Posted to Volacci's blog on April 30th, 2013

“Fresh Content” Explained

“Fresh Content” has been one of the hottest terms thrown around SEO and content marketing circles for the past few years. Posting fresh content is the practice of regularly publishing new items to a website or blog that search engines recognize as new. Google has lead the way in making fresh content a priority for webmasters, but little is known about what the best practices for fresh content actually entail, which is why I decided to research the topic in depth and share my findings.

Since the Caffeine, Panda and Penguin updates, Google has placed an increasingly high value on rewarding providers of fresh content with better site rankings. Since most of the other search engines are following suit in a reactionary way, it is best to examine what Google has said and done to promote the idea. Google seems to recognize two distinctly different types of activity regarding fresh content:

1. Promoting Freshness - proactive effort to create original and engaging content relevant to a website’s purpose or audience.

2. Preventing Staleness - housekeeping and promotional efforts that keep users engaged with content and prevent Google from categorizing content as stale.

Promoting Freshness

The first time that fresh content was labeled as a massive priority for Google came in the filing of a 2003 patent application titled, “Document Scoring Based on Document Content Update.” 

In the patent’s background section, Google outlines the problem they are hoping to solve with a greater emphasis on content freshness:

Both categories of search engines strive to provide high quality results for a search query. There are several factors that may affect the quality of the results generated by a search engine. For example, some web site producers use spamming techniques to artificially inflate their rank. Also, "stale" documents (i.e., those documents that have not been updated for a period of time and, thus, contain stale data) may be ranked higher than "fresher" documents (i.e., those documents that have been more recently updated and, thus, contain more recent data). In some particular contexts, the higher ranking stale documents degrade the search results. Thus, there remains a need to improve the quality of results generated by search engines.

One of the major problems identified by Google when determining a piece of content’s freshness is overcoming deceptive efforts of spammers and black hat SEO companies. Because of this, no single factor may be relied upon, instead, Google evaluates a number of factors including: 

  • amount and quality of associated links
  • timing and consistency of link building
  • user behavior and interaction with the content
  • user maintained or generated data (e.g. bookmarking, favorites list, etc.)

User Interaction

Simply posting content regularly is not enough to ensure that it will reach the top of search results. “Different searches have different freshness needs,” said Amit Singhal, a Google Fellow. We can extract from this statement, and past performance indicators, that Google is able to determine what static content remains valuable through the passage of time, and what information is relevant for just a flash, as a “hot topic” that quickly becomes old news. Google’s patent application states, "For some queries, documents with content that has not recently changed may be more favorable than documents with content that has recently changed. As a result, it may be beneficial to adjust the score of a document based on the difference from the average date-of-change of the result set."

Time on Page

Time on page is another indicator that content has value, and can affect the way Google treats a page. In their patent, Google mentions a document labeled “Riverview Swimming Schedule” that is regularly getting an average of thirty seconds per pageview, that begins getting an average of just a few seconds per page view. One might venture to guess that the new view times are shorter because the information has become out of date and is no longer relevant to a typical viewer.

Link Building

Link building patterns also weigh heavily into the determination of whether or not a content is considered fresh. Webmasters are encourage to promote their items on other website and through social media via hyperlinks. This strategy does run a risk, however, as sudden spikes in interest or linking can also be considered signs of spammy or unsound practices. You should not let this dissuade you from using common sharing practices, as a healthy network of links is imperative to any successful piece of content, but must constantly remain aware that there are risks to overly affiliating your content with less desirable link elements.

Google’s SEO Starter Guide suggests that content should be created for the site visitor, not for the search engine crawlers. Many years ago, keyword stuffing was the surest way to find success. Now, the key is in having organic-friendly content that is widely shared and consistently viewed.

Preventing Staleness

As readily as Google examines a new piece of content for freshness, they also examine existing pieces for staleness. This is to avoid situations like the swim lesson schedule posted above, where more established content, such as the 2012 swim schedule, will continue outranking the new 2013 schedule, regardless of the user’s actual search needs.

Factors that trigger a piece of content being labeled as stale include:

  • Duplicate content across the site (simply reposting old content in a new area).
  • Downward trend in the number or rate of new links
  • Lack of organic buzz around the Internet
  • Lack of anticipation in differences between users’ understanding of your topic

Duplicate Content Penalties

Google does not want to see duplicate content. Do not simply repost other people’s work, repost your own work to move it further up the blog, or borrow without giving a link back to the original source. It is great, even encouraged, to share and quote other people’s content, but you must put a substantial effort into making such content have an original point or perspective that ties directly into the needs of your audience, or purpose of your website.

Differences in User Understanding

Google’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide explains,

Anticipate differences in users' understanding of your topic and offer unique, exclusive content. Think about the words that a user might search for to find a piece of your content. Users who know a lot about the topic might use different keywords in their search queries than someone who is new to the topic. For example, a long-time baseball fan might search for [nlcs], an acronym for the National League Championship Series, while a new fan might use a more general query like [baseball playoffs]. Anticipating these differences in search behavior and accounting for them while writing your content (using a goodmix of keyword phrases) could produce positive results.

Writing for the User

Thankfully, the days of writing content that are simply stuffed with keywords to get ahead are long gone. When we talk about fresh, compelling and engaging content, we’re talking about rewarding the experts, giving web visitors a better user experience, and allowing your content to find the most natural audience possible. Google now emphasizes making pages primarily for users, not for search engines. They emphasize it so heavily, that it is now actually the best way to make pages primarily for search engines!

Best Practices for Fresh Content

Google Fellow Amit Singh wrote a blog post last summer describing some of the questions that content providers should follow when creating fresh content. His whole list may be read here, and includes questions such as:

  • Would you trust the information presented in this article?
  • Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
  • Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
  • Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
  • Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
  • Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
  • Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
  • Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?

These are the sort of standards that I use when creating content, and Google highly suggests that if you want to start getting great search results, you use them too.

What standards do you use for creating fresh, engaging and compelling content?