If you’re one of the many online publishers that saw your organic search traffic and rankings take a significant hit after Google’s recent Panda update, you’ve no doubt been scrambling for ways to adjust to the new Post-Panda world order. Since the stated aim of the (so-called) farmer update was to de-value “Low-Quality” content in the SERPs, it’s only logical that you would start by focusing on ways of improving the content on your site to be more in-line with what Google thinks of as “High Quality” content.

In my opinion, one of the most logical tactics floated around by SEOs and content marketers for helping webmasters improve the overall quality of their site is the idea of content consolidation. The idea is pretty simple: Identify your low performing, thin-content pages and combine them into a smaller number of high quality articles. This serves two functions (both of which Google has been emphasizing a lot lately): It helps you prune the low quality pages from your site and it allows you to provide a better experience for users on the pages that get the most traffic. This may seem counter-intuitive to SEO-minded webmasters who’ve been aggressively pursuing long-tail traffic with a “more pages = more traffic” approach to content creation, but as Rand Fishkin notes – the best practices of SEO have changed forever and you better be willing to change with them.

Unfortunately, after the content land rush of the past few years (provoked by the apparent success of the content farm business model), a lot of website owners now find themselves with pages and pages of content that focus on targeting every possible permutation and variation on the keyword terms that they are trying to rank for. The inevitable result of trying to cast such a wide net with your content is that you end up with thousands of pages of mediocre content rather than a few pages with great content. While that may have worked as a business strategy before Panda, it sure as hell isn’t going to cut it anymore.

So how do you go about cleaning up your site without throwing away all of the time, effort and (most importantly) money that you spent creating that content in the first place? The only real way to do that is to start consolidating your content around the primary topics that are relevant to your site and eliminating the “thin” content pages that are dragging you down. As someone who has recently undertaken a consolidation project for a large website, I’d like to share a few tips and tricks to make the process easier for you.

Step 1: Analytics

The most important tool that you have in this process is an accurate data set to work from. Now that Panda has been live for a few months now, you should be able to get an idea of which pages got hit the hardest, which survived the bloodshed, and which seemed to hold onto their rank and traffic. This may be painful data to look at, but it’s essential for getting a clear picture of the state of your site and for making informed decisions about which pages to build around and which to cut entirely.

Besides traffic data for each page, you’ll also want to try to include as many of these data points as possible in your spreadsheet: Time on page, bounce rate, most popular referring keywords and (if possible) the specific keyword phrase that you targeted for that article.

Step 2: Topic Groups

Now that you’ve got all that data handy, it’s time to really start breaking it down into topic groups. If you have a hundred pages on your site, this may not take very long. If you have thousands, you may want to grab an extra cup of coffee.

The first thing you’ll want to do is to sort your list of articles based on the keywords you were trying to target with each. If you did a good job crafting content that matched the Intent of each of those keywords, this should give you a clear picture of how many pieces of content were written on each topic. If you didn’t, than you may need to look at the actual content or the referring keywords for additional guidance on what each article is actually about.

Once you have that done, break the large excel file down into a bunch of smaller ones, each containing all the articles (and their data) for each topic. Some might have three articles, while others may have 10 or more – it all depends on the size of your site and how saturated it is on each topic.

Step 3: Let Google Guide You

Now that you have your topic groups in separate files, it’s time to start looking at the data. After looking at a few groups, you’ll probably start to notice some trends. You’ll probably find that some groups have a clear cut winner (meaning an article that is getting a lot more traffic than the rest). You may find some groups that have a few winners mixed in with the duds. And you’ll most definitely see some groups where all of the articles are dead in the water.

Obviously, some of this could be due to factors that have nothing to do with Panda (say you tried to rank for a really competitive niche) – but in the end it really doesn’t matter. Google has spoken – and you better be willing to listen.

