What a Website Can Do about “Thin Content” — 4 Common Scenarios and Solutions
For many ecommerce sites, sites with hundreds of mostly duplicated pages, and others, fixing thin content may seem like an impossible goal. But thin content is the opposite of the unique, relevant quality content that search engines want to show on results pages. Thin content can hurt a website’s SEO and revenue.
What’s the worst that can happen? Websites can incur manual penalties from Google for having “Thin content with little or no added value” (see this Google Help video for Matt Cutts’s explanation and our tutorial on avoiding Google penalties for more detail). Other times, sites may experience sudden drops in organic search traffic as evidence of an algorithmic penalty (usually Panda-related). Either way, penalty actions reduce website traffic and impact the bottom line.
What can a website do to fix thin content? Last week’s ISOOSI Tuesday Chat, a Google+ Hangout-on-Air hosted by ISOOSI Research Engine, dealt with this issue. In Making Your Thin Content Phat!, host and ISOOSI President Carlos Fernandes talked with four Internet marketing experts: Ammon Johns, David Harry, Terry Van Horne and Bill Slawski. What follows are the questions, problems and solutions this panel of experts discussed during the Hangout.
In this article you’ll find solutions for four common causes of thin content, which you can jump to with the links below:
- Scenario #1: Boilerplate Location Pages
- Scenario #2: Filtered Ecommerce Pages
- Scenario #3: Product Pages
- Scenario #4: “Me too” SEO Posts
How to Avoid Thin Content
Thin content isn’t about the amount of content, but the quality. Here are general tips for content creation that will keep you clear of Google’s thin content traps.
- Make your page the most complete answer: Search for your specific phrases, then look through the “top 100 results” and find the words and phrases related to that topic (e.g., for “John Wayne,” pages might talk about the Oscars, westerns, movies, etc.). Make sure your content includes all the same ideas so you can “get stuck in the cluster.” (Credit: Bill)
- Reword to create original content: Don’t copy other people’s content, but reword it. Aggregate all the different answers so that yours is the best result.
- Review your content: To evaluate your content, ask “normal people,” because you are too close to it.
- Write with related terms, not just keywords: If you are still working with just keywords, “you’re in the Dark Ages.” Content writers need to include all the related terms on a topic. (Credit: Terry)
- Analytics are your friend: Do split testing, check conversions, and look at traffic counts, since these are more important than search engine rankings. (Credit: David)
- Do keyword research: Use keyword research tools to find what people are searching for but keep in mind that search volumes may not be accurate. High volume terms are “expensive to achieve” and have low conversion rates. The kind of people who search for short-tail (high volume) terms are generally not very savvy Internet users; this could be a way to segment your audience, but consider whether those are the people you want to reach. (Credit: Ammon and David)
- Use other data sources, too: Use other data sources such as government sites, census figures, and even your past sales data to help you craft unique content. (Credit: Carlos)
Thin Content Scenario #1 – Boilerplate Location Pages
Websites wanting to do business in many different cities often set up “location pages” to help them rank for location-based searches. When these are created using a boilerplate template with just a “fill-in-the-blank” approach to change the place names, the same content gets duplicated across hundreds or thousands of pages. And that’s the kind of “thin content” Google’s Panda algorithm seeks to eliminate.
There’s contention even among experts over whether there’s a reason to ever have pages for different locations anymore.
A case could be made that “Anybody who tries to do location pages now is just an idiot … They got Google Local for a reason.” – Terry Van Horne
Adversely, it could be argued that location-specific content is a value add. Carlos reported that having region-specific pages on his website had brought him a $352 million inquiry just that week.
“Location pages ARE still needed. There are a lot of times when a national provider is going to be excluded from local results because … what Google cares about is [giving] the best results matching their algorithm and that the user is satisfied [not necessarily giving the truly best results].” – Ammon Johns
Ultimately, location pages may have value to online marketers depending on user intent. Why would it be important enough for users to specify a location in their search? Reasons could be:
- They want a local office where they can talk face-to-face.
- They want to stay within a fixed radius.
- They want someone who understands special local issues (e.g., getting homeowner’s insurance if you live in tornado alley).
HOW TO FIX LOCATION PAGES
If you understand the user’s intent, then you can add some unique content to each location page that meets the user’s specific needs. Try these recommendations for your geo-targeted content:
- Add text that shows you know something about the location. Example: For a construction company that works in many different counties, location pages could explain the different zoning codes, historical development, how building at the beach differs from inland construction, names of districts in the area, etc. (Credit: Bill)
- Add regional statistics. Some websites bring in data by feeds from Wolfram Alpha that are specific for each region and appropriate to the subject. (Credit: Carlos)
- Have local experts add content. The site can be a framework, and local subject matter experts can help create the content. Example: Lawyer sites might have pages about drunk driving charges, and that content can vary from state to state (e.g., laws, penalties, even what the charge is called). Lawyers in each state know the subject well, so have them create location-specific content.
