The Sunk Cost Fallacy in Content Marketing

Content marketing is an investment—until it’s not.

A blog watered down with content that no one reads is actually doing your website a disservice. Imagine that…the physical embodiment of your content marketing investment actually doing the opposite of what it’s supposed to do.

We recently shared the story of the QuickBooks Resource Center. SEO lead Will Waggoner deleted several hundred thousand dollars worth of posts—and traffic increased by 44%. They had to spend money to get rid of content they had spent a lot of money on. And while that sounds painful, content pruning is actually a necessary part of any content marketing operation. If you can’t conduct an objective autopsy of your existing content, you risk bloat.

Some content is an investment, some content was an investment.

The Hard Truth: You Must Abandon Some Content

Writer David McRaney does an excellent job of summing up the sunk cost fallacy in his post on the You Are Not So Smart blog:

The Misconception: You make rational decisions based on the future value of objects, investments and experiences.


The Truth: Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.

The impact on content marketing is pretty clear. When companies invest a lot of time and money in content marketing, it's really hard to say goodbye to hundreds or thousands of posts—even when it's obvious that doing so is beneficial. The effect is compounded by the risk-averse nature of the modern workplace. Can you imagine telling your boss that the company's investment in content is hurting the site? And what if you were the one that fought for the budget, hired the agency, or even wrote the posts? How many of us have the humility to eat the cost of those decisions and move forward?

A high-volume approach to content was an easy sell five or ten years ago. At the time, it would have been very difficult to foresee that decision creating problems later on. And while it's hard to decouple our personal investment of time and what's best for the company, it must be done.

Instead of thinking of content pruning as an occasional task, we should build it into our workflow and our budgets. It's like regular maintenance. You wouldn't buy a car, then get upset when you also have to pay for gas and oil changes. A similar mindset applies to content. The creation of the content is the upfront cost, but you have to maintain, repair, update, and remove too.

Why Content Pruning Works (or, How to Make the Case to Your Boss)

The mechanics of content pruning are simple, but often overlooked. It's important to quantify how it works, so that you can better make the case that it's worth doing. Here are just a few of the ways that content pruning can benefit your site.

  • Google can penalize an entire site for “cruft pages,” meaning that even really good content will struggle to rank. Pruning increases the density of high-quality content. This helps even out the content marketing power curve and makes for a more consistent reading experience.
  • The less content you have, the more accessible it is. Part of content pruning is organizing content so that navigation is easy. Increasing engagement is correlated with better organic rankings.
  • It's forward-thinking. Content marketing has evolved quite a bit over the last few years. Outdated, lightweight content is not something you want associated with your site. You're better off with no content than bad content.

And while that all sounds nice, the real benefit is more traffic. Content pruning can increase rankings. And small ranking improvements offer outsized traffic returns.

In a study of more than 1.6 million keywords, Advanced Web Ranking found that the first search result on a Google SERP was clicked 30% of the time. That’s more than double the pages that ranked second and nearly seven times more than the fifth result. As you move up in rankings, traffic growth isn't quite exponential, but it's definitely non-linear.

Using a baseline of 1,000 visits per month for ranking tenth, here's how traffic growth can increase with better rankings:

RankTraffic IncreaseMonthly Visits

That's an average of 47% traffic growth per rank improvement. Yes, you can earn nearly 1.5x the traffic for every rank increase on the first page of a SERP. And you can more than double traffic by moving from the second to the first spot. Moving from 10 to 1 represents a 30x traffic increase.

(Note: This data is based on Advanced Web Rankings June 2018 analysis of desktop searches in the US.)

This is the goal of content pruning. And while there's no guarantee that deleting content results in more traffic, the opportunity exists. We believe that every site, regardless of size, should commit to some pruning on a regular basis. Large sites stand to benefit quite a bit. Small sites may not see the same impact, but pruning has a similar effect to reducing advisory fees on a 401(k)—the benefit of compounding interest (or, in this case, traffic) is more powerful.

How to Prune Your Site Without Deleting Content

You may have trouble getting buy-in to delete content. You also may not need to. (Check out the QuickBooks case study to learn what Will suggests trying before you delete any pages.)

Content pruning is most often associated with the de-indexing or deleting of pages, but it does come in other forms. Combing posts is often the best place to start. Most blogs have overlapping articles. Posts created by different writers, or different teams, cover the same topics. The content isn't exactly duplicate, but it's not necessary to have two or more posts that aren't significantly differentiated.

Combining posts requires an eye for editorial. You have to carefully weave the posts together so the end result is a cohesive, useful piece. We suggest using the “Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive” framework. In the context of content marketing, this means that you want to identify all posts that overlap, then either combine them or separate them completely. Information is easier to process when ideas are clearly organized. The goal is to limit the number of posts while increasing the exclusive information within each.

mutually exclusive collectively exhaustive content marketing

This is common, but not always easy to fix since approaching the same topic from different angles can be useful to readers. Here's an example of how this might look for a site like QuickBooks. If you write a post for every relevant search query, you end up with a lot of overlapping content.

  • [what is a 1099?]
  • [what are the different types of 1099s?]
  • [how do I pay 1099 employees?]
  • [1099 vs. W2]
  • [common 1099 mistakes]
  • [1099 taxes]
  • [1099 instructions]
  • [printable 1099 form]

QuickBooks did write a post for nearly every search query. (Several blogs run by different teams were combined, which exacerbated the problem.) This also happened with a number of other terms (W-2, W-4, 1040, etc.) To clean this up, they needed a simple framework. Each topic gets the same treatment:

  • definition post (“What Is the 1099 Form?”)
  • comparison post (“1099 vs. W-2”)
  • explainer post (“How to Issue a 1099 Form to Your Contractors”)

All of the query variations can be adequately covered within those posts. If QuickBooks were to create a post like “The Ultimate Guide to Payroll,” which would obviously need to cover 1099s, they could link to these posts rather than repeat information.

Overlapping content can also be repurposed. If you have content that you believe to be high quality, but isn't getting traffic, you can remove it from your site and repurpose it as a gated lead generation tool or include it in an email campaign. This is a much easier sell than simply deleting it altogether and may be a good place for most sites, especially smaller ones, to start.

Past Performance Is Not Indicative Of Future Results

Content pruning is something that every site, no matter how small, should be thinking about at least once each year.

Even if things are going well and your site is steadily growing, be on guard for bloat, hard to find articles, lightweight posts, and overlapping content. Plenty of B2B sites have uncovered a tactic that led to quick traffic, only to find that it created problems later on. Content is always evolving and in the future, you may very well have to toss a post that is currently performing well.

Content marketing is an investment—as long as it's maintained over the long-term.