I've been blogging for 15 years, but I'd never given a lot of thought about the best way to timestamp my blog content.
Then I started writing a book called Trust Signals: The New PR, which required almost daily online research. The experience has turned me into someone with surprisingly passionate opinions about timestamping.
Where's the Fresh Stuff?
When I go to the supermarket, I tend to shop the periphery rather than the interior aisles. That's because grocery stores are generally laid out similarly, with fresh foods—meat, fish, produce, dairy—occupying the outer walls. I go to the center of the store if I want canned goods that will sustain my family after a zombie apocalypse.
As I've been doing my book research, however, I've discovered that no such separation standard exists among most blog content—for brands or publishers. When I search to learn more about a topic, I randomly encounter the following:
- Timestamped posts that offer timely information
- Timestamped posts with updates to ensure freshness
- Timestamped posts that offer timeless information
- Undated posts that offer timely or timeless information
- Timestamped posts that offer outdated information
- Undated posts that offer outdated information
The comparative usefulness of such posts aligns closely with the order I have listed them. Let's look at each category in more detail to understand why.
1. Timestamped Posts With Timely Information
This is the gold standard. If your post has a 2020 or 2019 timestamp, I know it's fresh content.
The only downside is that a fresh timestamp doesn't tell me much about your own research standards. Sometimes I find links to "recent studies" from 2012 that have outlived their usefulness (even well-known publications are guilty of this). I was pleased to see, when producing content for Forbes Councils, they not only timestamp posts but also require any cited research to be no greater than three years old.
Publications' standards differ, but a recent timestamp is your best first step to identifying good-quality, relevant content.
2. Timestamped Posts With Updates to Ensure Freshness
Of course, if you have a blog that's been around a while, your content won't all have recent publication dates. So how do you keep it relevant? The best way is to periodically update your posts and include a timestamp of the most recent update next to the original timestamp.
Most sophisticated publishers know that the bulk of blog traffic comes from older posts, so if you can keep them fresh, both your visitors and Google will reward you for it.
Make it a point to go through all your posts—at least those that have received traffic—at least once per year to read through and update the content.
3. Timestamped Posts With Timeless Information
This one's a little tricky. If the post has a recent timestamp, I know it's fine to use. But if it has an old timestamp, I have to read the piece to determine whether it's relevant enough that I can still use it—because it's talking about high-level trends that don't change as frequently, historical research, or general marketing wisdom.
Even if your information is truly timeless, periodically adding an updated timestamp is still a good idea. It tells me that you have recently vetted your content for relevance so I don't have to do it for you.
4. Undated Posts With Timely or Timeless Information
This type of content may be helpful, but sometimes it's just not worth the trouble. If your post is undated, I have no idea when you wrote it, so I have to figure out for myself whether it is still timely or relevant to me. I may be able to figure out from the context whether it's recent (for example, if you note that Trump is president, I'll know it's more recent than if you mention Obama is president).
I might click on a link and find it pointing to an interesting 2020 study. Pay dirt! Or I might click on a link that delivers a 404 error because the outdated research the post links to isn't even online anymore. Frustrating.
5. Timestamped Posts With Outdated Information
The bad news is that I can't use outdated information. The good news is that if you tell me that right away with a 2011 timestamp, you won't waste my time.
6. Undated Posts With Outdated Information
This type is the worst of all. I have to scan your post, click the outlinks, check for comment timestamps, or perform other detective work just to determine that your content is worthless to me. Please don't make me check your source code or the Wayback Machine to see when you published a post.
Timestamped Content and Trust
Since I've been writing about the ways brands build trust online, it occurred to me that content timestamps can be an important trust signal for brands.
To return to the grocery store metaphor, when you pick up those steaks for dinner, what's the first thing you do? You check the "best before" date.
"Best before" or "sell by" dates are a relatively new phenomenon, having originated in the UK in the 1970s. You might be surprised to learn that in the United States, the USDA does not require foods to carry expiration dates, except in the case of infant formula. Nevertheless, food manufacturers add those labels to their products.
To build trust.
Research has shown that consumers see expiration dates as quality indicators. And it's not that big of a stretch to see timestamped content in the same light.
Let's be honest: Why do so many brands and publishers refuse to timestamp their posts? In the early days of blogging, all content was timestamped. It wasn't a blog if the posts weren't clearly dated and displayed in reverse chronological order.
At some point, someone got clever and said, "You know what? Visitors bounce when they see old content, and Google doesn't like it, either. So let's just take the dates off and no one will be the wiser."
That might be clever, but it's also deceptive. Your visitors—and your buyers—might wonder what else you are being deceptive about.
When you devote the time and creativity necessary to create quality content, it's well worth the relatively small additional commitment to keep that content updated and to share that status with your visitors. They will trust you all the more for it.
More Resources on Using Content to Build Trust
How to Win Customers' Trust and Loyalty With Unfiltered Marketing: Stephen Denny on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]A 12-Step Checklist for Creating Good Website Content [Infographic]
Mastering the Content Lifecycle: The Key to Transforming Your Customer Experience
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