8. February, 2021

What Is Thin Content: A Look At Google’s Arch-Enemy In SEO

Author avatar
Martin Petrov
Marketing @ Morningscore.io

As business owners, our goal is to present our company in its best light to any potential customer visiting. This is true for both our physical locations, but also our digital properties like our websites. Because your website plays such an essential role in acquiring new customers, you might be worried about a popular term in the SEO industry called “thin content.” While the name itself is quite revealing, more subtleties are hiding behind it. Because of that, in today’s post, we’ll define what thin content means and how it works.

In On-page SEO, thin content is short, shallow, non-original, scraped, or duplicate content, which does not improve the quality of the Search Results. Thus, Google demotes websites with thin content from the Search Results. Thin content is an issue affecting both individual pages and whole websites.

Essentially, any content that does not add value to the searcher can be considered thin, both in the word’s literal and figurative senses. On one end, thin content means that there simply isn’t enough text on your page to satisfy the searcher. On the other hand, it also means that your pages don’t have high enough quality content to meet the searcher’s needs.

Thin content is an official issue that appears in Google Search Console if it affects your website. However, if some of your pages consistently offer low-quality content, they can also get “shadowbanned” in a way, without any visible warnings from Google. When experiencing long periods of no ranking improvements even though you’re continuously optimizing your site, the reason can be thin and low-quality content.

It’s easier for more experienced SEOs to detect and improve pages that are suffering from the issue. But as a new SEO learner, you might have a hard time judging what exactly to improve. Because of that, we’ve outlined below the nine factors you can address to avoid a thin content penalty. Now let’s briefly look at how thin content became an issue, which will prime your eye to the exact factors that cause it.

How Did Thin Content Become An Issue?

In the past, ranking on Google was much different. Simply re-using relevant content from other websites allowed you to appear at the top for important keywords. Naturally, Google wasn’t happy with that – because it affected their end-users. Such recycled content was often low-quality and didn’t offer anything new or useful to users looking to answer a question or solve a problem. This practice slowly spiraled out of control throughout the years, and SEOs would easily game the algorithm for their own or their client’s profit.

Google’s 2011 Panda Algorithm Update aimed to make search more relevant by removing low-quality websites ranking well in the search results. The algorithm targeted pages with little to no content as well as duplicate, plagiarized (scraped) pages combined with keyword stuffing and user-generated spam content.

By now, you likely see a pattern – essentially, the goal is to avoid creating valueless pages with low-quality content. Now let’s take it a step further by looking at precisely what factors you should consider to avoid triggering Google’s Panda Algorithm. Below we’ve laid out how exactly you can prevent a thin content penalty.

How To Avoid A Thin Content Penalty?

Because thin content directly correlates with low-value, your goal is to make your pages stand out in Google’s eyes in a positive way. Here are 9 tips on avoiding thin content that will make your pages stand out:

  1. Always Write Original Content That Adds Value
  2. Avoid Thin Content By Writing In-Depth Articles
  3. Paraphrase Content But Never Plagiarize It
  4. Use Link Sources To The Original Publisher
  5. Write At Least 1000 Words On Articles
  6. Write At Least 700 Words On Landing Pages
  7. Redirect Shallow Pages With No Traffic
  8. Redirect Pages With Duplicating Content
  9. Exclude URL Parameters Causing Duplications

Now let’s break them down.

1. Always Write Original Content That Adds Value

Firstly, original content is received better by your users. Additionally, it tells Google your content is in no way taken from somewhere else.

Original content can have many forms. Essentially, ask yourself whether your content adds something new to the subject. You don’t have to always come up with entirely new information on the topic – simply presenting it better, making it more helpful, and connecting the dots in a new way can be enough to make your content original enough.

Some topics simply have too much information written on them already. Meanwhile, others have little to no information – especially one offered in an appealing format. These topics are a goldmine for you to optimize around – since you’re almost certain you can rank well for them.

Lastly, from personal tests, I’ve seen that original content also gets indexed by Google faster and easier – even on new websites.

