Joe Pulizzi sparked a bit of a discussion on Facebook yesterday when he confessed that he regularly ignores blog posts that aren’t dated. Many commenters agreed, but some argued that removing the date from blog posts dramatically increased search traffic.
So who’s right? Does dating your posts somehow limit their ability to attract traffic? Is the whole notion of evergreen content undermined by dates that gradually erode the value many readers place upon it? Does dating your content actually *ahem* date it?
I’m afraid I also automatically look for the date of a post before reading, or even before clicking through from the search engine results. Knowing when a post was written doesn’t impact the evergreen nature of a post if the content is still good, the information still accurate and the topic still relevant years later. But when researching a topic for an article, the date is essential to help me assess the context of the information, as well as filtering the masses of content to find the most relevant facts and most recent statistics. This is why I commonly refine my Google searches to within the last twelve months.
What does impact the evergreen nature of a post is not when it was written or published, but whether the content itself is out of date. And without dating the post, the reader has no way of assessing that possibility.
No Date = No Context
Some topics are constantly evolving, making the date extremely important to avoid mistakes. My recent article for Chief Content Officer magazine on Facebook’s EdgeRank – Beware the Social Media Algorithm Chasers – was only in print for about a month before Facebook updated its algorithm, immediately making my column less relevant. With magazine deadlines running months in advance, and the digital landscape changing on an almost daily basis, I’m surprised that doesn’t happen to me more often.
Naturally, there are also many topics and categories of information that stay relevant and accurate for far longer. For example, the number of planets in our solar system can be assumed to be pretty much the same tomorrow as it is today. Therefore, can we assume any planetary-themed content is evergreen? Why date it?
Yet on the 24th August, 2006, the number did change when Pluto lost its membership of the planetary club. What was nine became eight overnight.
That date became a line in the sand, marking every planetary article and text book published before the 24th as a little less reliable and a little more inaccurate.
But if you search the word “planets” in Google, the top listing (undated) is still The Nine Planets Solar System Tour. Granted, the webpage does include a correction further down to clear up the Pluto confusion, but by that stage young Billy has already scribbled the wrong answer on his homework sheet.
The same website was also the number one listing back in 2009 when I used this example for a magazine column on how the internet can make bad ideas and outdated information immortal. Back then (thankfully, not now) the second listing in those results – clearly dated prior to 2006 – still ranked Pluto as one of the nine, with no correction. Sure, the offending page has probably seen its search rankings erode over the last five years because of the date on the post. But isn’t that how it should be if the search engines are to avoid devolving into inaccurate collections of outdated information?
The mere fact that I’m able to make the same argument five years later by using the same example sort of proves my point. Dating content helps clean things up, both in the search engines and in the mind of the reader.
No Date = More Traffic
Sure, removing dates may mean more people click through to older content from Google (unwittingly so?). But the difference in click through rate is most likely because people WANT to see dates and are less likely to click through to something that the search listing indicates isn’t fresh. The dating information merely filtered these readers out before the click, instead of after. When they don’t see a date on the post they land on, how many click the back button to find something more likely to be fresh? If they do continue reading, does the lack of a date colour their view of the content as potentially unreliable or less relevant?
If more search traffic is the prime argument for removing the dates from posts, then doesn’t it prove that people care about dates? And if so, then aren’t we being slightly deceptive in trying to conceal the context or relevance of a post in the name of more traffic? Content marketing is about heralding the quality, utility and relevance of content above the SEO tricks designed to merely drive less qualified clicks, surely.
But you can have your cake and eat it too.
Post dating seemed a nice pun for the title, but its double meaning is also a hint. I don’t mean that we should put future dates on our content in the same way we might post date a cheque. But we can revise the content – and the dates – ex post facto (after the fact).
Digital marketer Ian Lyons once took me through his content strategy for the BeReady website which targeted business travellers (sadly now defunct so no link). He explained how older posts were constantly revised to keep the information fresh and accurate. The site was constantly cycling and recycling its greatest hits back to the top – interspersed with new content – to keep everything as evergreen as possible.
For example, an article for business travellers on how to get a SIM card at Hong Kong airport was updated every few months with the new locations of telco provider booths as the terminal changed. This ensured the post remained relevant, useful and highly popular for months if not years.
It’s a shame the project ended as I thought this was a great way of using the dating of content to reinforce trust and accuracy on older content to make it truly evergreen.
2020 UPDATE: When I first published this article, Lyons commented with further detail on this process:
“One thing we did is have both the original posted date and ‘updated on’ date so people knew that we had at least ensured the latest information was presented. In the CMS I had a ‘to be reviewed date’ which varied by article type but defaulted to three months post publish date. This gave the editors a nice moving calendar of stories to re-assign to writers.
“Comments are often a great source of updated information. The editor can summarise the important/useful discussion points at the end of the article.
“I’m pretty sure we also implemented the various date fields from http://schema.org/Article.
“One pet peeve is lazy date formatting/presentation. Unless you’re doing up to the minute news, there’s no need to clutter the UI. I like a simple, concise and unambiguous format:
Posted: 12 Jan 2013 | Revised: 12 Apr 2013
“We never considered not dating our articles.”
Remember, this is digital. And digital content is fluid, dynamic and constantly changing.
Who says content should be locked in amber, unable to adapt and change? If content dates, it’s because we allow it to. [Tweet this]
Instead of content becoming a fossilised record of some other time, why not keep it alive? Always growing, always changing, always fresh?
So maybe we need to think a little harder about how we use the dating of our content to signal context and relevance to potential readers.
What do you think? Does removing the dates from posts makes content more timeless or less trusted?
Micky Stuivenberg says
Thanks for posting this, Jonathan. I could have written it myself. Undated posts really annoy me as well and I often simply don’t read them if I’m not sure how current the content is.
What if you’re looking for news or tips and tricks and it turns out what you’re reading is 4 years old (or 6, or 8) and no longer relevant, but there’s no easy way to find out?
To me, undated posts definitely make them less trustworthy.
Doug Kessler says
Excellent analysis of an issue I’ve often wondered about but never googled.
We do date out posts but I used to worry it would needlessly signal staleness even for posts that are not time-sensitive.
Now I won’t worry.
Love the update/post-date tactic. Must try that.
Ian Lyons says
Indeed on BeReady (now offline) we had some articles that were evergreen. One thing we did however is have both the original posted date and “updated on” date so people knew that we had at least ensured the latest information was presented. In the CMS I had a “to be reviewed date” which varied by article type but defaulted to 3 months post publish date. This gave the editors a nice moving calendar of stories to re-assign to writers.
Comments are often a great source of updated information. The editor can summarise the important / useful discussion points at the end of the article.
I’m pretty sure we also implemented the various date fields from http://schema.org/Article.
One pet peeve is lazy date formatting / presentation – unless you’re doing up to the minute news, there’s no need to clutter the UI. I like a simple, concise and unambiguous format:
Posted: 12 Jan 2013 | Revised: 12 Apr 2013
We never considered not dating our articles.
Angus Pryor says
I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say if it’s not dated, I don’t read it but I agree it does make me wonder about the relevance of the content. If I come across a blog where the newest post is a year old, I’ll probably keep moving