Step one: is the page actually dead?

Before anything, you need to be able to determine how active (or inactive) a page actually is. Comparing search visibility and traffic data is a good place to start, but there are plenty of other questions to ask:

  • Has the page appeared in any search results, Google or otherwise?
  • How many pages on your site link back to the one you’re examining?
  • How many other sites link back to it?
  • Where does this page sit in the Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools) internal link hierarchy?

You should also consider whether the page has had any visitors in the past 12 months, and if so, from where these people came.

Maybe this page acted as an entrance point, or perhaps the reader clicked through from another area of your website. It’s this kind of information that should tell you the value of each page.

Actual pages vs. historic URLs

URLs and actual pages are two different things, and it’s important to understand why. Specialists will take both historic and live URLs into account when performing technical SEO on a site, as this is the only way to get a proper idea of exactly how it appears to the outside world.

The two tools you probably use most, Google Analytics and Search Console, both store URLs for pages that used to exist but no longer do. This historic data could relate to pages you removed, or it may be present if other sites are linking to yours with incorrect URLs.

Either way, these factors can impact domain authority, possibly making an argument against deleting pages.

Potential solutions

  • If a bad referral link is causing the problem, it may be worth contacting the external site to ask for it to be updated, but you have to consider whether any potential gain is worth the time and effort.
  • If an inactive web page is causing the problem, you could simply remove it and redirect the URL to another valid page. If the deleted page contains links to other pages on your site, such a move could upset the site’s hierarchy, so make sure it’s a dead end before going any further.

A question of demand

A web page is pointless unless there’s some kind of demand for its contents. However, some pages will always be more popular than others. You may for example have one dedicated to the benefits of your most popular product and another offering only the terms and conditions of a competition, they’re both necessary, but the former will inevitably generate more interest.

This doesn’t mean the latter should be written off as an underperformer though.

Seasonal demand must also be taken into account. A page on Christmas delivery policies may not be viewed at all for three-quarters of the year, but you can be sure of a spike in visits between October and December. It’s for this reason that you need to look at visibility data for the whole year, not just one month.

A potential solution

  • Noticing disparities between impressions and search volume is important if you’re to ensure all parts of your site are performing effectively. If demand for a page’s topic is high but visibility is low, you could work on improving it. Once again, though, you need to weigh up whether its rewards justify the time and effort required.

Competition within the site

There’s a chance that the page in question could be competing with another on your site. This is a particularly common issue for sites with blog sections, as it’s not unusual for subjects to be covered more than once over the years.

If you’ve written a piece on the reasons to buy a used car in 2010, and then posted a similar article three years later, Google is only likely to show one, potentially making the other inactive.

Your options:

  • Merge the two into one super-article
  • Remove the old article
  • Redirect the old article’s URL to the newer piece, combining their authority
  • Adjust both articles to increase their differences

Just be aware that by merging two articles you could potentially lose valuable links, and by deleting either of the pages, you once again risk upsetting the internal links hierarchy. With this in mind, the final option could well be the most effective.

Google’s animal algorithms

Google’s algorithms are in place to ensure web users get the best possible results, and they could see your site in a poor light if it has a lot of dead pages. 

Panda focuses on content quality and doesn’t look kindly on sites full of thin pages bearing similar material. 

Then you have Hummingbird, which covers context and intent, two things that may not have been taken into account when your older pages were created. 

Pigeon and Penguin should be considered too, as these can impact the site in other ways. The main thing to realise here is that your site requires regular attention; as the search engines evolve, so must your site.

The big question: recover or delete?

It’s clear that something must be done, but the action you take, and the matter’s urgency, depends on various factors. The number of ‘dead’ pages will dictate how pressing the issue is, with some types of sites more prone than others.

Retailers and estate agents add new pages more often than most, but these tend to become inactive quickly. If this is the case, and your site has more broken links than it does active ones, it’s time to get to work.

If you’re going to keep the page, it won’t be enough to just leave it at that. As mentioned before, you should really merge it with a newer version or make changes to boost its relevance. This could be the way forward if demand for the page’s topic is high but search impressions are low, or if it has a lot of links to other pages on your site.

On the other hand, you could delete it, but consider redirecting the URL to a more relevant page if possible. Choose this option if your page is already low down in the hierarchy, there is a similar page already performing better or it’s getting no impressions or traffic whatsoever.

Also, make sure there are no other important pages depending on the dead page’s presence before deleting.

Going forward

Your site, like your business, needs constant attention if it is to grow and evolve in a healthy way. Trimming the fat will inevitably be part of this process, but think carefully about the pages you keep and remove. The knock-on effects might be bigger than you think.