How to optimize underperforming content

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If your content isn’t performing as well as you expected, or old pieces you published a few years ago are no longer relevant or pulling their weight, it’s time for an update.

Specifically, it’s time to optimize your underperforming content.

This is the process of updating, tweaking, editing, and rewriting old content that’s not pulling in ROI. The goal is to improve the content so it will eventually start:

  • Ranking in search.
  • Getting read.
  • Gaining engagement such as shares or comments.
  • Earning conversions.

Often, optimizing your underperforming content is a cost-effective method to improve your content marketing overall. By optimizing, you won’t need to invest in creating completely new pieces – you can just rejigger what you already have and make it better.

It’s a good practice for any brand with content (especially as part of a content audit), as it ensures every piece continues to work toward your goals (versus hindering them).

First, you’ll need to identify your underperforming content – what pieces aren’t living up to their potential – and then take steps to improve and optimize it.

How to identify underperforming content

How do you know which content pieces are underperforming?

You’ll need to look at specific metrics to find them.

Use tools like Google Analytics, Semrush, or Ahrefs to look at this data and find your underperforming content.

Search ranking metrics:

  • Organic keywords 
  • Average position

To identify content pieces underperforming in search results, look at your organic keyword stats, especially the average position of your content in Google. Pay attention to:

  • Anything ranking #5-10: Optimizing these further could potentially lead to increased rankings.
  • Anything ranking #11 and below: Optimizing further or rewriting these could help you eventually reach Page 1, depending on the keyword.

Traffic and engagement metrics:

  • Page views
  • Sessions
  • Bounce rate
  • Time on page
  • Social shares
  • Comments

Which pages are losing traffic? 

Which pages get little to no engagement (i.e., people aren’t spending enough time on the page to read the content)? 

These are great candidates for optimization.

7 questions for optimizing underperforming content

After you find your underperforming content that’s prime for optimization, ask yourself the following questions to understand how to fix it.

1. Are the keywords you’re targeting actually winnable?

If your content isn’t performing, first consider whether the keyword you’re targeting is, in fact, winnable for your brand.

For example, if you targeted the keyword “content strategy” in a piece and it’s languishing on page 5 of search results, that might be a result of two factors:

  • You’re a small or new brand that’s still building online authority.
  • The competition for “content strategy” is incredibly stiff, with well-known, authoritative names like HubSpot, Content Marketing Institute, and even the U.S. Government ranking at the top of Google.
Stiff competitions in the SERPs for the query "content strategy"
Stiff competition in the SERPs for the query “content strategy”

It’s doubtful that a new or low-authority site could crack the top 10 results for this keyword. 

If that’s the case, consider switching keywords to target what you can actually win. Especially for newer or smaller brands, long-tail keywords are usually easier to rank for. They also generate 70% of all traffic.

Long-tail vs. short-tail keywords: Search volume and engagement

For example, instead of targeting “content strategy,” try targeting “content strategy for beginners” or “content marketing strategy for SEO.”

Going long-tail is generally a win-win because these keywords are more specific and target searchers with more specific intent. 

These searchers also may be more willing to convert because they’re actively looking for solutions – not just browsing.

2. Have you optimized the content with enough keywords in strategic places?

If a piece is already well-written and optimized for a winnable keyword, consider whether it’s optimized enough.

Google has stated that the key best practices for improving your SEO include: 

  • Using the right words people would use to search for your content.
  • Placing the right words in prominent locations on-page.
Google SEO: Key best practices

Placement and use of keywords matter a ton to how well you’ll rank in search. 

If you haven’t given Google enough signals that say, “Hey! This keyword is the focus and topic of this page!” it’s not going to get the memo.

Some tips for keyword usage and placement in your content:

  • Include your focus keyword in all of these places for ideal optimization:
    • In the H1 heading (a.k.a., page title).
    • In the meta title and description, ideally near the beginning of both.
    • In the first paragraph.
    • In at least one of the H2 headings.
    • In at least one of the H3 headings.
    • Sprinkled naturally throughout the body text.
    • Inside image alt text (for images that appear on the page).
  • Include synonyms and variations of your focus keyword in these places:
    • In at least one H2 (depending on how many appear in the content).
    • In at least one H3 (same as above).
    • Sprinkled naturally throughout the content.
    • Inside image alt text.
  • Never keyword stuff. Always aim to add keywords that are descriptive and helpful for readers.
  • Always structure and organize your content with keyword-optimized headings. These make it more scannable and thus easier to read. Headings also give search engines crucial clues about your page and whether your content is relevant to the search query.

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3. Are your headings, subheadings, meta title, and meta description strong enough?

Many people overlook little details (e.g., writing a solid meta title and description or crafting strong, descriptive headings). And that’s a mistake.

These little pieces do a lot of hard work. The meta title alone can entice searchers to click your link among extremely similar results – especially if yours is more thoughtfully crafted or descriptive than the other options.

For example, if I search for “how to make caramel popcorn” in Google, the results are almost identical. However, only one mentions “easy” in their meta title. That’s enough of a differentiator to make me want to click it.

