Google warns against content pruning as CNET deletes thousands of pages

Gizmodo published an article “exposing” CNET for deleting thousands of pages, as they put it to “game Google Search.” This, even though content pruning is a fairly common advanced SEO practice.

What CNET did. “Thousands of articles” were deleted in recent weeks (CNET declined to provide an exact number), according to Gizmodo. CNET confirmed the content culling. CNET decided which pages to “redirect, repurpose or remove (deprecate)” by looking at metrics such as:

  • Pageviews.
  • Backlink profiles
  • Amount of time passed since the last update.

What CNET said. Content deprecation “sends a signal to Google that says CNET is fresh, relevant and worthy of being placed higher than our competitors in search results,” according to an internal memo.

  • Clearly, CNET needs better advice on how SEO works. Deleting content does not signal those three things. Publishing relevant, helpful, quality content for your audience is what makes you worthy of greater organic search visibility.

Removing content is not a decision CNET takes lightly. That’s what Taylor Canada, CNET’s senior director of marketing and communications, told Gizmodo:

  • “Our teams analyze many data points to determine whether there are pages on CNET that are not currently serving a meaningful audience.”
  • “This is an industry-wide best practice for large sites like ours that are primarily driven by SEO traffic. In an ideal world, we would leave all of our content on our site in perpetuity.
  • “Unfortunately, we are penalized by the modern internet for leaving all previously published content live on our site.”

Sorry, CNET. Google doesn’t want to reward sites that are primarily driven by SEO traffic. The helpful content system is meant to reward websites that are primarily creating content for users, not search engines.

  • There is no “penalty” for having old content on your website. Google will not send a manual action notice to CNET, or any site, because you have an article that was published in 2015, or 2007, or 2003, or whatever year.

‘Not a thing’. Before the article published, Google’s Danny Sullivan, via his @SearchLiaison account on X, posted:

  • “Are you deleting content from your site because you somehow believe Google doesn’t like ‘old’ content? That’s not a thing! Our guidance doesn’t encourage this. Older content can still be helpful, too.”

Sullivan was then asked what to do when old content has broken links, is no longer relevant or can’t be made more helpful. Sullivan’s response:

  • “The page itself isn’t likely to rank well. Removing it might mean if you have a massive site that we’re better able to crawl other content on the site. But it doesn’t mean we go ‘oh, now the whole site is so much better’ because of what happens with an individual page.”

Except, it is a thing. Well, sort of. Much of this belief that “deleting old content is good for SEO” can be traced back to when Google once advised removing content. After Google launched Panda, a Googler shared this exact advice (emphasis mine):

“In addition, it’s important for webmasters to know that low quality content on part of a site can impact a site’s ranking as a whole. For this reason, if you believe you’ve been impacted by this change you should evaluate all the content on your site and do your best to improve the overall quality of the pages on your domain. Removing low quality pages or moving them to a different domain could help your rankings for the higher quality content.”

Yes, that quote is from 2011. But logically, it makes sense because we know some of Google’s algorithms, including helpful content, evaluate sitewide signals.

Old and low-quality. If you were to create a Venn diagram – where one circle is for “old content on your website” and the other circle is for “low-quality content on your website” – I would bet good money that there is a big overlap. Much of what passed for “good” content 10 or more years ago probably wouldn’t today. This is especially true for a 25-year-old site like CNET.

Sullivan, in a followup thread with the article author, pointed out that there is more need for nuance in this particular discussion and tried to make it clear that Google has never advised people to delete content simply because it’s old.

Other prominent Googlers, including John Mueller and Gary Illyes, have also advised improving content, instead of removing it, whenever possible. Barry Schwartz has covered many of these points on Search Engine Roundtable:

Why we care. I’ve found that deleting old content can be good for SEO performance. I’ve done it, written about it and spoken about it at conferences and on webinars. To be clear: deleting old content alone – just because it’s old – probably won’t help you much. However, deleting, improving and consolidating content should be part of your SEO strategy because it helps improve your overall content quality – or, as Mueller once put it, “building out your reputation of knowledge on that topic.”

Dig deeper. Why and how to delete content in bulk for SEO, a great case study by Search Engine Land contributor Jared Bauman.

Don’t trust Google’s advice blindly. Gizmodo’s article also featured a great quote Lily Ray, head of organic research at Amsive Digital:

  • “Just because Google says that deleting content in isolation doesn’t provide any SEO benefit, this isn’t always true.”

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About the author

Danny Goodwin

Danny Goodwin has been Managing Editor of Search Engine Land & Search Marketing Expo – SMX since 2022. He joined Search Engine Land in 2022 as Senior Editor. In addition to reporting on the latest search marketing news, he manages Search Engine Land’s SME (Subject Matter Expert) program. He also helps program U.S. SMX events.

Goodwin has been editing and writing about the latest developments and trends in search and digital marketing since 2007. He previously was Executive Editor of Search Engine Journal (from 2017 to 2022), managing editor of Momentology (from 2014-2016) and editor of Search Engine Watch (from 2007 to 2014). He has spoken at many major search conferences and virtual events, and has been sourced for his expertise by a wide range of publications and podcasts.

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