One thing that I can assure you of: No two topic groups will look the same. In some, the winners will be the articles that target broad, generic head terms. In others, it will be the ones that answer really specific questions on a topic and bring in mostly long tail traffic. In some cases the keywords that are driving traffic to the winning pages will be completely different than the ones you targeted. You might find that the article you spent the most time working on and adding value to isn’t getting any visitors, while a 200 word page you threw together in a half an hour is driving tons of traffic.

Again, there are lots of different reasons why some articles rank and others don’t (i.e. links, competition, etc.). But if you were one of the many websites that adopted the “Throw it against the wall and see what sticks” approach over the last few years, you might as well build around what actually stuck – no matter what the reason.

Step 4: Tent Pole Articles

The “Tent Pole” article is the one in each group that you are going to consolidate the other articles into. While it may seem easiest to just pick the one with the most traffic/links to be the Tent Pole, it’s rarely that cut and dry. Here are a few things to think about when choosing the Tent Pole:

    • If the highest traffic page addresses a very specific part of the overall topic of the group, you many want to leave it alone and choose another one as the tent pole. Combining it with other articles would necessitate broadening the scope of the article (and probably changing the title), which could jeopardize the traffic you’re already getting.
    • In an ideal world, the tent pole article will be the one that addresses the topic in the broadest terms. That way the other articles in the group can be integrated into it in a natural way. For example, combining “How to Drain Your Engine Oil” into “How to Change Your Oil” is a lot easier than the other way around. If none of the articles in a group are generating traffic/links, than it’s usually a good idea to just pick the one that is the most general.
    • If multiple pages in a group are getting a significant amount of traffic, you may want to choose one as your tent pole and take the others out of the group altogether. There’s no sense in losing that traffic by consolidating already well performing pages.

The important thing to realize when evaluating your groups and picking the tent pole articles is that no two topic groups are going to be alike. You’ll definitely see some patterns start to emerge – and this will help speed up your process as you go along – but there will inevitably be ones where you just have to go with your gut feeling on which is the best article to build your content around. After all, you know your own site better than anyone else does.

Step 5: Create an Outline

Now that you’ve picked your winners, it’s time to start coming up with an outline for how your consolidated article will look. Start by taking the article with the broadest scope (9 times out of 10 this will be your tent pole) at put it at the top of your list. Then, arrange the rest of the articles in outline format underneath in a way that makes sequential sense.

In some cases (such as having articles that deal with specific steps in a process) this will be relatively easy – just arrange them in the order that they should be completed. In other cases though (where each article discusses a different aspect of a topic rather than a process for how to do something) you’ll need to spend a little more time deciding which aspect should go first and how the consolidated article will flow naturally from one aspect to the next.

As a rule of thumb, it’s usually best to start with the broadest article topics and work your way down to the most specific. Here are a couple of outline examples to give you a sense of what I’m talking about.

Step 6: Combine the Content

Now comes the difficult part. Just because you have a group of articles on various aspects of the same subject, doesn’t mean that they’re going to play nicely together.

Unless you were meticulous about targeting keywords with unique intent for every article, chances are that there is going to be some overlap in terms of the content that you’ve already produced. While it may not be duplicate content in the strictest sense, it doesn’t make sense to have the same topic covered twice in one article in slightly different ways – so the first thing that you’re going to want to do is identify the places where this occurs and decide which ones work better. You may even be able to take parts of each to create an even more comprehensive overview of the topic.

Your biggest challenge here is to avoid creating a “Frankenstein” article where you just shove all the pieces together and stitch them into something that only resembles an actual article. This is where a keen editorial eye comes in handy.

