Does content freshness matter? Answer: Definitely!
Does fresh content rank better? Google filed a patent application in 1995 which was granted in 2008 titled “Information retrieval based on historical data“. It talks about scoring a document based on a number of factors, including a documents “freshness” which could be determined in a number of ways.
Does Google use this approach however? Well, in the most shockingly short video by Matt Cutts I have ever seen, he gives a resounding “It’s a fact” to the question:
Given this, you may well ask, “what is actionable about this for me?”
As a result of the patent and Matt’s comment, some have interpreted this to mean “refresh your content often”. Obviously this is an expensive and high-effort proposition, potentially requiring many different versions of content, varying formulas for meta-tags, etc – with the idea being, if you can update the page, hopefully Google will perceive it to have changed significantly, it will then be counted as “fresh”, and will hopefully then rank better.
However, this approach is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If you have a page that is ranking #1 for a term, the best thing you can do is to do nothing! Remember, Matt talks about “some queries”, not all. For some queries (like [Justin Bieber]), freshness may be very important to users – for others (like [magna carta]), freshness may not matter at all, or perhaps stale documents are even more desirable.
Let’s say you have 1,000 pages and 50 of those are ranking #1 (or say, #2 through #10 even) for various terms. In this case, I would argue that for those 50 pages – you should do absolutely nothing; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
However, if you have other pages ranking down below position 100 for their terms, I would argue – do something – anything! Perhaps changing or refreshing the content is worthwhile in this case. Maybe you’ll hit upon a better combination, or perhaps you’ll simply get another shot at breaking into the SERPs, and maybe you’ll just get lucky – who knows – Google moves in mysterious ways.
Let’s say you’ve frozen the 50 pages that are ranking well. If you update the other 950 pages, perhaps you’ll see a few dozen more pages ranking higher. Then you can freeze those and have a larger population of high-ranking pages – sort of a “Lather, rinse, repeat” strategy.