Every new year, SEOs, bloggers and publishers are eager to capitalize on “fresh content” ranking boosts by adding new dates to old or existing content.
Google’s search advocate John Mueller again reiterated that only significant content changes should lead to a changed date in articles.
But what is considered significant? And what does it really mean to change a date?
Both depend on many factors. As always, there is middle-ground to cover so let’s dig deeper in this article.
The evolution of fresh content ranking boosts
There was a time when updating content did not help attract visitors on Google. Then over the years, Google increasingly rewarded “fresh content.”
Do you remember the concept of “query deserves freshness” (QDF)?
As early as 2007, former Google SVP Amit Singhal discussed how the algorithm considers searchers’ need for current information.
The QDF model aims to measure, assess and rank content based on its value for a particular (time-sensitive) search query. It was among the first algorithm tweaks meant to take user intent into account.
This meant that less authoritative but newer content would sometimes outrank high-quality but older content because some searches require current results than others.
The example below shows a Google search for [us elections] in January 2023:
When you click the “Overview” button on top, you will get another results page with even more current results covering primarily the latest election that will take place next. (Here the “2023 United States House of Representatives elections.”)
When you search for election results, you most likely don’t want to see results from the past election (even though they have earned many links ever since). You’d want results from this election, which may not have attracted as many links yet in a short time.
In the past, the article date indicated to Google which resource was newer. Only a limited number of keywords were affected at first, and this still does not apply to all search queries.
Some SEOs started gaming this ranking signal quickly. They changed the date automatically, sometimes every day. Others removed the dates to at least not look outdated.
All this forced Google to dig deeper into the actual content’s value.
The Google algorithm has significantly changed since, but QDF is still present among other freshness systems.
“We have various “query deserves freshness” systems designed to show fresher content for queries where it would be expected.”
– A Guide to Google Search Ranking systems, Google Search Central
This is still one of Google’s unique selling points. They have a fresher index compared to Microsoft Bing.
Bing and alternative search engines, still heavily rely on site authority as measured by incoming links and overall trustworthiness. This works fine for some keywords but is stale for others.
What is considered ‘significant’ when updating content?
As Google heavily invests in its helpful content system and other AI-based ranking algorithm tweaks, you can rest assured that it looks beyond just an article’s date.
The good news is that you don’t have to repeatedly write about the same topic at length to produce fresh content. Updating existing content “significantly” may suffice.
Simply changing an article’s date and claiming it is “new” won’t cut it. There’s no misleading Google and visitors.
For me, a significant content change can’t be measured by a percentage or word count.
Changing 50% of your article by simply rewriting it with synonyms or AI-generated content don’t count because your additions do not add value.
Consider the following:
- Does the change signify or mean something new?
- What is the actual indication that suggests this?
- Is it just the date or is it within the content itself?
As an example, I published an article on Google and alternative search engines, which ranked well, especially in 2021.
I was tempted to update it for 2022 to keep it fresh. Ultimately, decided to change the article’s main focus.
In 2019, I wrote about DuckDuckGo. In 2020, I recommended Ecosia as the best Google alternative. In 2021, I suggested Startpage instead. After that, in 2022, I decided to push Neeva.
Each time, I made changes that some might consider minimal. In reality, they are significant in the context of the topic.
- DuckDuckGo is about privacy unlike Google.
- Ecosia supports privacy as well but also plants trees with its revenue.
- Startpage is also about privacy, but it uses anonymized Google results instead of those from Bing like other private search engines.
- Then, I covered Neeva, a search engine built by former Google execs. It offers high quality results and is entirely ad-free.
Some of the changes were about only a few sentences, while the final change to Neeva was the most consequential.
The significant point was the changed focus of the article. I recommended a different search engine as the best alternative each year. (The Neeva business model differs from all other search engines, so I wrote more about it.)
What does it mean to ‘change a date’?
Dates displayed on web articles can be modified in different ways.
