Since the release of the Panda algorithm in 2011, Google has been cracking down on low-quality content. That includes blog posts stuffed with keywords, duplicate content, clusters of low-quality pages, pages with a low word count, and shallow content.
In the four years after its release, Google released significant updates of Panda on 28 different occasions, which means the search engine has become smarter at recognizing and punishing lousy content.
In this post, I’m going to explore an umbrella term that encompasses all of the issues above: thin content. It can hurt your SEO not only with Google but with other search engines, as well.
What Is Thin Content?
When you hear the term thin content, you probably think of pages with very little on them. But Google and other search engines cast a wider net when looking for thin content issues. They actually include the other low-quality pages mentioned above.
Let’s take a moment to break down the different kinds of thin content that can get your site in trouble.
Classic Thin Content
These are the pages with very little content on them. There’s no real hard-and-fast word count that will get you out of the thin content woods. And obviously some pages, like blog pages and about pages, are going to have more content than others, like product description pages and home pages.
The real key is to cover the keywords you’re trying to rank in a comprehensive way on each of your pages. If the page is useful and informative for your user, chances are it’s good enough for Google.
Shallow Topic Coverage
On the other end of the spectrum, you can have a page with 2,000 words that doesn’t say much.
Again, you want to cover all keywords and topics as thoroughly and with as much authority as you can.
Let’s say I decided I wanted to rank on the keyword thin content, but I didn’t want to put much effort into writing the piece. I could wax prosaic about thin content being awful and that you should avoid it, and look at what these guys are saying about it. The end.
That wouldn’t be all that helpful to my readers, would it?
And don’t forget, Google (pdf) is looking for expertise, authority, and trustworthiness (EAT) in website content. They want to provide search results with as much value as possible to users.
Exhibiting a deep understanding of a topic, providing useful information and answering your reader’s questions will boost your SEO ranking.
Saying a whole lot of nothing won’t.
Your pages should never duplicate content word-for-word from somewhere else on the internet. You should have as much unique content as you possibly can.
That also means if you run more than one website, you can’t borrow posts from one and put them on the other — at least not without giving credit and canonicalizing the second post.
When you canonicalize a page to another, you’re pasting the originating content page URL into the metadata of the duplicate page. That tells search engines that you understand that this is duplicate content and you have given credit to the source.
Still, having too many duplicate pages on your site, even if they are canonicalized, doesn’t make you look very original to your users, or to search engines.
E-commerce websites can unintentionally suffer from duplicate content for a number of technical reasons due to:
- Duplicate URL paths
- Internal search results
- Product review pages
- Session IDs
- Shopping cart pages
Those technical issues require specific approaches that are beyond the scope of this blog post. Here we’re focused on content problems of an editorial nature.
We all know it’s smart to create more than one piece on a topic that’s doing well for you. You just don’t want to make those pieces too similar.
If, for example, you are a crafting site and Christmas is a big traffic time for you, you want to make sure the crafting content you’re creating is unique enough not to get you punished. Don’t put up too many holiday wreath or Christmas ornament articles. Look for other, more unique, ideas to keep your readers coming back.
Websites that have been creating content for a while are especially vulnerable to this pitfall. That’s why it’s important to do regular audits of your site to get a full understanding of your content inventory.
Look for pieces that are too similar and determine whether to combine them, delete one, or revise to make them stand out as unique content.
You can also look for topic gaps that you can fill with new content.
It’s very tempting to stick as many ranking keywords into a post as possible, but it will cost you in the end. Google and other search engines look at the ratio of keywords to content, and their reviewers read through to determine whether or not the content is valuable or just fluff to fill pages.
Search engines won’t rank pages that include lists of keywords out of context or so many keywords in a paragraph that the prose comes off as unnatural. They also don’t want to see blocks of text containing a whole bunch of names of famous people, cities or other high-ranking keywords.
Poor Spelling and Grammar
If you weren’t a star English student in school, now is the time to turn your content over to a professional editor, or get yourself a comprehensive grammar tool like Grammarly.
Now, this one won’t get you docked by Google, per se, but it will hurt your credibility with users. A content page full of misspelled words and grammatical mistakes is a signal to the reader that there wasn’t a lot of time or care spent creating the content. You are deemed untrustworthy, and your users leave.
Once Google sees you have a high bounce rate, low time on page, and very few visitors, it will move you down in the search ranks.
How to Identify Thin Content
Remember that content audit I mentioned earlier? That’s the first step in identifying thin content on your website. Take a full inventory of the material you currently have and assess it for the issues mentioned above.
There are a couple of tools you can use to do this. Let’s take a look at how they can help you ferret out thin content.
