9 min

Content Decay: How and Why the “Silent SEO Killer” Happens

While you’re busy creating fresh high-quality content, old content slowly loses its freshness and relevance. It decays and hinders the overall website growth you’re trying to achieve by adding new content.

The good news is that you can reverse the decaying process if you know why content decay happens, and what warning signs to look for. 

This article covers the basics of content decay and the risks associated with it. We’ll also show you how to identify content decay and talk about some risks of leaving it unchecked. 

Once you know what you’re up against, you’ll be well-equipped to revive your old content and recover lost traffic and engagement. 



What is Content Decay?

Content decay is a process of slow, gradual decline in the effectiveness and relevance of online content over time. It mostly manifests as a decline in engagement, traffic, and rankings.

Content decay is the last stage of your content’s lifecycle, which generally consists of four phases:

Early Traction

The content is first published. Maybe you promote it on social media or email and it gets some early attention.  


The content gains traction and reaches a larger audience. Engagement is growing, organic traffic is rising.


The content performs at its best, reaching maximum engagement and audience size.

In the screenshot above, the traffic generated in August would be considered the peak.


The traffic is slowly but steadily declining. Audience engagement and reach decrease. 

If nothing is done, the content continues decaying and fails to fulfill its desired purpose.   

Does Content Decay Impact SEO?

Yes, it does. Outdated content isn’t helpful and doesn’t meet the user’s expectations. As fewer people see the value in your content, you’ll face one of the following problems:

Lower Search Visibility

Outdated content leads to a higher bounce rate and a low dwell time.

This signals to search engines that people are not reading your content, which usually means it’s unhelpful or irrelevant to the user’s query. Hence, it features less prominently in search results.

Drop in Click-Through Rate (CTR)

Users don’t find the content attractive enough anymore. Be it the publication date or an irrelevant topic angle, fewer people click through to your website.

Lower User Engagement

Engagement refers to users’ level of interaction and interest in a website’s content.

Decreased engagement manifests as high bounce rates, a shorter dwell time, and fewer content interactions, such as shares and comments.

Fewer Backlinking Opportunities

No one wants to link to outdated content. 

Even someone who linked to your content in its prime will probably replace the link with a fresher source if your piece is no longer helping the audience. 

how content decay affects seo

While we’re talking about SEO, let’s clarify why the ‘helpfulness’ factor is kind of a big deal here. 

Starting in August 2022, Google’s helpful content update caused massive turbulence in the search results. 

It mostly targets SEO content that doesn’t serve users first (i.e. content written for SEO purposes only). 

However, Google also notes that any type of content that signals “little value, low-added value or is otherwise not particularly helpful to those doing searches” is less likely to perform well.”

If you haven’t updated your old articles and blog posts in a while, there’s your hint. Kick out the dust bunnies before both Google and users alike decide that your content is “unhelpful”. 

What Causes Content Decay?

Causes of decay broadly relate to content age, the topic, your competition, or a search engine algorithm update. Here are some usual culprits to consider first.

Content Age

In fast-moving sectors like news, tech, and science, new advancements and changes happen all the time. Previous information becomes less relevant, less useful, and possibly even inaccurate. 

That’s why users and search engines alike prefer more recent publication dates. Would you click on a 2019 research over a 2022 report?

Content Competition

Your competitors do their keyword research and publish content on the same keywords you target. They’ll study your articles to see how they can outperform you.

If they produce and publish content with newer and more relevant information, your content is kicked down.

Updates to Search Result Pages

Search result pages reflect the search trends, intent, and motivation behind their users’ queries. And these can change overnight. 

Kevin Indig caught an interesting example of how search engine results changed due to a globally known event – Queen Elisabeth’s passing.

Search results on King Charles cavalier dog were replaced with information about the Queen’s son Charles who succeeded her on the throne. 

Source: Twitter

Google (rightly) estimated that people wanted to read about the new King, and served them relevant content.

Once-in-a-lifetime event aside, Google also regularly adds and removes rich results for queries.

From one day to another, Google can add a result like this:

With a nifty list like the one above, fewer people will click through to other pages – simply because a list is more immediately useful than clicking through multiple articles to get the same info.

Topical Depth

Readers expect well-rounded content that sufficiently answers their questions. Naturally, content with added examples, step-by-step instructions, studies, images, and expert quotes will be more relevant and helpful than generic pieces. 

As some topics evolve before our eyes (like the coronavirus), it’s not always easy to keep up with new information. But if you don’t, you shouldn’t be surprised if your piece doesn’t perform well.

Technical Issues

Broken external and internal links, huge unoptimized images, slow loading times, too many widgets are clear signs you haven’t updated the page (and probably the content) in ages. 

why content decay happens

No matter how good of content is, if the user experience isn’t up to par, people won’t engage with it. Consequently, search engines also won’t be giving it much visibility either.

