Surely you’ve seen the term “thin content” – digital marketing speak for content that provides little to no value – in your online travels.
Lacking in quality and resolving nothing for the reader, thin content leaves searchers hungry for more.
With too many content strategies lacking a long-term focus and thousands of $10-a-page copywriters running rampant around the web, thin content is the equivalent of the flu in digital marketing today. It sucks, and it spreads fast.
Most of it doesn’t relate to the user’s intent, or what initially brought the searcher to the particular page.
It’s not harmless, either. Publishing thin content on your website can damage your brand’s image, prevent readers from taking action, and cause search engines to lose trust in your brand.
But what is thin content, exactly? Is there a specific word count you need to hit, or a set of guidelines you need to reach?
It’s not quite that simple. In this column, you’ll get the skinny on thin content as we break it down into three sections:
- What thin content is and examples of what type of content is considered thin.
- How to analyze and diagnose current content.
- How to fix pages/posts with thin content (including some technical SEO elements), and prep for a future of thin-free content.
Let’s do this.
What Exactly Is Thin Content?
Back in the days of keyword stuffing and cloaking, low-value websites were able to rank in top results for competitive keyword queries in the search engines.
And these keywords helped companies supercharge their bottom lines.
Back then, many business owners, SEO professionals, and marketing teams scraped content from value-driven websites and used shady link building tactics to get their content ranking higher than the original content creators’.
This, among other spammy SEO tactics, prompted Google to release its first Panda algorithm update in February 2011.
The Panda update had one simple goal: to stop low-quality websites from ranking high in the search results.
The update penalized sloppy content practices including duplicate content and poor quality copywriting that failed to provide a relevant solution to a user’s intended search query.
Google continuously releases algorithm updates and now provides E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness) guidelines that every website should follow.
Adhering to E-A-T guidelines helps you to create valuable content and stay far away from thin content territory.
Thin content might include:
- Duplicate content (though some is not duplicate, but perceived duplicate because of technical mistakes such as not properly redirecting HTTP to HTTPS).
- Content scraped from another website (copy/paste, typically with little rewriting or re-arrangement).
- Auto-generated content (I embrace high technology, but no tool will ever replace a human writer, especially one knowledgeable and passionate about the subject).
- Invaluable affiliate pages.
- Doorway pages.
Oh, doorway pages. They are a huge problem, and easy to recognize. Google describes these as:
- Having multiple domain names or pages targeted at specific regions or cities that funnel users to one page.
- Pages generated to funnel visitors into the actual usable or relevant portion of your site(s).
- Substantially similar pages that are closer to search results than a clearly defined, browseable hierarchy.
Any of the above incidents of thin content can cause your website’s ranking to tank.
A content audit is the first step to reverse the negative current of rankings to a positive one.
Many SEO pros begin with only a technical SEO audit, which is vital for search ranking success. But a content audit helps you discover what’s working and what’s not.
How to Audit & Analyze Your Site’s Content
Let’s take a closer look at how to analyze a website’s current content and diagnose any issues.
Get the Big Picture
Start by taking a human approach:
- Use a site operator command for a quick overview of what you’re getting into.
- Observe how many pages are indexed.
- Take a quick glance at what title tags, meta descriptions, and URL structures are being used.
Remember that the site operator results are not in order of importance, and sometimes the SERPs look much different than they would for a search query based on a specific keyword.
Now push the 80/20 principle into play so you can provide the most value to the client upfront.
Ask the business owner what the highest ROI pages are, and focus on them.
Using Google Analytics or a third-party tool, check the highest-trafficked pages. You’ll want the focus to be on these for the beginning of any content audit.
Read the Content
This sounds like a “duh” moment, but block serious time to actually read the content.
You’d be surprised at how many website owners are clueless about what’s on their websites. This is a major problem, of course, because that online content showcases to the world who you truly are.
Focus your attention on the quality and relevance of that particular page (not the number of words). Long content doesn’t necessarily rank better; it’s a matter of quality and relevance.
The best content can say something sharply in 250 words vs. a sloppily-written 2,500-word article.
The above process will quickly diagnose the major issues — the ones that are costing the most money for the client.
Address Any Duplicate Content Issues
Two tools make this task easy: Copyscape and Screaming Frog.
With Copyscape, you can enter the domain and quickly recognize any threats of duplicate content.
Duplicate content issues are always a concern for websites with quality blogs.
Things get much worse for news-based organizations that post hundreds of stories a month.
For one of my news-based clients, which sometimes publishes up to 50 posts per month, Copyscape has been the go-to tool to immediately recognize others who scrape content.
