Content is a long game, especially when it comes to organic search.
Considering that 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, it must be treated as if it were alive, but finding the right balance between when and how much content needs to be updated can be difficult.
To find the sweet spot that best fits the organic search strategy for our content at ClearVoice, we took these two key ranking factors (page age and freshness) and balanced them with studies showing the link between higher word count and higher Google rankings.
We then developed our 20 / 20 rule based on the premise that if optimal rankings took two years, and freshness was an integral factor within that timeframe, we would not publish pillar posts with the optimal length from the start, but would stagger updates to increase freshness through periodic content additions over time.
And from an execution standpoint, the process also brought additional benefits. Since the creation of content had to be spread out over time, it required:
- Made our pillar content more timely and authoritative
- Strengthened relations with our authors
- Writers given more ownership of the posts
- Helped writers learn and expand the topics with more expertise
- Allowed us to spread costs over multiple, smaller updates
- Created new promotional spins with each update released
With this overview in mind, let’s go into the details.
What is the 20 / 20 rule?
The 20 / 20 rule: When the primary strategy for a page of content is to generate traffic through 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 is reached. Recurring intervals may 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 trend line of data, now as then, was as clear as possible: More words mean more traffic.
Out of hundreds of entries, the top performers who 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 chart, our top 10 posts had an average word count of 2,502. So we set 1,800-2,500 words as the range for the 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 more than a year old (~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 posts into 10 deciles based on their performance. Posts that appeared in the top 10% of organic search visit earners were in the 1st decile; posts that appeared in the top 11-20% of organic search visit earners were in the 2nd decile; and so on.
- We found the average word count of all the posts in each decile.
How effective is the 20 / 20 rule for Driving Organic Search Traffic?
Since we began applying the 20 / 20 rule about 18 months ago, we now have about 30 posts that have been tracked with at least a full year of data to be analyzed. So far, the results have been more than promising:
- On average, we determined that organic search traffic increased by 143% during the entire six-month period after a post’s 20 / 20 refresh as compared to the entire six-month period prior to the update.
- 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, only one saw a drop in traffic after it was refreshed. It fell by 20%. And, yes, we’re re-examining that one. Can’t win them all.
- At the moment, 17 of our 25 best performing posts have adhered to the 20 / 20 rule.
Please note that we routinely apply other SEO updates to all of our posts, 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 have already seen some patterns in the application of the 20 / 20 rule. Here are three examples to help us illustrate when and how we decided to apply 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 is therefore an optimal strategy to apply to pillar content.
The post in the above example consistently had about 100 searches per month for a year, but the keywords we targeted had a significantly higher monthly search volume. At the year mark we applied our first 20 / 20 refresh, and traffic immediately changed for the better. Closer to the two-year mark we noticed a slight drop in traffic and carried out a second 20 / 20 refresh, also with an immediate boost in traffic.
Most of our 20 / 20 refreshes follow a Momentum Pulse pattern like to the one mentioned above: refresh, jump, refresh, jump.
Example #2: Try optimization triggers to unlock potential.
When we began applying the 20 / 20 rule, we also targeted posts that were flat lining in terms of search traffic but still had content value. However, we did not want to allocate budget for additional content back then. Examining basic optimization effects seemed to be a reasonable measure of whether additional resources should be committed or not.
In the above example, we optimized the format of a long-form listical post with over 1,800+ words. And, although we did not add 20% new content, we updated headlines and reorganized much of the existing content — and organic search traffic shot from about 0 to nearly 2,000 visits in a month. It’s likely the amount of re-organizing may have counted for a 20% update, but no significant amount of content was rewritten.
Six months later, we added and optimized about 20 images (it was an example-heavy post) after the traffic leveled off. Again, the optimization took effect and led to another steady climb. Then, almost another six months later, we applied a full 20 / 20 update that coincided with another huge traffic increase.
We have seen a similar pattern in many posts that we have generally optimized, but those with 20 / 20 refreshes have performed better overall.
The optimization trigger pattern illustrates why you should not dismiss an underperforming, or in this case a low-performing page, before evaluating how well you have 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. Let it be. The above pattern fits the mold of a rare lucky post that made it to the top spot in Google rankings in less than a year. If we ever decide to update it again, we will keep a backup version just in case.
More ideas for the 20 / 20 rule
Apart from using the 20 / 20 rule as a framework for creating your pillar content, whether in a blog or on core website pages, here are three key examples of how you can 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, such as our unique approach to time management, you can embed a number of examples into the content that can be updated over time to keep the topic more up-to-date and relatable without distracting from your core concepts.
- Annual updates, such as periodic reviews of products or services, are another way to gain authority, especially in industries that change a lot.
A few last things about the 20 / 20 rule
Since implementing the strategy, here are some 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 by which the page currently ranks highest and make sure that you do not modify / 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.
And above all: Always remember to add value, not just content for the sake of content.