Typically, you can change the date displayed within a WordPress article. Some go as far as adding dates in other areas of the page, such as:
- Headlines (e.g., “How to Update Content and Dates for 2023”)
- Titles (“Content Date Changing in 2023”)
- URLs (“example.com/blog/content-dates-2023”)
While each approach has pros and cons, avoid adding dates to URLs, especially if you plan to change the date later or can’t rule out that possibility.
Even headlines and titles can be tricky. Ideally, add dates only when you know that you will be able to update them next year. Otherwise, the content may get ignored by searchers next year as outdated.
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When and how to change your article dates
When updating existing content, I occasionally rewrite the article completely.
Other times, I only fix broken links and change terms that sound obsolete (i.e., “submitting to social media” was replaced by “sharing on social media”).
Sometimes, I remove mentions of defunct sites and services (think Google+).
So when is it appropriate to change the date in your content, and how can it be done?
‘Last updated’ date
Adding a “Last updated” date to your refreshed article might be the safest way to do it.
Depending on the change’s significance, I would manually add it on top (bigger or more meaningful change) or below the article (less significant or sizable).
You can also tweak your theme or use a WordPress plugin for that purpose. Only displaying the last updated date and not the original publish date is also an option.
The laziest solution, albeit one of the already riskier ones, is automatically changing the published date WordPress displays above or below your article. (Below is better for all those publications that are not into breaking news or tend to publish evergreen content).
In WordPress, you can also republish such articles (on top) as new. I use this method if the article is predominantly new.
In all other cases, when an article has considerably changed so much that it is more new than old, I tend to change the “published” date without republishing as new.
As we are inherently biased when dealing with our own work, especially as writers, we may have difficulty assessing the true value of the changes.
An editor can help you decide whether the content is really “new” or current enough to deserve a new date.
Alternatively, you can compare two versions of a post in WordPress to see how much has indeed changed.
First published and last updated
Sometimes an article is both old and new. The foundation is still the old one based on insights from years ago, but there might be additional insights or newer examples recently.
In this case, I usually mention the “first published” date and add a “last updated” date within the article. This method is also used in other publications.
List of changes
I’ve been writing about SEO since 2007, so I have many old articles. Many are still valid or are evergreen.
I make numerous updates to articles which continuously garner traffic despite being published a while back.
After the second update, I would start listing changes (similar to release notes listing the fixes and features of a software’s latest version) such as:
- Originally published: January 23rd, 2008.
- Summary, teaser image added April 5th, 2010.
- Rewrote the first paragraph, added more images, added text formatting (subheadings, lists, blockquotes) on May 12th, 2014.
- Removed mentions of StumbleUpon, Digg, Google+ – October 20th, 2015.
- Added several expert quotes on August 10th, 2017.
- Last updated: June 6th, 2019.
Maintaining lists like this can be cumbersome after a while, so I only used this technique for popular resources.
Date in the headline
Did the meaning or significance of the content change radically enough so that it’s truly different from last year?
Does the content contain any of the following?
- Scientific discoveries
Sometimes, even a changed opinion can be enough, as shown in the best Google alternative example above.
Date in the title
This one is tempting for SEOs. Changing the date in the HTML title tag can boost your ranking without compromising user experience.
Why not just add the current year to all pages?
You can, but verify that the points in your content are still valid. You’ll often only notice something outdated with thorough analysis and fact-checking.
Date in the URL
Only add a date in the URL when you are sure you won’t change it again in the future.
URL slugs like
/election-results-2020/ won’t be updated to
/election-results-2024/ since the results stay the same.
Down the road, when you want to use the same popular and well-linked page for the next election, you’ll have problems.
Ideally, don’t add dates to the URL in the first place.
Change your dates responsibly
No matter how much you crave the fresh content ranking boost, do not get tempted by sheer greed for Google traffic.
Do not change your content’s date without truly offering something new. Avoid potential backfire, including Google penalties or algorithmic fixes.
Even if you get away with changing the dates on old content that hasn’t been refreshed significantly, you risk losing visitors’ trust.
Plenty of visitors (like me!) bounce on sites that still ask to share on Google+ and StumbleUpon.
Or stop reading upon seeing outdated information or screenshots of Google’s old logo.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.