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In December 2020, around the 15th, Pornhub (a MindGeek company) removed millions of videos from their website – slashing the amount of available content considerably.

Not for SEO reasons, but for legal reasons. You can read more about why here.

This post was originally published in January 2021, in the weeks immediately following Pornhub’s content removal. As this is an interesting case, and not something that happens every day… So a year later, I’ve looked at the data again and updated the post. You can read the 2022 January update towards the end of this post.

For most websites, drastically reducing the amount of content available (due to the verification of the uploading user) would be catastrophic. That being said, studies have shown that pruning content intelligently can yield positive impacts for websites.

So, almost one month later, I’m going to dig into the data available and try to answer the question: Did removing 80% of its content hurt

Warning: Needless to say, this article is going to include words related to the adult industry, so I’d advise discretion.

It’s also fair to say, we need to make some caveats:

  • This is using third-party tools, so it’s as objective as you can get without having access to actual data.
  • There’s no way to tell (without data access) that all the original videos were indexed by Google and driving traffic. However, at present there are 25-mil+ videos indexed across all of when performing a site: search, so we can assume a fairly good % of these drove at least some traffic.
  • For the data analysis, I’m looking at ** (English), and the US market.

Also, just to note something else – I added a May 2021 update section to the end of this post to see if the trend continued (and if any competitors were able to close the gap).

The Scale Of The Removal

First of all, let’s explore the scale of the removal. 80% is a big percentage, but 80% of 100 isn’t as bad as 80% of 10,000,000.

Using a combination of WayBack Machine and the live website (at the time of publishing), I estimate that PornHub has removed ~10,821,268 videos (13,751,395 down to 2,954,127) across 196 top-level porn categories.

Third-Party Keyword Data

So, let’s take a look at third-party keyword data and the trends from the start of December 2020 to now.

Pornhub estimated keyword rankings (all URLs)

On a very top level, January 2021 is currently down in terms of total keywords versus December 2020. That being said, in a wider context November 2020 was the peak for this measure, and January 2021’s figure of 3,138,000 keywords would be one of the higher months recorded since June 2019 – which as you can see by the graph saw a sharp decline.

If we filter the data by just video URLs, the decline is even more visible:

Pornhub estimated keyword rankings, just video URLs

It’s no surprise that removing 80% of your video content really smacks your rankings for content on those URLs, and as a result, this tool is reporting the lowest number of keywords for video URLs since 2014.

So what does this say in terms of traffic?

Estimated Pornhub us Video URL Traffic

Again, no surprises that if you reduce the number of ranking keywords, you reduce the estimated traffic based on those keywords.

When you change the date range to just the past year, the drop off becomes even more interesting:

Estimated Pornhub us video URL traffic, last 12 months

Whilst the content was removed in December, aside from a spike in May, estimated traffic has actually been declining month over month since the start of the year.

The May Update

It’s no secret that the May 4th update influenced a lot of niches, and the adult sector was no different.

As the world has evolved, the general attitude towards sex and adult content has changed – a lot. As a result, the increase… tolerance of adult terminology and content within the “mainstream” has meant that a lot of terms previously resigned to the realms of porn now have varied intents.

This is a common trend across the adult industry, as niche players compete with the monolithic tube sites, oftentimes for the same user.

PornHub Category Rankings

Taking the 98 core categories that PornHub has listed on their website (for videos), and tracking [porn] and [porn video] compound keywords over the past month – the lowest current ranking position in the US (mobile) is #5.

PornHub Category + Video Compound Rankings

So on the face of it, rankings are maintained for the core categories, but reducing content by such a vast amount has had an impact on overall rankings and traffic.

But could this blow have been softened?

What I Would Have Done Differently With The Content Removal

Taking ranking video URLs from November (27,727 of them), those that have been disabled/removed for content review still return a 200 status code… But with considerable changes to the page content and meta data.

The video template on PornHub has a relatively standard format:

  • Title tag
  • H1 tag
  • Category labels & links
  • User feedback ratings
  • Comments

On the new template, highlighting that the video has been disabled, the template simply has:

  • Title tag
  • H1

The URL hasn’t changed, and the title tag and H1 are still connected (the same), but now read “Video Disabled”.

For Google accessing the document URL, they’ll just be seeing the same URI path – but with changed content that no longer adds value to the user query, and because it still returns a 200 status code – it sinks like a stone.

I would have taken a similar approach, but 302 redirected the URL to a holding page returning a 451.

