Content is a long play, especially when it comes to organic search.
When you consider the average age of pages ranking in the top 10 positions in Google search results are more than two years old — and combine that with the effects of content freshness on Google rankings — your content strategy to win organic search traffic can’t just be a post-it-and-ghost-it endeavor.
For content to be successful, you have to treat it as if it is alive. But finding the right balance of when and how much to refresh content can be tricky.
To find the sweet spot that best fits the organic search strategy for our content at ClearVoice, we took those two key ranking factors (page age and freshness) and balanced them with studies that supported the association between higher word counts and higher Google rankings.
We then devised our 20/20 Rule based on the premise that if optimal rankings would take two years, and freshness was an integral factor within that timeframe, we would not publish pillar posts with the optimal length from the get-go but stagger updates to boost freshness with periodic content additions over time.
And from an execution standpoint, the process created ancillary benefits as well. Because it required content creation to be spread out over time, it:
- Made our pillar content more timely and authoritative
- Strengthened relationships with our writers
- Gave writers more ownership of the posts
- Helped writers learn and add more expertise to the topics
- Allowed us to spread costs over multiple, smaller updates
- Created new promotional spins with each published update
So with that overview in mind, let’s get into the specifics…
What Is the 20/20 Rule?
The 20/20 Rule: When the primary strategy for a page of content is to earn traffic from organic search, either add 20% new content (based on word count) to the page at recurring intervals until the optimal word count is reached, or refresh an aggregate of 20% of current content at recurring intervals after the optimal word count has been reached. Recurring intervals can vary, but the first 20/20 update should not occur prior to six months after the initial publish date.
How Did We Determine the Optimal Length for Our Content?
Although we performed the following type of analysis about two years ago, below is a recent analysis of posts from the ClearVoice Blog. The trendline of the data now, just as it was then, was as clear as it could be: More words equal more traffic.
Of hundreds of posts, the top performers (that received the most visits from organic search) had an average word count of 1,834, while the poorest performers had an average word count of 821. Although not discernible in this graph, our top 10 posts had an average word count of 2,502. So we set 1,800-2,500 words as the range for optimal post length. (Note: We used this optimal post length specifically for posts that fit this particular strategy, not all posts.)
- We ranked all of our live blog posts that were older than one year (~400 posts) by the number of organic visits they received from search. We chose one year as the benchmark to avoid noise in the data from ~250 newer posts (which would have less time to gain rankings in search engines). We also did not include ~100 posts that were retired at some point in the past year (the average word counts of those were closer to 800 words).
- We divided the posts into 10 deciles based on their performance. Posts that performed in the top 10% of organic search visit earners were in the 1st decile; posts that performed in the top 11-20% of organic search visit earners were in the 2nd decile; and so forth.
- We found the average word count of all the posts in each respective decile.
How Effective Is the 20/20 Rule for Driving Organic Search Traffic?
Since we began applying the 20/20 Rule roughly 18 months ago, we now have ~30 posts that have been tracked with at least one full year of data to analyze. So far, the results have been more than promising:
- On average, we found that organic search traffic rose 143% for the total six-month period after a post’s 20/20 refresh as compared to the total six-month period before the refresh.
- The median rise in traffic of all posts with 20/20 refreshes was 77%, with positive increases ranging from a low of 14% to a high of 2,341%.
- Of all the posts we applied the 20/20 Rule to, only one experienced a decline in traffic after its refresh. It sank 20%. And, yes, we’re re-examining that one. Can’t win them all.
- Currently, 17 of our top 25 performing posts have followed the 20/20 Rule.
Please note that we apply other SEO updates to all of our posts periodically, but this data set includes only the posts that followed the 20/20 Rule. And for the trolls out there, yes, a self-selecting phenomenon could be happening, where topics that matter the most to us would naturally get more attention, but the before/after analysis was strikingly clear regardless.
Examples of the 20/20 Rule at Play
We’ve already seen a few patterns emerge as we’ve applied the 20/20 Rule. Here are three examples to help illustrate when and how we’ve decided to use it.
Example #1: Create Momentum Pulses for Pillars.
Applying 20/20 refreshes periodically has proven to spur pulses of freshness to increase traffic momentum, and it’s why it’s an ideal strategy to apply to pillar content.
The post in the above example got ~100 search visits per month consistently for a year, but the keywords we were targeting had much higher monthly search volumes. At the one-year mark, we applied our first 20/20 refresh, and traffic instantly changed course for the better. Closer to the two-year mark, we noticed a minor dip in traffic and executed a second 20/20 refresh, again with an instant spur in traffic.
The majority of our 20/20 refreshes follow a Momentum Pulse pattern similar to the above: refresh, jump, refresh, jump.
Example #2: Try Optimization Triggers to Unlock Potential.
When we started to apply the 20/20 Rule, we also targeted posts that were flatlining in terms of search traffic but still had content value. However, we didn’t at the time want to allocate budget for additional content. Testing basic optimization effects seemed a reasonable gauge as to whether to commit additional resources or not.
In the example above, we optimized the format of a long-form listical post that had 1,800+ words. And although we did not add 20% new content, we updated headlines and reordered much of the existing content — and organic search traffic shot from around 0 to nearly 2,000 visits in a month. It’s likely the amount of re-organizing may have counted for a 20% refresh, but no substantial amount of content was rewritten.
Six months later, we added and optimized roughly 20 images (it was an example-heavy post) after the traffic leveled off again. Again, the optimization took effect and prompted another steady incline. Then nearly another six months after that, we applied a full-on 20/20 refresh, which coincided with another huge traffic surge.
We’ve seen a similar pattern in many posts we’ve optimized in general, but those with 20/20 refreshes have performed better overall.
The Optimization Trigger pattern exemplifies why you shouldn’t dismiss an underperforming, or in this case a non-performing, page before evaluating how well you’ve optimized the content you already have. SEO can make a huge difference!
Example #3: Let the Lucky Beast Be.
When you apply the 20/20 Rule and your post just takes off and keeps on going, and going, and going, and…
Well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Just let it be. The above pattern fits the mold of a rare lucky post that hit the top spot in Google rankings in less than one year. If we ever decide to refresh it again, we will keep a backup copy just in case.
More Ideas for Using for the 20/20 Rule
Aside from using the 20/20 Rule as a framework to build your pillar content, whether in a blog or on core website pages, here are three key examples of how to structure content with 20/20 refreshes in mind:
- While breaking news pieces obviously are not candidates for the 20/20 Rule, you can try rolling updates or calendars to make timely content have more evergreen appeal.
- For topics that might be thought pieces or educational guides, like our unique approach to time management, you can embed series of examples in the content that can be refreshed over time to keep the topic more timely and relatable without distracting from your core concepts.
- Annual updates, such as periodic reviews of products or services, are another way to add authority, especially in industries that change a lot.
A Few Last Things About the 20/20 Rule
Since implementing the strategy, here are several nuances we’ve found helpful to remember:
- Update copy, references, facts, and links (internal and external) to be more timely and accurate.
- Analyze the keywords or phrases the page is currently ranking highest for and be sure not to alter/delete copy or headers that might support them.
- Check to see if the page has “won” any featured snippets in Google search results. If so, avoid modifying any content that appears in a featured snippet. Don’t mess with a good thing!
- Don’t forget to add/optimize images and media assets.
And most importantly: Always remember to add value, not just content for content’s sake.
Your educational content matters: check out Conductor’s original research into how your content impacts the purchase decision.