Time Sensitivity

Some topics simply have a short shelf-life. They get a lot of attention for a while, but no one will look for them a few months from now.

Celebrity gossip and fashion trends spike in searches for a short time and quickly disappear.

Don’t confuse it with seasonality, though. Some content truly is only relevant at specific times of the year, such as Valentine’s Day.

Tools and Metrics for Identifying Content Decay

Now let’s move to a more practical task: how to find content decay on your website.

Any tool you use to monitor rankings and traffic can help you here. 

Whichever tool you choose, we recommend that you inspect pages that are at least a couple of months old, as rankings and traffic take some time to stabilize. Also, with a full-year overview, you can rule out seasonality.

The two most commonly used free tools are Google Analytics and Google Search Console. These allow you to easily filter out two tell-tale signs of decay: traffic decline and ranking difference.

To pull traffic data from Google Analytics, follow this path: Acquisition > All Traffic > Source/Medium. Click on ‘google/organic’ to only get data on traffic that’s come through organic Google search.

Set ‘landing page’ as the secondary dimension to see more clearly what pages the traffic is arriving at.

Next, set a date range in the upper right corner of the page. How long or short is up to you. But remember that decay is a slow and gradual decline you might miss if you only look at a month’s data. 

To illustrate, here’s an interesting piece of content from one of our websites worth a closer observation.

This is an old page for a very niched keyword that wasn’t expected to drive much traffic in the first place. But it was stable and consistent, and it generated a decent number of backlinks and shares. 

However, the traffic to this page has been declining over the last year. 

We compared data for December 2022 with the same period last year and found that traffic to this page halved.

To confirm our suspicions, we also checked its performance in Google Search Console. 

Here’s how to do it step by step:

  • In GSC, navigate through Performance > Pages. From there, you can sort by clicks, impressions, CTR, and average position. 
  • If you want to immediately list the biggest losers, set your date range, compare to a previous period, and click on Difference.
  • To check each page individually, just click on its URL in the Pages list. 


As for our page, we already assumed there would be fewer clicks and impressions. So we unchecked those parameters and only looked at CTR and average position. 

This is data for the last three months of 2022 versus the last 3 months of 2021.

It’s clear as day that this page is experiencing decay. 

This is the part where we start looking for the causes. The numbers only tell you it’s happening, but not why.

We started by inspecting the SERPs for this query.

While the topic was subject to trends in the market (which explains fewer clicks and less traffic), the content itself is sort of evergreen, so it still ranks well and hasn’t completely tanked. 

So we wanted to know why we’re being pushed down in search results.

Once we checked the SERPs, we noticed there was an advancement to the topic a few months after we posted the piece that our page didn’t address. 

Another interesting bit we noticed in GSC is that, over the same period, the page started showing up for some related keywords that it didn’t show up before.

Here’s how you can find new or lost queries:

While looking at the metrics for the specific page, click on the Queries tab and compare data for the same period as before. Sort the Positions for the previous period in ascending order. 

The zeroes in the yellow rectangle are related keywords the page wasn’t ranking for before. Tons of opportunities there to target those keywords as well. 

Now we know what we need to do to update the piece to reclaim our top spots and traffic: update the piece with missing info, and see how we can take advantage of those new keywords.

Before wrapping up this section on tools to identify content decay, we need to mention paid tools like Semrush and Ahrefs.

Aside from visualizing traffic and ranking trends, these tools allow you to check new and lost backlinks.

If you’re losing backlinks or not acquiring them organically as fast as before, you might have a decay problem. 

Finally, an honorary mention of Google Trends. It is not a tracking tool but can be of great help to identify the cause of decay.

Once you start investigating why your content is underperforming, it can show you whether a search term was only a flash in the pan, or if it’s still something people are interested in.

For example, searches for the query ‘Queen Elizabeth II’ spiked at the end of August when the Queen fell ill. The interest in the query decreased to almost nothing after her death and funeral. 

Now that you know how to find decaying content, you can start planning which content to refresh first and what to do to fix the decaying content.

Prevent Content Decay Before It Affects Your Website

Content decay is a natural process, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore the warning signs. Decay doesn’t only affect your old content, but also sabotages your future content efforts and affects your whole website performance.

Even if you refresh your content, your work is not done once and for all. As time passes, you’ll need to revisit the material and update it. 

Regular content audits help you stay on track so you can easily prevent content decay and uncover new optimization opportunities.

Keeping your website fresh and accurate is a never-ending cycle of creating new and optimizing old content. It’s the only way to keep it useful and appealing to readers and search engines alike.

About The Author

Hi, I’m Ivana Maric Dugalic!

CEO and co-founder of Acomplix, content aficionado, language nerd. Got my Masters in German and English translation, spent years in customer service, and honed the art and craft of content marketing.Now I help businesses use content to create meaningful connections and exceptional experiences for their customers.

Here’s how to reach me: