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What Is Index Bloat? Tips to Fix Indexing Issues

Index bloat is when your site’s low-value or unnecessary pages get indexed, which can harm your overall SEO performance. You can identify it using tools like Google Search Console.

Many SEOs struggle with getting pages indexed, but it is also possible to have too many pages indexed to the point where it is harming the indexability of future, better performing pages.

There are many ways to address index bloat, so in this article, we will cover a few options you can implement to adjust these issues.

What Is Index Bloat?

Index bloat refers to the condition where your site has an abundance of low-value pages that are indexed by search engines, often auto-generated and offering little to no unique content. Common causes include disorderly archive pages, unruly parameter pages, and non-optimized on-site search result pages, among others.

The impact on technical SEO can be significant depending on how bad the problem is. Index bloat reduces crawl efficiency as Googlebot navigates through the low-value pages, slowing down indexing speed for new content and re-crawling of updated content that does have SEO value. If these low-quality pages rank, they send poor user experience signals to Google, hurting your brand.

Another issue with index bloat is that many of the pages may contain duplicate content, which can cause keyword cannibalization. Many pages with the same content can be confusing to search engines, and of course you’re site will not rank well for these keywords if there are many pages competing for the same keyword.

Prevention methods include deindexing all pages that offer no unique value to search engines or users. As per expert opinions, John Mueller elaborated on this in 2015, stating that quality algorithms look at the entire website and if the bulk of the indexed content is lower quality, it’s seen as a lower-quality site overall.

In various case studies, it’s evident that every page indexed affects how Google’s quality algorithms evaluate a site’s reputation.

How to Find Index Bloat

To detect index bloat on your website, you’ll want to utilize tools like the Google Search Console (GSC) Page Indexing Tool, which can give you details about your indexed pages. Through this, you’ll discover index bloat examples, such as URLs that are indexed but not submitted in your XML sitemap.

Here is how to find unsubmitted URLs that are indexed:

Google Search Console Page Indexing Tool

When you get your list of indexed pages (both submitted and unsubmitted), you can export them to Google Sheets. With the list on Google Sheets, you can go through and identify which URLs should be indexed and which ones should not. When you identify the URLs that should not be indexed, you can inspect the URL on Google Search Console to get more detail about the URL.

You should consider running a limitless crawling tool, like ScreamingFrog, if your XML sitemaps aren’t optimized. This will help you contrast the number of indexable URLs picked up by the crawler against the number of valid pages. Any significant discrepancy could be an indicator of index bloat.

However, avoid using a site: search advanced operator to count the number of indexed pages. It’s notoriously unreliable and might lead you astray.

Site Search for Index Bloat solutions

As part of index bloat prevention, cross-reference the identified low-value pages with your Google Analytics data. By checking your Google Analytics data, you can make sure that the pages you are considering to deindex aren’t driving any meaningful traffic or have any benefit to your website. Looking over index bloat case studies, you’ll often realize that deindexing low-value pages usually has no negative impact. But it’s always better to be sure before taking such a significant step.

How to Fix Index Bloat

Now that you’ve identified index bloat, it’s time to tackle it head-on.

There are many ways to fix index bloat, including using the Robots.txt, Noindex Tags, and the Remove URLs tool, among others.

Let’s talk about different methods to fix index bloat and how they may potentially affect your site.

Robots.txt

Using robots.txt, you can instruct search engines which pages they shouldn’t crawl, although this may not directly control indexing.

The disallow directives in your robots.txt file act as the crawl control, setting search engine guidelines for web crawler behavior.

Despite your robots exclusion, if the page is linked elsewhere on the web, Google may still deem it relevant enough for indexing. Consequently, while blocking within robots.txt could eventually result in pages being dropped from the index, this is typically a slow process.

Basically, changing the Robots.txt file is typically only a temporary solution and it won’t necessarily deindex your pages if they are link to from other indexed pages.

Noindex Tags

If you’re looking to definitively block a page from being indexed, you’ll want to utilize a ‘noindex’ robots meta tag or X-Robots-Tag.

Although this solution will definitely fix your problem, there are some other effects that may occur. First, it prevents pages from being added to search engine databases and, once processed, guarantees their removal.

Second, it reduces the crawling frequency of noindexed URLs, impacting how search engine directives interpret your site.