2. Avoid Thin Content By Writing In-Depth Articles

Your goal is always to try to explain the subject in-depth. To do that, try to predict what following questions the user might have after searching for what you wrote. Your goal here is to be like Netflix, where every episode ends with a cliffhanger and makes you watch more. Similarly, your content needs to be presented in a way that makes your reader read more.

For example, take this article called “why are my competitors ranking higher.” Here, our goal is to give a quick answer so that it satisfies the user quickly. However, doing just that means the page will have thin content – and will not rank in Google. Therefore, below the initial response, we decided to list and explain each individual problem. If you understand SEO, you can find each of these points scattered across the web in different formats. However, from our research, we saw that no one has combined and explained them like that – which was a great incentive for us to do so.

Lastly, note down the Search Intent behind each topic. If a user is searching for “how long do dolphins get,” they likely wouldn’t click on content about “how long can dolphins swim for.” Therefore, make sure you keep your content on-point. For example, in this specific instance, these could be sub-topics like “average dolphin length at different ages,” “dolphin length by breed,” and so on.

This is also doable for landing pages, – but more on that in point #6 below.

3. Paraphrase Content But Never Plagiarize It

Understandably, sometimes you want to use content present on other pages. Whenever that happens, ensure that you’re paraphrasing the content wherever possible. Google is able to detect plagiarized content – and isn’t happy about it when it finds it.

If that text is a quote from someone else’s website, which cannot be paraphrased, ensure that it isn’t a large portion of your content. How much is too much? There’s no one number – however, as a rule of thumb, we’d recommend keeping it under 10%. Think of it this way – the more content you copy from another website, the weaker the reason for ranking you higher is.

Instead, breaking down content from another page, explaining it better or simpler, and adding something new to the subject, is a perfectly acceptable reason for you to rank higher.

Lastly, if you really need to use a lot of content from other websites, give it a spin by adding it as images instead of plain text. Underneath each image, you’ll have a chance to paraphrase that content through your own words and explain what the original author means.

4. Use Link Sources To The Original Publisher

One way of ensuring you give Google the right signals when using others’ content is to create links to the original source. Here, you can either use contextual links (e.g., “this website reports that…”) or adhere to a certain citation standard (and, e.g., link out from the word “Source”) depending on the style of the content.

External links are a great signal for Google because they often prove that your content has a ground. Essentially, you’re signaling that what you’re writing is proven, and you didn’t just make it up (especially true in some industries like health and finances).

To put things into perspective, imagine that you’re writing an article on “Top 10 Healthiest Fruits”. In such posts, you have tons of opportunities to link to other sources for each item (i.e., fruits) on your list. For example, suppose that “bananas” is one of those items. In it, you mention that they contain a high amount of potassium, contain antioxidants, and have a high amount of fiber. Now simply link each of these claims to articles supporting (or denying) them from those specific words.

5. Write At Least 1000 Words On Articles

Firstly, we need to establish that content length in itself isn’t necessarily what makes you rank higher. However, content length and page ranking correlate in that usually longer content is also better and more in-depth.

The single best way to avoid the thin content issue caused by having shallow pages is simply adding more in-depth content on the specific subject. There is no exact rule given by Google of how long your pages should be.

However, the rule of thumb is that the more specific and in-depth your pages are, the more content you’re going to have, and thus it will be harder for someone else to outrank you in the long run.

Therefore, when writing articles, aim for at least 1000 words. Some more competitive pieces will require a lot more than that. However, this number can serve you as a benchmark that guides you towards how detailed you should write.

If you’re wondering what more you can write about your subject, the simple solution is to do more or better research. Any expert in any one industry will always be able to write at least 1000 words on any subject. If you’re having a hard time, familiarize yourself better with the subject. Combined with a good understanding of search intent – i.e., when and what content to combine and split – you have a winning formula for avoiding thin content in the long run.

6. Write At Least 700 Words On Landing Pages

To avoid having thin content on important landing pages, make sure you’re adding enough in-depth content to them. When creating landing pages, first plan out what useful content you can add to them that aid visitors’ decision-making process. After that, examine how you can add that content to your pages. For example:

  • List features or sub-features with original content to each of them
  • Add a (comparison) table
  • Add relevant FAQs to the product, feature, or service the page is about.
  • Embed a video demonstrating your product
  • Feature dimensions and specs for the product or service

You should aim for at least 700 words on your important landing pages. Whenever a product is involved, the SEO competition rises – since the channel is so powerful in passively attracting customers.

