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April 25, 2017

Why Thin Content Still Ranks as a Top SEO Issue to Solve

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It struck me the other day, while I was reviewing a client project with one of our SEO analysts, that the old problem of thin content is still an insidious revenue killer for many websites.

Or put another way, until you have content worth ranking, do not be surprised if you don’t rank well.

By way of example, the client, a B2B lead gen site for industrial parts, is receiving 150% more traffic this year compared to last and getting a record number of inquiries. We’re seeing these stellar results after many months of work that focused heavily on fixing thin content — until content was improved, the traffic suffered!

Fixing thin content improved search traffic 150% YoY

By focusing on improving content quality, our client is seeing 150% more traffic this year compared to last and getting a record number of inquiries. (click to enlarge)

Then looking at some mobile and newer sites reminded me that low-quality or “thin” content remains a serious problem for many websites, whether they know it or not. A majority of sales inquiries are sites with this problem.

SEO changes set the right course for a site, but content improvements give it long-term lift.

Why We’re Still Concerned with Thin Content Long After the 2011 Panda Update

Thin content is not a new search engine optimization issue.

It was February 2011 when Google introduced the first Panda update, which targeted low-quality sites and lowered their rankings. In addition to the algorithmic hits from Panda, countless sites have received manual actions penalizing them for having “Thin content with little or no added value.”

Google has only elevated the importance of quality content since then.

An unconfirmed update in early February and the Google Fred Update on March 7 both targeted low-quality content.

Sites that got hit by Fred included content-driven sites with heavy placement of ads, according to reporting by Barry Schwartz. These sites “saw 50% or higher drops in Google organic traffic overnight.”

Besides the algorithms, Google has an army of people reviewing sites manually for signs of quality. Periodically, Google releases its Quality Rater Guidelines, a document used to train these quality raters to spot low- vs. high-quality content. I unconditionally recommend that you read this entire document from Google!

The search engines clearly intend to keep ratcheting down their quality tolerance. The recent updates and penalties further stress the need for websites to fix thin content without delay.

Solutions for Thin Content

Identifying thin content on a site is crucial to SEO health, yet it’s only the first step.

Once thin content is diagnosed on your site (whether by a Google manual action notice or through an SEO audit), you need a strategic plan for fixing it. And if you’re uncertain, then your content is probably low quality, too terse, or likely both.

The trick is knowing WHICH strategy is right to fix your unique situation.

The solution has to address your site’s situation uniquely, taking into consideration the scope of the problem AND the resources available to you to do the work.

Remove or Improve?

Site owners often react to the news that their sites have many thin content pages with a surgical approach: Cut it all out!

Removing or no-indexing low-value pages can fix thin content problems some of the time, enabling a site to get back on its feet and start regaining lost rankings with minimal time and effort. For instance, Marie Haynes cites one Panda-penalized site that recovered by removing a forum it had hosted, accounting for several thousand low-quality posts that were separate enough from the main site content to be easily detached.

However, removing content can have a negative SEO effect instead. Cutting off whole sections of a site at once could amputate the legs the website needs to stand on, from an SEO perspective.

Another approach is to simply elevate the quality and depth of the content. It is hard to be a “subject matter expert” in only a few words. And if your content is written poorly, then you gain no love from others — the kiss of death for content.

We prefer this latter approach (as does Google, per Gary Illyes’s tweet below), but we use both at the same time quite often.

If the pages hurting your search engine rankings (for being low quality) are also the ones supporting your keyword relevance (for having keyword-containing bulk content), then you’re stuck. You have little choice but to keep the content, improve its quality, and perhaps add more content readers will appreciate.

Finding a Way to Improve Thin Content — Affordably

For this client’s site, we took the content-improvement approach.

The types of thin content we found on their website included:

  • Product pages with minimal text (just one or two sentences with a few bullets)
  • Pages whose content had been scraped and indexed on many third-party sites
  • Image alt attributes lacking text and/or keywords
  • Autogenerated title and meta description tags that often lacked targeted keywords

Your site may have similar issues, or may contain other types of thin content. Google’s support topic on thin content lists these common forms:

  • Automatically generated content
  • Thin affiliate pages
  • Content from other sources (example: scraped content or low-quality guest blog posts)
  • Doorway pages

Fixing these content problems may involve any or all of the following:

  • Removing pages or no-indexing them
  • Reducing the number of ads
  • Adding at least a few sentences of original text (on filter-category pages, for example)
  • Inserting relevant content from a database (in small doses)
  • Revising title and meta tags to be unique and contain appropriate page keywords
  • Adding original text in image alt attributes and captions
  • Rewriting the page entirely

Our client’s site contained a manageable number of pages (less than 500), so we started chipping away.