The goal is to make the stitches unnoticeable and to create an article that really flows naturally from one part of the topic to the next. I won’t lie to you – this isn’t easy. But it can be done and often results in a final product that is greater than the sum of its parts. A few tips for combining your content:

    • You probably want to do a lot of this work outside of your CMS. Open a word document or create a Dummy article where you can cut and paste the content so that you don’t have to do all of your editing live on the site. This is also important because, in a perfect world, you don’t want to update the content on the page until all of the redirects have been implemented in order to avoid true duplicate content.
    • The intro paragraphs are where a lot of your duplicate content is probably going to be found. When writing articles, we often tend to discuss the topic in general terms at the beginning of the article and then get into more specifics as we go on (like the article you’re currently reading for example). Pick the one that best encapsulates the topic and then see if there is any unique content you can pull from the other ones to make it better.
    • Transitional paragraphs (or even just sentences) can really help the flow of your finished article. Adding an additional thought or two on how the various pieces relate to each other can make it seem as though you intended the article to have this structure all along.
    • Changing the actual title (and meta-title) of the article may be necessary in order to better encompass the full breadth of the topic you’re covering – but it should be undertaken with caution. Using your actual referring keywords can be a big help hereSay you targeted one term, but all of your traffic to your tent pole is coming from another term. You check Google and find that you are ranked #5 for the term that’s bringing in traffic. Altering your title to include that new term may help you climb even higher for that term.
    • You obviously don’t have to use every bit of content from each of your articles to create the tent pole. Some articles may have only a paragraph (or even a sentence) of unique content that isn’t duplicated somewhere else, while you may want to use others in full. Some you may choose not to use at all. For those, you may just want to delete them outright.
    • Once your done combining all the pieces, make sure that you do one final editorial pass to make sure that all of the information is accurate, the grammar is correct, and the voice and tone of the article are consistent. If you can, have another person read through it to see if there any things that need improvement.

Step 7: Redirect the Combined Content

Now that you have the tent pole articles completed and ready to be uploaded to your CMS, you’re going to have to decide what to do with all of the articles that had their content repurposed. The simplest way to clear those pages off your site is to create a 301 redirect for each of the articles that points to the corresponding tent pole that their content was used on.

You already have your groups broken out into separate files, so just create a master redirect list that shows the URLs of each article along with the tent pole that you want them redirected to. If there are articles that you didn’t use any content from, you may want to consider implementing a 410, which is a more permanent version of a 404 (page not found) status. Basically it just tells Google that this page is permanently gone and won’t be coming back.

If you really want to keep those pages on your site but don’t want them to drag the rest of your site down, you can also just noindex them. But if you’re already using the content on another page, there’s really no reason to keep them there at all.

Depending on the size of your site or the organizational structure of your company, these redirects may take a little while to get implemented. It’s usually a good idea to wait until the redirects go live before updating the tent pole articles with the new content.

Another thing to take into account is that you will probably also need to delete the redirected articles from your site altogether once Google has recognized the redirects. That way, if you have automated “Related Articles” widgets or any other aggregation system implemented on your site, they don’t continue to show up.

Some Final Thoughts

    • Since some of your tent pole pages may end up being pretty long, you may want to think of adding some supplemental navigation elements, such as a Table of Contents, to make it easy for visitors to navigate.
    • Combining content is only one of the many ways that you can address the issues that Google has raised with Panda. Changing your template and ad layout to improve user experience and lower bounce rates can also help dramatically.
    • If you’re on the fence about whether a moderately well performing page should be kept or combined into another, it’s usually best to err on the side of caution and just keep it. You don’t want to lose the traffic that you already haveThe idea here is to remove those pages that aren’t performing well – so you won’t miss them when they’re gone.

Combining content in the way I just described is not for everyone. If you’ve been careful about the content you produced and only put up high quality stuff on a small list of topics that are central to the theme of your site, then you probably won’t get much value out of this.

But in reality, almost every site has some amount of content that is either low quality, outdated or just plain insufficient to address the site’s needs – so there are always going to be opportunities to tighten up your content and make your most valuable pages even more valuable. And while it may not be the silver bullet that gets your site immediately lifted out of Panda Jail, it will almost certainly help improve the metrics that Google has been focusing on lately. So get out there and clean your content up. You site will thank you for it.