Screaming Frog is a site crawler. It will (you guessed it) crawl all of your indexed URLs and give you back a report on many different components. You’ll get title, URL, word count, metadata, and other metrics you can use to start your search for thin content.
Once you have the report, the work is a bit manual, but not impossible. Look at pages with a low word count, for example, to determine if they meet the definition of thin content. Look for similar titles or URLs to identify duplicate or similar content.
You could also do an audit through MarketMuse to get a deeper dive into your content. MarketMuse will analyze content semantically to determine whether or not your pieces have SEO value. For shallow articles, it provides suggestions on how to expand and optimize your content.
You can see how well each piece ranks for their respective topic, determine their content score and receive prioritized suggestions for improvement.
Checking for duplicate content that might be appearing on other sites is a little tougher. For that, a good plagiarism tool should do the trick. Copyscape has a free version that lets you check pages individually. Their premium version will allow you to scan your site.
Now, this is not to say you’ve plagiarized your content. It’s entirely possible someone has scraped content from yours. Because it’s in two places and Google can’t tell who owned it first, your content on another site can hurt your ranking.
If you don’t have an ace grammar expert on staff, Grammarly is a great tool for checking spelling, grammar, and readability of all of your pieces. It will flag any problems and give you suggestions on how to fix them.
You can also use Grammarly to check for duplicate and similar content.
How to Fix Your Thin Content Problem
Once you’ve identified the thin content on your site, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and fix it. There are four options to consider.
There are two instances where expanding content can help you out. First, of course, you can expand on content with a low word count.
But don’t expand on content for the sake of word count alone. If you add volume without providing value, your thin content becomes shallow content, and you haven’t solved your problem.
Beef up your content only if doing so will prove your expertise and add helpful information for users.
Second, if you have two pieces that are similar and both are relatively short, you can expand one of them to give it more depth, or to cover a subtopic that the other doesn’t include.
Let’s say you have two pieces on the importance of good oral hygiene, one for kids and one for toddlers, but they’re both very similar. You could expand the part for toddlers to include a section on baby teeth versus adult teeth, or on the best time for your toddler to start going to the dentist regularly.
Adding content that is unique to toddler oral care will signal to search engines that these are two different pieces.
If your content is shallow, has many spelling and grammar mistakes, or is too similar to another piece, rewriting may be in order.
My shallow piece on thin content will need a full explanation of what it is, how to identify it and how to fix it, with linked sources to back up my facts.
For poorly written pieces, run them through Grammarly, or have them looked at by your editor. It may take only a quick copy edit, or you may need entire sections rewritten for readability.
And, of course, if you have two pieces that are too similar, it may be worth it to rewrite one. Let’s go back to our Christmas ornament example. If you have two articles about Christmas ornament crafts you can make with kids, you may want to rewrite one so it focuses on crafts for toddlers. Or maybe one highlights popsicle stick crafts while the other uses pipe cleaners.
When you rewrite a piece, it won’t be enough to change the text on the page. Changing the metadata, images, and title will signal to search engines that the two pieces are covering different angles of the same topic.
And don’t forget to link these two articles to each other. They are still similar enough that if a user stumbles on one, they may be interested in the other.
Some content is so thin, so shallow, or so poorly written that you're better off replacing it with a brand-new piece. This has a few advantages:
You will have more control over the tone and message of the article.
You can tailor it to hit long-tail keywords that are ranking for that topic.
You can map out exactly what you want the writer to cover to produce the best piece possible.
A word to the wise when replacing a piece of content: When you take the old article down and publish the new piece, make sure the old URL is redirecting to the new one. Search engines don’t like a lot of 404 errors on a site, either.
Of course, if a piece is horrible and it’s getting no ranking whatsoever, you can just remove it from your site entirely. If you have another article on the website that is related or a landing page from which someone would find what you’re deleting, it’s best to redirect to one of those pages. That way, your user doesn’t end up at a 404 error page.
If you have duplicate pieces on the same site, you want to remove one of them, as well. To do that, go into your Google Analytics and see which of the two pieces is pulling less traffic for you. That’s the one you’ll want to remove and redirect.
If you have two pieces that are almost identical, except your lower-ranking piece has one unique section, consider pulling that section into the higher-ranking piece and deleting the lower ranking-piece. Again, make sure you redirect the removed URL to the one you preserved.
Thin content can be a tricky problem to solve because it covers so many different types of content issues. Your site audit and your plan to fix it will have to be a multi-step process to ensure you’re weeding out all of the potential problems.
Work through your site, issue by issue, to cover all of your bases. Take that sub-standard material and turn it into high-quality content.