The SEO analyst first clarified the silo structure of the site, and then prioritized pages for revision starting with the top-level pages for each silo. In batches of 10 or so at a time, pages were rewritten and reviewed, passing back and forth between the client and the BCI analyst. Important products got brand-new full-page descriptions. Information pages were rewritten with thorough explanations. In all, we fattened up about half of the site’s pages.

The strategy worked. Among the SEO services we provided to this client, by far the higher quality content is yielding the biggest wins. The search engines and site visitors are eating it up, with vastly improved rankings, traffic and leads.

Content improvements give a site lift

Why Your Thin Content Solution Must Be Your Own

If you have an enterprise site with millions of pages, or an ecommerce site with thousands of products, you might be thinking this approach would never work for you.

And you’d be right!

It’s often simply impossible to rewrite each individual page manually on a large website. Yet quality content is a non-negotiable for SEO. Even large sites have to find a way to fatten up or remove their thin content.

Maintaining quality content requires an ongoing investment to maintain rankings — but each site’s specific strategy has to be practical and affordable to implement.

A Prioritized Approach

First, we look for what’s causing the thin content. A template might be producing non-unique meta tags, for instance. The business may be duplicating pages on other domains. A CMS might be building empty or duplicate pages. Whatever the issues are, we try to identify them early and stop the bleeding.

Next, we prioritize which pages to tackle first. It’s worth the effort to hand-edit content on the most important pages of even the largest sites. This priority list should include the home page, the top-level landing page(s) per silo, as well as the most trafficked and highest-ROI product pages. Putting creative energy into making these pages unique and high quality will pay huge SEO dividends.

It’s also crucial to look at competitors’ sites. Even if your content is technically clean and unique, is it as high quality as theirs? Remember that “thin content” can be a relative term, since Google is going to choose the highest quality results to present to a searcher.

More and more often, we include some sort of content development along with our SEO services. As we found with the industrial parts site, fixing thin content can make a long-term difference.

A parting comment: If nobody would share your content, then it is not good enough.

If your site has thin content or other SEO issues, contact us online or give us a call at 1-866-517-1900.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Google quality raters assign manual actions, which is not accurate. Thanks to Barry Schwartz for reporting the error.

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37 responses to “Why Thin Content Still Ranks as a Top SEO Issue to Solve”

  1. David Richard writes:

    Yes, Because Google like high quality unique content with low keyword density.

  2. Priya patel writes:

    Excellent article. Thanks for sharing with us. I have seen a lot of low quality, think content rank well in search engines including Google but the quality content can not do that.

  3. Paula Allen writes:

    Janelle: Starting with a site audit is good advice. No doubt you’ll find surprises if your site has been around a while.

  4. Janelle writes:

    In my experience, it helps to do a complete site audit. Depending on how many pages comprise your website, it could take a while, but it’s worth it.

    Use Google Analytics to Identify pages that have performed poorly over time. This is also a great opportunity to identify pages with similar or duplicate type content. I agree with your point about sometimes being stuck with content that you have no choice but to improve – but I also think that it’s sometimes worthwhile to “wipe the slate clean” and get rid of bad content all together.

    Use the tools that you have at your disposal (ex: Google Keyword Planner tool, Search Term report, customer feedback) to create topics and pages containing information that your target audience actually wants. You can’t go wrong if you do.

  5. Paula Allen writes:

    Venkat: We find that many established companies still have to deal with thin content issues. Thanks for reading & sharing the post!

  6. venkat writes:

    This is mostly applicable to brand new websites, I hope the thin content is not that big issue for big publishers. Really worth to read it. Just followed you & retweeted this post to my audience. https://twitter.com/venkatweetz/status/882101104623755264

  7. Step Up Digital Marketing writes:

    Google’s relies so many factors but if the website has great content it’s going to get traffic which is what Google also wants to see and more importantly from a UX it is very important. If you’re a genuine why wouldn’t you want to put valuable information on your pages.

