Data & Studies

I Deleted the Content From Two Posts To See if They’d Still Rank. Here’s What Happened

Patrick Stox
Patrick Stox is a Product Advisor, Technical SEO, & Brand Ambassador at Ahrefs. He was the lead author for the SEO chapter of the 2021 Web Almanac and a reviewer for the 2022 SEO chapter. He also co-wrote the SEO Book For Beginners by Ahrefs and was the Technical Review Editor for The Art of SEO 4th Edition. He’s an organizer for several groups including the Raleigh SEO Meetup (the most successful SEO Meetup in the US), the Beer and SEO Meetup, the Raleigh SEO Conference, runs a Technical SEO Slack group, and is a moderator for /r/TechSEO on Reddit.
Article Performance
  • Linking websites
    50

The number of websites linking to this post.

This post's estimated monthly organic search traffic.

    I removed content from two of our pages to try to measure the impact that content has on rankings. We lost a few positions for many terms, and it hurt, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. These pages still ranked relatively well without any content.

    You can see the current content for these pages on the blog (top Bing searches, top YouTube searches). Both have 1-2K words and tons of data.

    Here’s how they looked during the test:

    How the "top YouTube searches" post looked during the test.
    Nothing to see here. I deleted all the content so it’s just a title and author bio.

    If you’ve been reading our blog, you may have seen my first attempt at measuring the impact of content. I blocked the same pages from being crawled with robots.txt, thinking this would take the content out of the ranking equation. The impact was minor enough that I wasn’t sure if my test was actually successful.

    My theory, based on a comment from Google Search Advocate John Mueller, was that they may still be using the old content to rank the page. Here’s what he said:

    John Mueller confirms that text previously on a page might be used to rank it

    I don’t think I can rule that out with this test either. The impact feels too small. It’s possible they’re still using the content that used to be on the page to rank it, or they may just be ranking because of the links to the page.

    Either way, here’s what I did and what happened.

    Test setup

    This was a pretty simple setup. I simply deleted the content of the posts in WordPress and republished them.

    I deleted the content from these two posts on August 8th and restored it on August 20th:

    Warning

    I don’t recommend doing this. Your results may be very different from ours.

    Results

    Traffic dropped when I removed the content and recovered after I restored it.

    Top Bing searches page traffic:

    Impact of removing content from our page about "top Bing searches"

    Top YouTube searches page traffic:

    Impact of removing content from our page about "top YouTube searches"

    It looks worse than it is. Most of the rankings only lost a few positions.

    Rankings for top Bing searches page:

    Impact on rankings on our "top Bing searches" page from removing the content. Ahrefs' data

    Rankings for top YouTube searches page:

    Impact on rankings on our "top YouTube searches" page from removing the content. Ahrefs' data

    The YouTube page lost the most traffic, but I wanted to show this from Google Search Console to show you it really did only lose a few positions for the terms.

    Impact on rankings on our "top Bing searches" page from removing the content. GSC data

    Final thoughts

    Yes, it hurts to remove content, and no, I don’t recommend you do it. But, if it happens accidentally, the impact on rankings might not be that bad. You can also recover from it quickly.

    That said, I can’t be 100% certain why our pages still ranked. It might be the links propped up the rankings, but there’s a chance Google is still using the old content from the page for ranking purposes.

    I think what I need to do to test this properly is to build links to a brand-new page and see if it will rank. Message me on X (Twitter) if you’d like to see that.

    For now, if you haven’t seen it already, check out the study on the impact of links where I disavowed all the links to these posts, including good ones, to see what would happen. The results were actually pretty similar to this test, where the pages just dropped a few positions in rankings.

    Article Performance
    • Linking websites
      50

    The number of websites linking to this post.

    This post's estimated monthly organic search traffic.