Third, it stops any ranking signals to the URL. That means that if there was any traffic going to that page, or there were internal links on that page to other pages on your site, you would lose those ranking signals being sent by the noindexed page.

Noindex tags will quickly and effectively solve index bloat, but please make sure you are careful about which pages you implement the tag on. Double and triple check to make sure that the page should truly be deindexed. Don’t do this with any pages that contain internal links or are even remotely relevant to your website.

Remove URLs Tool

While the ‘noindex’ tags strategy helps to prevent indexing, there may be instances where you need more immediate deindexing solutions – the Remove URLs tool is a quick and efficient way to deindex a page from Google.

This tool is implemented directly on your Google Search Console. However, please not that this tool only provides a temporary block, typically lasting around 6 months.

Google Search Console Remove URLs Tool

It’s a valuable solution for managing excess pages when you urgently need to block a page but lack resources. However, to guarantee index bloat prevention, you’ll need to implement long-term URL removal strategies before the blackout period ends.

410 or 404 HTTP Status Code

The 410 and/or 404 HTTP status codes can also be used to fix index bloat. These codes are integral to Google’s indexing process, and if used correctly, they can reduce the SEO impact of index bloat.

**410 status code: When your server returns this, it signals to Google that you’ve intentionally removed the page, causing quicker deindexing.

**404 status code: This ‘Page not Found’ message may result in slower deindexing, but don’t worry about accumulating 4xx errors. There’s no penalty from Google for these.

Be aware that any ranking signals the URL had are lost with these codes.

301 Redirect

Instead of 410 and 404 codes, you can consider using 301 redirects, specifically when multiple pages target the same topic. As a benefit, 301 redirects conserve those ranking signals that you would lose if you coded the pages as 410 or 404 instead.

For a successful implementation, Google needs to crawl the original URL, see the 301 status code, add the new URL to its crawl queue, and verify the content matches. This process can be slow, especially if the destination URL is deemed low priority or if redirect chains exist.

Redirecting to irrelevant pages, like the homepage, is counterproductive and Google treats it as a soft 404, negatively affecting ranking signals. In such cases, a 410 status code achieves the same result but with increased deindexing speed.

Rel=Canonical Link

Using the rel=canonical linkcan be effective in fixing index bloat, especially for duplicate content URLs.

Below are some key points to bear in mind:

  • Canonicalization: This basically informs Google which page is the original page, or the preferred page.
  • Page Authority Signals: The rel=canonical link consolidates page authority signals, which can improve the ranking of your preferred page.

In order to do this correctly, the tag must be placed on pages that have very similar content as you are basically telling Google which page is the preferred page to display this content. Because of this, and the fact that the URLs need to be crawled by Google, this may not be the most effective solution for index bloat.

URL Parameter Tool

The URL Parameter Tool within Google Search Console can inform Googlebot how to handle your parameters.

The URL Parameter Tool only effective for parameter-based URLs and is exclusive to Google. It doesn’t directly control indexing but setting a ‘No Crawl’ parameter can eventually cause URLs to be dropped from the index.

This parameter optimization has ranking implications as it can disrupt signal processing. In addition, it may slow your site’s indexing as it inhibits internal link extraction for the crawl queue.

Which Pages Should you Delete or Remove?

This process, known as content pruning, is a strategic move that’s part of a thorough SEO strategy, especially when it comes to index bloat as you need to determine which pages should or should not be indexed.

Identifying poor-performing pages is the first step. These could be pages that have outdated or irrelevant content, don’t engage the user, or have little to no traffic. Once identified, you have a few options:

  • Optimize the page to enhance its performance.
  • Leave the page as it is, but add a noindex tag to prevent it from being indexed.
  • Delete the page, but make sure to set up a 301 redirect to a relevant page.

Choosing which path to take will depend on the specific circumstances of each page.

Conclusion

Essentially, index bloat can significantly impact your site’s ability to rank new, more important and relevant pages. Identifying and addressing this issue can help your new pages get indexed quicker so you can start gathering traffic from the keywords it ranks for.

Always remember to regularly audit your site, remove unnecessary pages, and update your sitemap accordingly.

If you feel like this problem is too technical, you can reach out to us for help. We have experience with technical SEO and can conduct a technical audit to see if this is truly a problem you are experiencing, along with providing you solutions on how to fix the issue.

Whether you reach out to us or you do it yourself, don’t underestimate this problem; confront it directly and keep your website in top shape.

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