then we have two or three people, with differing perspectives, grade the content.

Because scoring content is as much art as it is science, we use a fairly rudimentary grading system and average the results. When scoring, we think about usability, knowledge level, audience, accuracy, business value, message, and brand/voice fit. We use the following basic and unscientific scoring system:

1 = Poorly conceived and executed
2 = Not terrible but not strong
3 = A few bright spots but fairly average
4 = Generally good
5 = Excellent; succeeds on all levels

In that same spreadsheet, we not only record our audit scores (we don't share them with each other until the end) but also track how the content in question has performed. On this front, we look at two measures: total number of unique visitors (minus visits from within the corporate firewall) and average time spent on the page containing the content. The first measures traffic or reach; the second, engagement. Those are two more pieces of data to add to the audit equation.

Sometimes, we're surprised that a piece of content that scores a 3 has performed exceptionally well in terms of traffic and engagement. Sometimes a piece is so timely or strikes such a chord with a target audience that it defies the grading system. That said, we're not above revising an old post to make it better.

2. Beyond the Scores

Content is all about context. Sometimes a piece misses for one audience or persona but it lands with another.

When we're looking at a piece of content as part of an audit, we don't necessarily flag it for removal just because it receives a low score. We try to think about content holistically. In other words, we ask this question: Could this content be useful or even valuable in a different context? If the answer is yes, then we flag it to be moved into a different content model.

Sometimes good content performs badly because it's aimed at the wrong person.

3. Controlled Demolition: Flagging Content for Archiving

At the end of the content audit, once you've averaged the content scores, it's time to make some hard decisions. Those 1s and 2s probably shouldn't be out there gathering dust on the ragged frontier of the website.

But what about SEO? Does a relevant, trending title warrant keeping subpar copy in the body of the text?

Almost everything you read about SEO insists that the quality of content should come before quantity. As John Wuebben notes in Content Is Currency, "Write for people first, search engines second." As long as you are meeting best-practices for SEO in other ways (e.g., keywords in titles, headings, and links), removing badly performing content won't hurt your chances of being found on Google keyword search.

Good-quality content results in more links to that content, in turn generating more visibility on the Web. If anything, removing weaker content allows your better pieces to shine. There's less clutter to distract your prospects.

It's important to archive content in a controlled, transparent way, however. Think of the process as putting weak content into hibernation rather than permanent deletion. Some platforms, such as Drupal, allow you to unpublish content without actually deleting it. From the website visitors' perspective, the result is the same. If they search for the content or browse for it, they won't find it. It's like it never happened. But the beauty of using a content management system with an unpublish capability is that future marketers in your company will be able to learn from your mistakes.

This approach to archiving stale or dead content won't work everywhere. Many corporate blogs, for example, pride themselves on providing a sort of historical record with some measure of journalistic standards. The editors-in-chief of those blogs aren't generally going to remove old posts just because the content marketers decide they're no longer relevant.

But as corporate blogs grow to contain everything from opinion to news to infographics to marketing collateral, most companies will have to embrace the idea of selective archiving on the "blog of record" if they want to avoid the museum of dead content.

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Avoid the Museum of Dead Content: What to Do When Web Content Expires

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image of Dominic Smith

Dominic Smith is a content strategist at Rackspace and the author of three novels with Simon & Schuster. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker book blog, and The Millions website.

LinkedIn: Dominic Smith