4 Tests on Content Freshness

Many in the SEO community believe that Google favors sites that update their content regularly. This all started back in 2009 with the Google Caffeine Update or “freshness” update (so named because of the term “fresher results”). The Caffeine Update ushered in the era of a new search indexing system, which Google claimed would provide “50 percent fresher results for web searches than our last index”. 

In the official post about the update roll out, Google specified which types of content would be affected by the update:

1) Recent events or hot topics, such as natural disasters 

2) Regularly recurring events, such as conferences 

3) Frequent updates or “searches for information that changes often” and is not included in the first and second categories.

A quick Google search on the concept of “freshness” offers results explaining the importance of or ranking factor related to content freshness:

Meanwhile, two years later, Google’s John Mueller emphatically stated that Google does NOT favor fresh content.

So what is going on here? Is it true that content freshness is a ranking factor? If so, just how strong is it?We decided to shed light on the topic of content freshness and do our own tests to get to the truth. 

We set up the test like this..

There is a lot of debate on what counts as an update to a page in order to trigger “freshness.” In this series of tests, we did four updates to test pages to determine if there are basic techniques that Google will recognize as updates to a page in order for us to take advantage of the freshness ranking factor.

We ran four separate tests using separate test pages/environments. The test pages were identical, set up in the usual way we do it.

Test 1 - Does adding text to a page count as a freshness update?

We added 100 words to the experiment page (ranking page #3). This took the experiment page up to 600 words while all the other test pages had the original 500. The text added was not optimized and did not contain any target keywords. 

The idea behind setting up the tests this way was simple: if the page is not unique enough, it will get filtered. If Google detects duplicate content, a message (shown below) will be displayed at the bottom of the SERP:

Test 2 - Does swapping out old content for new content count as a freshness update?

100 words were swapped out of the #3 ranking page. We added the same number of keywords in the body copy to maintain optimization/keyword density.

Test 3 - Does adding an image count as a freshness update? 

We added an image with an unoptimized filename to the experiment page (page #3).

Test 4 - Does optimizing an image count as a freshness update? 

Every test page contained an identical unoptimized image. We then optimized the experiment page image by adding an Img Alt tag and filename that contained the target keyword.

Here is what we discovered

Test 1

In the first test we simply added 100 words to an experiment page that did not contain any optimization or target target keyword. As a result, the experiment page dropped to the bottom of the SERPs.

Test 2

In the second test, we swapped out 100 words from the #3 ranking page (experiment page) and added the same number of target keywords. 

There was no change in the rank and the freshness update was not triggered - even though the words were swapped out, the rankings stayed the same.

Test 3

In test #3 we wanted to see whether adding an image (unoptimized) would count as a freshness update. After adding an image, experiment page (page #3) immediately moved to #1 and we had something that could be called a freshness update. However, a few hours later, the page moved back to its original starting position #3.

Test 4

In the fourth test, we added identical images to all pages and re-submitted pages to Google. After caching, there was no change in rank. Then, the image in the #3 ranking page (experiment page) was optimized. We change the filename to keyword.jpg and put the keyword in the Img Alt tag.

For a few hours, experiment page moved to #1 and then went back to its original starting point.

Final Takeaway

After running four tests on content freshness, we summarized our key takeaways in 3 main points:

Images

At best, the image tests triggered a “freshness” signal whereas the text tests did not. However, if what we saw on the image tests was a freshness update, the positive impact only lasted for a handful of hours.

“Freshness” factor

If the images did trigger “freshness” and all we got was a couple of hours of benefit, there are certainly better ways to spend your SEO time. As most people don’t run tests in closed environments, we are inclined to think that what most people see as a “freshness” factor is probably just better on page optimization. Someone might make a change to their page, get positive results and think “freshness” when it was really an increase in on page optimization.

Adding text

One of the big takeaways from this test is the drop we saw on Test 1. In Test 1, the test where unoptimized text was added to one page, the test page dropped because the other pages had better optimization rates. By adding 100 words without adding any keywords we lowered the keyword density on the experiment page (page #3). The other test pages were better optimized for the target keyword. Therefore, when you add text to a page, make sure that you don’t lower your overall page optimization.

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