- Put duplicated content in an iframe. If there’s content that has to be on every location page, put it into an iframe and have original, tailored content around it. Iframes get around the duplicate content problem; search engines see the iframe as a separate page that’s relevant to all the other pages (sort of like a “mid-page canonical”). (Credit: Carlos and Ammon)
- Get quotes from local people. Adding quotes, recommendations, etc., written by people who live in each local area. In this instance, a business probably has customers in each region, so their content would “give localized social proof” that would help with conversions. (Credit: Carlos and Ammon)
- Refer to past sales data. If a particular product has sold well in a specific area, talk about that product on that location page.
- Include links to relevant external sites. Adding a few links pointing to local sites that might be valuable for the user (e.g., the local chamber of commerce) can “help legitimize your post in Google’s eyes,” David said. A few external citations can show that you know the local market and you’ve put some thought into creating unique content for that location. As Terry observed, “Google has always rewarded linking out to good resources.”
“The next best thing to having a link from a big, powerful, authority site is putting a link to a big, powerful, authority site.” – Ammon Johns
- Consider taking your location pages down. If you can’t make each page different with location-specific unique content that fulfills the searcher’s intent, it would be better from an SEO perspective not to have location pages at all.
Thin Content Scenario #2: Filtered Ecommerce Pages
On an ecommerce site, users can view pages with filtered results, such as by brand, by size, by product type, or by other attributes. These “filtered results” pages have a unique URL that can be indexed by the search engines. The problem is, since none of the content is unique on those pages, they create a nightmare of duplicate, thin content. In a worst case scenario, a site with only 3,000 products may have 40,000 pages indexed, which makes no sense. Google can and will penalize ecommerce sites for this situation. But should you struggle with making those pages unique? Most sites do not need to rank for product attributes, and having so many filtered pages dilutes the site’s internal link equity anyway.
HOW TO FIX FILTERED RESULTS PAGES
Again, the goal is to put some unique content on every page that will be indexed for search. Barring that, the other choice is to prevent non-unique pages from being indexed at all.
- Add content based on filters and keep the pages indexed. If you can insert some unique content that specifically relates to the filter, the page may be okay to keep in the search index. Adding two or three sentences above the filtered product information could work. This can be difficult to program into your shopping cart software, but some products will allow it. (Credit: Carlos)
- Use the URL Parameter tool. In Google Webmaster Tools, the URL Parameter tool lets you tell Google how to handle URLs containing specific parameters (see GWT Help for more details).
- Remove filtered results pages from the search engine index. If you cannot add any unique content, then remove the pages from the search index. One way to do so is using the Page Removal tool in Google Webmaster Tools.
- Block indexing using robots.txt. Another way to prevent duplicate content pages is to exclude them in your robots.txt file (see our Robots.txt guide for help). This stops the search engine from indexing your filtered results pages.
Thin Content Scenario #3: Product Pages
Ecommerce product pages commonly have two problems that cause thin content: duplicated manufacturer descriptions and repeated text for terms of service and shipping information.
Many ecommerce sites take boilerplate, manufacturer-provided text and paste it into their product pages. Manufacturer product descriptions can be found all over the web, so these duplicate product pages can trigger search engine penalties. It’s also problematic when lengthy blocks of text for terms of service and shipping information are repeated across all product pages.
HOW TO FIX PRODUCT PAGES
For this problem, there is only one solution: make original content for each product page. This can be a monumental task for sites with thousands of products, but necessary.
“It’s like a one-legged man training for the 100-yard dash.” – Terry Van Horne
- Replace manufacturer text. Rewrite the standard manufacturer text with unique descriptive content for each product.
- Rewrite pages in priority order. It’s advised that sites start with their most important products first (i.e., the ones making them money) and begin creating unique content for each product. (Credit: David)
- Make sure repeated text doesn’t overwhelm original content. Terms of service, shipping information, and similar text can be 400 to 500 words, which is a large percentage of the body copy. Be careful to “flesh out” the product information enough so that there’s original content to balance out the duplicated text.
- Evaluate your content. Here are some questions to help guide the rewriting process: 1) Is this content going to be the same as everyone else’s? 2) Is it original? 3) Is there enough content here to be worth saying? (Credit: Ammon)
Thin Content Scenario #4: “Me too” SEO Posts
There’s a type of content that has become commonplace on the web today: “me too” blog posts, which may be 2000-word articles about things people have already read elsewhere. These posts are not true curations because they have no added value and nothing original. While you might think “thin content” means not enough words, that’s incorrect; long posts can be considered “thin,” too.
HOW TO FIX “ME TOO” POSTS
- Curate content, don’t duplicate it. Curate content by synthesizing ideas and adding original thoughts. Read more about SEO best practices for content curation (make sure to use unique text, high quality links, and add value) if you’re cleaning up “me too” thin content.
- Don’t just copy and paste. Duplicate content adds no value for the reader and could be penalized by the search engines. Don’t do it.
In the end, correcting and avoiding thin content comes down to one question:
“If you can’t do better than the results that are already there, why bother?” – Ammon Johns
The ISOOSI Chat happens every Tuesday at 12:00 Pacific time on Google+. All are welcome.