Because of that, even if you find yourself in a niche with fewer competitors, remember that there are always new websites popping up. While you might get a good rank in the short term, a competitor might outrank you in the long run.

7. Redirect Shallow Pages With No Traffic

To avoid thin content pages, it’s best that you analyze your website and note down which pages don’t fit the criteria listed above. Once you have a list of which pages need to be addressed, you can make a priority list.

Do you have pages targeting important keywords? It’s likely worth revisiting the content there and upgrading it following the steps from above.

Have you identified any pages that serve no purpose? Be sure to remove these. However, don’t simply delete the page. Instead, once you remove it, add a 301 Redirect to it, pointing the URL to the next most relevant page. This will tell Google that the page has been removed, and it should offer the other one instead. Otherwise, when inspecting your site, Google will see a broken (404) page, informing it something isn’t right.

As you’ve seen by now, Google likes well-maintained websites. Having many 404 pages can be yet another reason for them not to promote you higher up in the search results.

Lastly, are there pages you’re unsure about? Simply see if that page gets any traffic and ask yourself if it will be relevant a year from now. If the answer is no to both, feel free to remove it with the method explained above.

8. Redirect Pages With Duplicating Content

Once you’ve done the analysis from above, you absolutely need to ensure you don’t have pages with duplicating content. Duplicate content is one of the most severe factors that Google considers thin content – whether taken from other websites or your own.

Even if Google doesn’t penalize your duplicating content, you might be preventing your own pages from ranking as high as they should. That’s because Google uses each page’s content to derive a meaning for what that page is about. Having several pages with duplicating content essentially confuses Google about which page is most relevant. This can cause the issue of keyword cannibalization. And in worse scenarios, your pages can get rapidly de-indexed, causing your rankings to drop.

Sometimes, however, you still want to keep a page alive because it has a particular purpose – even though it shouldn’t rank for anything. In those cases, you can either remove the page from Google’s index by changing its meta robots tag to “noindex.” Alternatively, you can add a canonical tag to it towards a more important page that’s supposed to rank in Google.

To give you an example of how easy it is for something like this to happen sometimes, I’ll share a story from my experience. A few years ago, I wrote a post on “push and pull marketing.” We saw that this post ranked high for our target keywords and decided to scale that strategy in other markets, too – i.e., Google Germany.

While the content was original enough in each language, a few months down the line, suddenly, our German post got indexed for the English phrase – and the English page got de-indexed. We lost the rankings on those keywords overnight – and I was suddenly tasked with fixing that.

9. Exclude URL Parameters Causing Duplications

Most of the time, Google is pretty smart in understanding the structure of your website. However, sometimes things get tricky and confuse it into believing certain pages exist when they don’t. This often happens because of URL parameters that are used for tracking and do not modify the page’s contents (e.g., “fbclid=“).

However, once found, Google can still see them as “individual pages” containing duplicate content – when they aren’t really such.

Most commonly, URL parameters are denoted with a “?” (question mark symbol) before each parameter’s name in the URL of your website. in a similar fashion, the “=” (equals character) denotes that the following string is the value for that parameter. Although Google does a great job of catching them, it can sometimes miss them, believing they are unique URLs.

To avoid this becoming an issue, you can use the URL Parameters Tool in Google Search Console. Adding the parameter in the tool allows you to tell Google to ignore all URLs containing that string. Doing this can prevent thin content issues and ensure Google is rightfully spending your crawl budget on pages that matter. However, before doing so, as per Google’s advice, be careful not to exclude essential pages from their index.

Identifying & Fixing Thin Content Issues

Thin content is not an issue most websites need to worry about nowadays. That’s because modern marketing people, content writers, and SEOs alike understand that the demand for high-quality content has risen.

With countless authoritative websites competing in search, Google has propagated SEO practices that ultimately serve the end-user best. Therefore, if you’re following the latest best practices in SEO, it’s improbable you’ll end up with such an error.

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