  8. Abhinav Shan writes:

    Original content with good points is very important. The content must be useful for the readers and keep them engaged. If it is a professional website or a static page website then add keywords in the content. Find more discussion regarding Content SEO at our Question and Answer Website.

  9. Ryan Smith writes:

    Wow… That a great article on Thin Content. I agree with Martin on Buying a 10year ago domain name. Google ranks old domain with quality content on top of SERP.SO in total, your SEO will take less time.

  10. Munna Hossain writes:

    Excellent article. Thanks for sharing with us. I have seen a lot of low quality, think content rank well in search engines including Google but the quality content can not do that.
    I think backlink is a big issue and the domain authority and page authority also play the vital role. If a page has enough high authority backlink, it must rank well.

  11. Keith A. writes:

    Great write-up as usual. Thanks Bruce.

    It’s great to see the conversation about content revolving around quality.

    So often small business owners overlook the true value that quality content adds to a web presence, no matter how competitive the niche.

    Updating a site with powerful content not only better serves a website in the eyes of search engines as you have outlined, but creates lasting improvements in user experience and engagement, something that is often times overlooked by webmasters and business owners alike.

  12. David J Parker writes:

    I have seen so many websites are ranking on the top having poor and thin content. I believe this is only because the competition is low for that particular one.

  13. Strivers writes:

    Google’s trust factor relies on a combination of many factors. If the website is brand new then don’t ignore webmaster guidelines.

  14. Very Good Solutions writes:

    Content matters. In fact, one of my customers has a website which ranks very well with less than 10 backlinks. But content is fat. Many, many pages of unique content were written.

  15. Sherwood Ball writes:

    Very useful content for the Google Panda Recovery. I am impressed and reading full content..Good one

  16. Hugo Guerreiro writes:

    What an amazing article, Bruce! Sad but true, sometimes badly written but old websites rank higher than fresh-but-new blogs.

  17. Alberty writes:

    If you’ve liked Facebook folios that incline to pump out races or “please buy our thing” posts, expect to see them less in your feed from January. “Pages that post publicity creative should expect their organic delivery to fall meaningfully over time,” explains the social network.

  18. Alberty writes:

    With PPC, you effectually skip over the middle circle which cost you. By avoiding your prospects’ inboxes, you’re only competing with marketers on a SERP, a pertinent website on the GDN, or Facebook / Instagram. You’re also getting a leg up on your contestants, who are probably only using an automatic email funnel to nurture prospects (if they’re doing it at all).

  19. Paula Allen writes:

    Rich: You’re right that a blog can help get experts’ feet wet with writing about their craft. But it shouldn’t stop there … Once the blog is established, new posts bring a consistent stream of interested traffic to a brand. We know this from experience! Certainly appreciate your thoughtful comment.

  20. Rich writes:

    Excellent article,

    I’m often struck by how many subject-matter-expert level individuals find it hard to produce high-value content on a particular topic that goes beyond a quick summary.

    A blog is a great way to warm these individuals up to the concept of producing high-quality information to people who want it/need it. It gets rid of that digital stage fright, and as they say, practice makes perfect. Then they can target that new level of comfort throughout their website.

  21. David writes:

    It’s not hard to fix … write articles that are actually substantive and poof! No more thin content problems. Makes me shake my head how many people think they can take the easy path to success…

  22. Paula Allen writes:

    J. Ustpassing: Sure glad you happened to be passing our way and left such a substantive comment! We discussed your question and agreed with you — the alt attributes and tags lacking original text and/or keywords were problems on the site from an SEO perspective, which we fixed. However, they’re not specifically things Google would flag as thin content. Thanks for noticing and clarifying where to draw the line there.

  23. J. Ustpassing writes:

    Thin Content is a somewhat broad term, that encompasses multiple misdemeanours.
    Googles list, as you included, covers;
    * Automatically generated content
    * Thin affiliate pages
    * Content from other sources (example: scraped content or low-quality guest blog posts)
    * Doorway pages
    People should be able to draw a common thread from such items.
    Any content you have that is;
    a) built solely for Ranking
    b) built solely for Traffic Gen
    c) doesn’t match the users intent
    is a potential risk.