This way, Google (and other search engines) can process the URI reading a temporary redirect to a 451. So that way, if the content passes legal validation the temporary redirect can be removed and business as usual for both the content and URL can be resumed.

I’d then add this URL to an additional XML sitemap, so that as videos are processed and added back to the roster, so their index status can be monitored easily in Google Search Console (as being able to report on this to the wider business will likely satiate questions from C level and non-marketers… e.g. the “How are we doing?” question).

May 2021 Update

So, given I published the original section of this post a month after the content removal, I thought it would be good to look at how the content removal has affected things a few months on, and whether or not the market has changed in terms of search visibility and dominance.

So let’s take a look at the organic search visibility for the most popular adult tube sites (according to third-party websites that track and rank this sort of thing) between January 2020 and March 2021.

Organic Search Visibility for Adult Tube Sites

So, as a primer for this data – the May 4th, 2020 Google update had a significant impact on the adult sector, across not only tube video websites, but also specialist websites, niche websites, and independent publishers.

So around this time, both PornHub and XNXX saw increases, which mathematically also closened the gap between the two websites.

Conversely, YouPorn saw a decline, and RedTube for all intents and purposes just appears to be plodding along with a steady growth rate, seemingly agnostic of all the chaos going on around them.

As I covered in the original section of this post, removing 80% of their content did impact PornHubs traffic. I feel that’s an obvious conclusion between cause and effect, but the wider impact for me is that XNXX has made up the ground.

This isn’t all down to PornHub’s content cull, but also a testament to the fact that XNXX over the past two years (speculatively) have invested so that they’ve not only benefitted from the May 4th algorithm update but then been in a strong enough position to capitalize on PornHub’s deoptimizations.

If we look at the competitor research graph in Semrush, we can see that XNXX (and XVideos, which weirdly isn’t considered a top-10 tube site by the sources I used to compile this list and therefore didn’t pull data on) also shows considerable data versus PornHub and XNXX.

Adult Tube Site Competitor Graph: Semrush

So, as a second update to this post – did removing 80% of their content impact their (PornHub’s) performance? Yes, and competitors are now beginning to compete at the same level for users.

January 2022 Update

So a year on, let’s take a look at the numbers:

 Data Point  Jan 2021  Jan 2022   Difference
 Est. Organic Traffic (Monthly)  1,118,772,757 1,133,691,034  +14,918,277
 Est. Ranking Keywords (Total)  13,790,283 11,737,453  Р2,052,830

So a year on, traffic levels are generally improving whilst the total number of ranking keywords has decreased.

Is the decrease in keywords concerning? Not necessarily.

When you’re a titan of a website like Pornhub is, you’ll likely rank for a lot of queries that aren’t 100% relevant, and you may get impressions and/or clicks for these keywords, and when you remove so much content you’ll lose both relevant rankings and the semi-relevant ones.

It’s also interesting that over the past 12 months, as well as seeing the initial keyword ranking drop, Pornhub also saw a secondary decrease in June 2021:

Pornhub estimated keyword rankings, 2021

This ties in with a number of Google updates during the June/July 2021 period (as explained further here). 

Without access to direct site data, it’s pretty impossible to speculate as to what caused the decline around this time.

Attributing ranking fluctuations to specific website changes or links during a core algorithm update can be tricky because some ranking drops could be completely coincidental and have nothing to do with website changes.

At the same time as the June Core update, we saw a Spam Update and a Page Experience Update, so all we can do is speculate that:

  • The changed template for removed videos (same URL, but removed content) generated a large number of negative user experience signals over time (as it will have taken some time for all of them to have been dropped from the index) and this had an impact)?
  • The removal of content and relevancy finally caught up with the site?
  • Other websites that filled the immediate gaps left by Pornhub started generating more positive on SERP signals, thus impacting Google’s desire to rank the site for queries based on the user data?

How Many Videos Does Pornhub Have?

It will be interesting to see how the data changes over the coming months, especially as the site continues to add more content.

Whilst it’s not possible to discover all the videos on the site, we can estimate the content growth based on the data we do have.

The original removal was around 10,821,268 videos (13,751,395 down to 2,954,127).

Using Wayback Machine to find snapshots of Pornhub showing the video number in the internal search bar, we know that in July 2021 the site was increasing by ~50,000 videos a month (July 2021 total: 3,307,898), so on this basis, we can estimate that now in January 2022 there are around 3,550,000+ videos on the site.

I intend to take another look at the data again around June 2022.

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