How QuickBooks Nearly Doubled Traffic by Deleting Half Its Content

content pruning case study

Here’s a bold SEO move.

Will Waggoner, SEO lead at QuickBooks, decided to delete 2,000 blog posts to fight off a slow decline in organic traffic. Those 2,000 posts represented more than 40% of the QuickBooks Resource Center, tens of thousands of dollars in investment and countless hours of writing.

And while you might expect that traffic dropped—it didn’t. In fact, traffic was up 20% within a few weeks. And by the time peak season rolled around—tax prep creates a surge in search volume between January and May—traffic was up 44%. That extra traffic contributed to a 72% increase in signups as well.

Content pruning works. But before you delete half your blog, we have to remind you that deleting pages does not guarantee more traffic. Far from it, actually. There are many factors to consider. We sat down with Will to chat about those considerations and hear his thoughts on how other sites could benefit from a similar process.

How to Prune Content From a B2B SaaS Blog

“The sites that benefit most from pruning have thousands, if not 100,000 or more pages,” says Will.

Take Home Depot as an example. It carries hundreds of thousands of SKUs on its site, plus category pages, brand pages and much more. Google has indexed at least eight million pages. Many of these pages are generated automatically. You can imagine that even a minor bug could generate a few thousand cruft pages. If these pages get no traffic and generate no revenue, deleting them is an easy decision.

This is obviously not the situation that most B2B SaaS blogs find themselves in. Each page or post is the result of design and dev work, writing, editing, and promotion. The decision to prune has to be made very carefully.

Will found himself in a situation where several blogs had been merged to create the QuickBooks Resource Center. As a result, some of the posts were outdated, many covered the same topics and some were full of broken links pointing to their previous owners. Additionally, the content team was producing new, high-quality content. Deleting old, lightweight content made more sense the more he looked into it.

Step 1: Aggregate Data on Your Content

Will scraped the site in Screaming Frog, exported data from Google Analytics, then merged the two spreadsheets so he could see all the data in one place. Then, he exported conversion data from an internal tool to see how each URL assisted in conversions. He ignored new content that hadn’t gotten a chance to rank yet, then filtered out articles that had received less than 100 visits in the last six months and no conversions. That left him with just over 2,000 articles—and “a looooot of VLOOKUPs.”

Step 2: Make a Plan for Redirects, Broken Links and Sitemaps

This is where things started to get a little tricky. Some of the pages had external backlinks and many had internal links pointing to them. Even though they didn’t get much traffic, Will wanted to redirect the URLs to make sure readers didn’t get 404 errors if they clicked a link pointing to a deleted page. He went through the list of pages to be deleted and found places to redirect as many of the URLs as he could. For pages that didn’t have natural places to redirect to, he pointed to the Resource Center homepage.

The QuickBooks sitemap updates automatically when pages are deleted, but not all sitemaps are dynamic. Will points out that this isn’t always the case. If yours isn’t dynamic, make sure to update it so you avoid asking Google to crawl a bunch of nonexistent pages.

Step 3: Make Your Case, Over and Over Again

Will didn’t get much pushback on his plan to remove those 2,000+ posts, but cautions that others likely will. Assuming that each of those posts cost $250 (and that’s on the very low end), Will’s campaign erased half a million dollars’ worth of content.

Will made the case that this purge of old blog posts would substantially improve the site’s structure as well as the reader experience. Now that he’s proven it can work, he’s planning another purge to make room for newer, better content on topics that have previously been covered.

Content pruning can be like pushing a bill through Congress. You have to negotiate, bargain, plea, and fight to make it happen. The legislative facet of pruning is either Step 3 (apologize later), or Step 1 (ask permission). We’ll leave it to you to decide what’s best for your org.

Whichever you choose, execute carefully. Small mistakes can lead to drops in traffic that are hard to get back. Don’t create new problems with hasty execution.

3 Things to Try Before You Prune Content

Will’s decision to prune content was calculated. There were a number of factors that he considered. To recap:

  • Several blogs had been merged, which created a lot of overlap.
  • Many of the articles were out of date and included links to dead pages.
  • The content team was actively creating new high-quality content and could fill any gaps created by deleting old posts.

Two additional factors that we didn’t mention above are that (1) QuickBooks has really strong domain authority—that means new posts have a good chance to rank well and to rank quickly— and (2) QuickBooks has a number of other acquisition channels in addition to organic search traffic. For a smaller site with fewer channels to lean on, the risk is significantly increased.

Which is exactly why Will recommends trying a few things before removing old content.

1. Make Content More Accessible

One reason that content doesn’t get traffic is because it’s difficult to find. The standard blog homepage is a reverse chronological feed of posts. It’s very difficult to discover content that wasn’t created recently. This is true for readers and search engines—you want to reduce the number of clicks it takes to reach every post so that content is easily navigated by readers and indexed by crawlers.

And this simply doesn’t qualify as “navigation.”

blog navigation screenshot

One way to think about this is flattening your site architecture. A feed of posts is deep—meaning that the older a post is, the further away from the homepage it is.

vertical site structure

Flattening your site most often means creating hubs of content based on categories, use cases, products or target reader, then adjusting the navigation so that hubs are easy to find.

flat site structure

Content marketers can create the hubs, but will likely need help from design and/or dev to fix navigation issues. You could go as far as recreating your entire content homepage, or just add links to hubs on the sidebar, footer or header of your site.

2. Address Internal Links

One of the challenges with SEO is that problems can arise from various parts of the business. One common example, Will explains, is that designers will style H1s to look a certain way. Then, the content team uses H1s when they should be using H2s or H3s.

This happens all the time with internal links too, especially on larger sites. Front-end developers and designers carefully place links to improve the UX, then content marketers load up their posts with way too many internal links, watering down the effect of the site’s structure.

Luckily, content marketers can fix this problem. “There was another test that I did where I used Screaming Frog to find articles had about like 10 to 15 internal links each,” Will explains. “There were several hundred articles that were loaded with internal links. I cut them down to like two or three per article and made sure those links were pointing to pages that were within striking distance of page one. We saw movement almost right away. It helps that our domain is strong, but cutting down those internal links gave the remaining ones even more equity.”

It’s a good idea to clean up internal links at least once each year, especially if you have multiple contributors to your site. Be deliberate about where links point and be stingy about how many are in each article.

3. Update and Refresh Old Content

This is by far the least-sexy-but-most-effective alternative to pruning a site, especially for smaller sites with less than 1,000 articles. Content naturally decays over time and should be updated regularly so that the information is up-to-date and any minor on-page SEO issues can be cleaned up.

Start with on-page SEO. You’ll want to check page titles and H1s to address any duplicates. (Screaming Frog is great for this.) You can fix H2s and H3s to add more descriptive keywords (the Moz Bar makes this easy), fix broken links (this Chrome extension is great), replace old stock images (remember these?).

In doing this for our own site, I found a number of blog posts with duplicate meta descriptions.

duplicate meta descriptions screenshot

If you’ve optimized as much as you can and still aren’t seeing results, you can refresh the content. There are a few ways to do this:

  • Expand content to make it more in-depth.
  • Update content to reflect the most up-to-date best practices, statistics, examples, etc.
  • Create a completely new post on the same, but use the old URL.

You can also re-launch refreshed content via email or social to drive new visitors.

Back to Basics

This is content marketing 101, but it’s important to remember that basics are really effective. Pruning content is a big decision and not one to be taken lightly. Before you do it, make sure you’ve exhausted all of your less expensive, less risky, less irreversible options.

Jimmy is the marketing director at Animalz, an agency that provides high-end content marketing solutions to SaaS and tech companies.