I check it once a week for any scraping so I can immediately address the issue (typically through a cease and desist email to the site owner).
The other tool is Screaming Frog, which crawls the website and provides data for each URL, from page titles to meta descriptions to canonical elements to redirects (the free version provides 500 URLs, typically enough for SMBs).
Here, you can check for duplicate title tags, which sends a signal of duplicate content to the search engines.
Another worthy trick with Screaming Frog is sorting by word count. Focus first on the pages with the least amount of words, and compare the word count with the performance of that page.
You can reverse-engineer here, prioritizing fixes from the worst-performing to the best-performing pages.
Typically, the pages with the least amount of text rank the worst, but sometimes you’ll find a proverbial gem that already ranks well.
Beefing up the content with a strong keyword strategy can help push that page even higher – and quickly.
As for pages with auto-generated content and doorway pages, do what’s needed to get rid of them.
If that means a total rewrite of an auto-generated page or not pointing those other domains at your main website, just do it. It will help in the long term.
Also, if you have weak affiliate pages, make it a point to work with that affiliate to create stronger content, explaining that the work is best for both parties when it comes to boosting revenue.
How to Fix Pages/Posts With Thin Content (Including Some Technical SEO Elements)
Once you’ve diagnosed which pages have thin content, create a prioritized list based on ROI.
Begin with the pages that produce the greatest ROI, then work your way down from ones that should produce higher ROI to less important pages (though no pages should be irrelevant on any website!).
Now get to work.
Yes, for websites with hundreds or thousands of pages, this may be a huge task. But look at it as an opportunity to further strengthen your website’s overall SEO, because you’ll be adhering to an updated strategy.
Remember that strong SEO will also increase your brand’s overall authority in consumers’ eyes because people who rank well tend to garner respect.
How much work you undertake for each piece is a page-by-page decision, which I base on budget. And be warned – some content may need to be totally removed or totally rewritten.
Don’t allow pride to obstruct progress.
If you finish a content audit and prioritize 100 pages with thin content, try to work out an engagement based on that client’s budget. Sometimes this will be month-to-month, other times a one-time project.
I’d argue 90 percent of the time you’ll find some major issues where you can provide super value for the client.
One client had a few pages with outstanding content but wasn’t using keywords properly, had no subheadings, and had zero internal links throughout the text.
The other pages each had about 50 words of text that might have been written by a smart toddler, at best.
Again, each situation is unique and requires a dedicated strategy based on prioritization of the highest ROI pages and down.
Look for your quick wins to show the client or your employer the value of correcting your thin content.
Besides actual content creation, here are a few of the top tech issues that can send signals of thin content to search engines, and how to resolve them.
- www vs. non-www URLs: There should be only one preferred URL, which seems super basic to SEO pros but is still overlooked at times. Always have the unwanted version 301 redirect to the preferred canonical version.
- HTTP vs. HTTPS: Same as above, but also make sure all internal HTTP links are redirected to the HTTPS version.
- Thin Category Pages: Some product-based companies have hundreds of category pages, and some may only feature a few items, which may appear as thin content to search engines. You can either chop the category itself or noindex it.
- Print Pages: If the website provides print-friendly pages, this can create duplicate content due to the creation of print-friendly URLs. Make sure to block the print URLs with robots.txt or a robots meta tag.
- Comment Pagination: According to Website Hosting Rating, there are 1.83 billion websites online. Yes, you read that correctly— billion. WordPress dominates content management systems (CMS) platforms, holding 60.4 percent of the market share. The main problem with WordPress is that it allows comment pagination, which means a new URL will be created for each new comment on the same article. The fix is simple; turn it off. Never allow comment pagination on WordPress or any other CMS, or make sure there’s a canonical tag in place that directs to the URL of the main article.
- Mobile Website: Though this is (mostly) a thing of the past, due to (almost) everyone having a mobile-first design, some websites use subdomains for mobile users (m.example.com), which can cause an onslaught of duplicate content issues. If this is the case, make sure the proper canonical tags are in place that point back to the desktop version.
Thin content can cause major problems for websites, whether ones with a few dozen pages or thousands of pages.
Now that you know exactly what thin content is and what to do about it, you can diagnose your issues and get to work.
While expanding on those thin pages it’s also a great time to create an updated content strategy based on up-to-date keyword research.
Also, make content audits part of a yearly ritual. There may be some serious problems that need to be addressed the first time around, but that will prevent any issues in the future.
For larger sites, you may want to audit content on a quarterly basis and look for opportunities to freshen up content with the latest data and new links.
With ongoing analysis, you’ll be able to recognize any major thin content threats before they damage your rankings – and your organization’s reputation.