Example of an optimized meta title

With that in mind, take the time to craft strong meta titles, descriptions, and headings for your underperforming content.

These elements can pique your readers’ curiosity or interest, pulling them further into the piece, which can positively impact its performance.

A few tips:

  • Lengthen your headings. Longer headings and sub-headings are more descriptive, more creative and engaging, and are prime spots to include keywords.
  • Think of headings and metas as hooks. Your headings can do much more than just split your content into sections. They can also serve as little hooks that pull your reader down the page. The same goes for your meta description – it can act as a hook that grabs the reader and makes them want to click your link in the search results. 
  • Speak to the reader. So, what makes a good hook? Speak directly to your reader. Imagine they’re sitting across from you; address them. Address their concerns. Make their lives better.
  • Learn to write good headlines. If you’re shaky about crafting any of these pieces, first learn to write a solid headline. That knowledge can be applied to writing metas and headings, too. This article by Brian Clark of Copyblogger is a great place to start.

This is one of the easiest ways to optimize underperforming content. Make sure it’s up-to-date and relevant to modern readers!

For example, are the statistics cited in the content from 2016 or earlier? That’s too old, especially since companies usually update studies (or conduct new ones) every few years.

A good rule of thumb: If the statistics in your content are more than five years old, find new ones unless the stat is ground-breaking or foundational in your industry. 

If a statistic comes from a unique study that hasn’t been updated or replicated, then it should be OK to cite it.

Next, what about the links? Are the links that point to other sites and resources still relevant? Do they point to the correct pages (and are the pages still there)? Are the links high-quality and authoritative? If not, update.

Finally, check your content for relevance. For example, if the year 2020 is mentioned multiple times in an otherwise evergreen blog, update those references so they’re current.

5. Is the content quality up to snuff?

Let’s say the content piece you’re optimizing is relatively short and thin when you’d expect it to be meatier. 

Maybe the piece doesn’t fully address the topic it’s trying to cover, or it delves into irrelevancies. 

Perhaps the topic calls for supportive statistics or data that help add weight to the piece, but it doesn’t have any. 

Or, maybe it has a bunch of spelling or grammatical errors, or it doesn’t have any images.

These issues are all related to content quality – how helpful, relevant, accurate, and informative/entertaining/empowering the content is for your particular audience.

Luckily, in all of these scenarios, a few updates will improve the quality without requiring a complete rewrite. For example: 

  • Add on to the piece with additional information to make it more exhaustive and useful. 
  • Trim irrelevant sections and add better information that’s more relevant to your audience’s concerns. 
  • Find some pertinent images to add to the content to increase engagement.

6. Does the content need a complete rewrite?

Sometimes you can’t save poor-quality content.

Instead, some pieces may need total overhauls. This means you’ll delete everything and start over.

How do you know when your content requires a complete rewrite?

  • It’s poorly written with no structure (read: headings) or logical flow.
  • It completely misses the point of the topic and what readers are looking for when they search for it.
  • It focuses on the brand instead of the brand’s audience.
  • It focuses on an event or date that has long since passed.
  • The targeted keyword is still winnable for the brand and is worth the investment/effort of rewriting.

7. Do you have site issues hindering readability or crawling?

Finally, don’t forget to zoom out to look at the bigger picture when you’re optimizing underperforming content.

Your site may be contributing to your content’s poor performance in a few ways.

  • Readers are having a hard time viewing your site as a whole.
  • Search engines can’t crawl it to index it.

For example, if your site loads extremely slowly, that can affect your rankings and engagement. People won’t wait to read a webpage that doesn’t load quickly. 

Or, maybe your site isn’t optimized for mobile browsing, so people trying to access your content on smartphone browsers can’t even read it.

A poor site design can interfere with its readability as well. Make sure there’s enough contrast between the text on your page and the background for comfortable reading. 

Avoid long paragraphs, too – those are hard on the eyes when reading from a screen. 

Last but not least, ensure Google and other search engines can crawl your pages to index them. 

Sometimes a silly error can lurk under the surface, such as a “noindex” tag accidentally placed in the code for one of your blogs (“noindex” tells search engines not to include the page in results). 

Optimize underperforming content and improve your ROI

Optimizing your lackluster content is a great way to get the most ROI from it.

Each piece of content requires a certain amount of investment (the effort, money, and time spent to create it). When you take the time to optimize and update it, you’ll stretch that investment further.

Even better, content that starts performing will bring in heftier positive returns.

That means you’ll get more longevity out of your content assets, and they’ll keep performing into the future to bring in passive traffic, leads, and conversions.

It’s crucial to repeat the optimization process regularly as part of your content strategy to get the best results. This will ensure all of your content keeps working to reach your goals


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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About The Author

Julia McCoy

Julia McCoy is the founder of Content Hacker, 7x author, and a leading strategist around creating exceptional content and brand presence that lasts online. At 19 years old, she used her last $75 to build a 7-figure writing agency which she sold ten years later. In the 2020s, she’s devoted to teaching founders and marketers the strategy, skills, and systems they need to build a business through inbound content, so they can create more lasting impact in the world.