Tech news website CNET has deleted thousands of old articles over the past few months in a bid to improve its performance in Google Search results, Gizmodo has learned.
Archived copies of CNET’s author pages show the company deleted small batches of articles prior to the second half of July, but then the pace increased. Thousands of articles disappeared in recent weeks. A CNET representative confirmed that the company was culling stories but declined to share exactly how many it has taken down. The move adds to recent controversies over CNET’s editorial strategy, which has included layoffs and experiments with error-riddled articles written by AI chatbots.
“Removing content from our site is not a decision we take lightly. Our teams analyze many data points to determine whether there are pages on CNET that are not currently serving a meaningful audience. This is an industry-wide best practice for large sites like ours that are primarily driven by SEO traffic,” said Taylor Canada, CNET’s senior director of marketing and communications. “In an ideal world, we would leave all of our content on our site in perpetuity. Unfortunately, we are penalized by the modern internet for leaving all previously published content live on our site.” A representative for the CNET Media Workers Union declined to comment. (Disclosure: Gizmodo’s Editor in Chief Dan Ackerman is a former CNET employee.)
CNET shared an internal memo about the practice. Removing, redirecting, or refreshing irrelevant or unhelpful URLs “sends a signal to Google that says CNET is fresh, relevant and worthy of being placed higher than our competitors in search results,” the document reads.
According to the memo about the “content pruning,” the company considers a number of factors before it “deprecates” an article, including SEO, the age and length of the story, traffic to the article, and how frequently Google crawls the page. The company says it weighs historical significance and other editorial factors before an article is taken down. When an article is slated for deletion, CNET says it maintains its own copy, and sends the story to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. The company also says current staffers whose articles are deprecated will be alerted at least 10 days ahead of time.
SEO, or search engine optimization, is the practice of calibrating the content and design of web pages to improve performance on Google and other search engines, that is, appearing closer to the search bar in the list of results. Many companies live or die by their performance on Google Search, but Google is tight-lipped about the workings of its algorithms. SEO is now one of the primary drivers of editorial strategy in the journalism and media business. News sites and media companies often base their entire editorial strategies on SEO best practices, some of which amount to trial and error and guessing games.
Google does not recommend deleting articles just because they’re considered “older,” said Danny Sullivan, the company’s Public Liaison for Google Search. In fact, the practice is something Google has advised against for years. After Gizmodo’s request for comment, Sullivan posted a series of tweets on the subject.
“Are you deleting content from your site because you somehow believe Google doesn’t like ‘old’ content? That’s not a thing! Our guidance doesn’t encourage this,” Sullivan tweeted.
If a website has an individual page with outdated content, that page “isn’t likely to rank well. Removing it might mean, if you have a massive site, that we’re better able to crawl other content on the site. But it doesn’t mean we go, ‘Oh, now the whole site is so much better’ because of what happens with an individual page.” Sullivan wrote. “Just don’t assume that deleting something only because it’s old will improve your site’s SEO magically.”
However, SEO experts told Gizmodo content pruning can be a useful strategy in some cases, but it’s an “advanced” practice that requires high levels of expertise, according to Chris Rodgers, founder and CEO of CSP, an SEO agency.
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“If you’ve got content that’s fallen off in traffic and ratings and search engines have deemed is not valuable for users, that’s content you need to look at,” Rodgers said. Ideally outdated pages should be updated or redirected to a more relevant URL, and deleting content without a redirect should be a last resort. With fewer irrelevant pages on your site, the idea is that Google’s algorithms will be able to index and better focus on the articles or pages a publisher does want to promote.
Google may have an incentive to withhold details about its Search algorithm, both because it would rather be able to make its own decisions about how to rank websites, and because content pruning is a delicate process that can cause problems for publishers—and for Google—if it’s mishandled.
“Just because Google says that deleting content in isolation doesn’t provide any SEO benefit, this isn’t always true,” said Lily Ray, Senior Director of SEO and Head of Organic Research at Amsive Digital.
A media conglomerate called Red Ventures bought CNET in 2020, and the site’s changing strategies sparked a number of controversies since then. Earlier this year, CNET was caught publishing articles written by AI without telling readers about the use of technology, many of which were full of serious inaccuracies. CNET laid off 10 percent of its staff weeks later, though the company said the move was unrelated to AI. (Gizmodo, along with several other sites owned by G/O Media, had its own controversy with publishing factually incorrect AI-written articles in July.)
Whether or not deleting articles is an effective business strategy, it causes other problems that have nothing to do with search engines. For a publisher like CNET — one of the oldest tech news sites on the internet — removing articles means losing parts of the public record that could have unforeseen historical significance in the future. It also means the hundreds of journalists who’ve published articles on CNET could lose access to their body of work.
“CNET’s owner’s decisions to lay off a significant portion of its news staff, lean in on AI for articles and focus on profits from referral links already tarnished CNET’s reputation, and now they are literally erasing its legacy,” said a former CNET writer who asked to remain anonymous. “Beyond the damage to historical records, this hurts every long-term employee that Red Ventures laid off, who may be relying on their clips in job applications.”