    Google’s pretty good with internal duplication caused by “errors”; this included canonical problems and poor code that creates weak pages – but there are limits. If a large % of the pages G hit on a site fall into this category, they will flag you. If your site is only producing a small % of such pages, G will just omit them from the initial SERPs.
    On the other hand, if these pages appear in intentional, then G may be harder on you. This includes cookie-cutter content (content on 2+ pages that is largely the same barring a few keywords), pages that consistently link out to other domains (whether you own them or not!), that appear to have to on-site closing (referal sites again!), content that is highly similar to content that appears on other sites (whether you own them or not) etc.

    Resolving thin content.
    Doesn’t matter how large the site is, the process is pretty much the same;
    1) Apply NoIndex to any/all pages that are deemed as being thin
    .. chances are, you Know which pages they are!
    2) Identify Valuable pages
    .. not just home/head pages, but those with a high number of
    .. (valuable/natural) links, those with a large number of visits,
    .. those that seem to get an above-average number of bot crawls, those
    .. that have an acceptable minimum conversion rate, those that have a
    .. low exit rate etc.
    3) Identify Chaff pages
    .. These are the pages that exist solely for Ranking/Traffic.
    4) Tag everything else as Weak Wheat pages.
    5) Look for relationships
    .. Look at the best performing WW pages, note the target
    .. term/audience/goal. Tag that as a Consolidation Page.
    .. Look at the target term/audience/goal of the Valuable pages.
    .. Redirect (301) all Chaff pages that have the same targets to
    .. the most relevant VP/CP.
    .. Redirect (301) all WW pages that have the same targets to the
    .. most relevant VP/CP.
    .. Delete all remaining C/WW pages that don’t match any
    .. Consolidation pages.
    6) Rewrite the content of all VP/CP pages (you can include
    .. unique/original content from redirecting WW/C pages)
    7) Review the remaining pages, ensuring that you have increased the quality,
    .. and avoided keyword stuffing.
    8) Review the remaining pages, ensuring that you have not decreased
    .. the focus or the conversion value of those pages.
    9) Identify terms/intents that may now be missing/uncovered,
    .. and create quality content to fit/suit (without spamming/stuffing!)

    That process works on all sized sites, and a fair part can be automated based on the metrics I pointed out (saves a ton of time).

    To finish, I do have a question;
    Why have you included the below items as features of “thin content”?
    * Image alt attributes lacking text and/or keywords
    * Autogenerated title and meta description tags that often lacked targeted keywords

    Neither of those have anything to do with it.
    Those are just items that hold ranking influence and are often targeted for optimisation – there is no relation between the failing to optimise them and them being seen as flags for thin content.

  24. Philip V Ariel writes:

    Hi Bruce,
    It’s indeed a great joy to be here today.
    This is indeed an informative post.
    Though Google insist on long content and surely it shows the needed ranking, it is good to know that thin content too can play a good role in ranking. This is really an amazing information.
    Thanks for your elaborated post and the connected links. will surely check those links too.
    Keep sharing
    Have a wonderful weekend
    Best Regards
    ~ Philip

  25. Paula Allen writes:

    Hi Atiqur – For PPC marketing policy, you might start with this section in Google AdWords Help: https://support.google.com/adwords/answer/6146252?hl=en

    We do PPC management and occasionally have articles about paid search on our blog. Click the “Paid Search” category to filter. Thank you for reading.

  26. Atiqur Sumon writes:

    Hi Bruce Clay!I am happy to see you are founder of digital marketing (PPC). Could you tell me what is the latest PPC marketing policy.

  27. Sindhuja writes:

    Whenever I’m working with a new client these are some of the first things I look for, especially the duplicate homepage. Most site owners don’t even realize it’s an issue because it’s just the way the site was built. It’s always worth getting the little things on your site in order first!

  28. Matt LaClear writes:

    My pleasure, Paula.

  29. Paula Allen writes:

    Matt: We appreciate the note and trimmed the click-to-tweet quote just enough to make it fit. Thanks for reading & contributing!

  30. Matt LaClear writes:

    Bruce, as usual, hit the nail squarely on the head. If your content sucks, your website sucks. No one of consequence will link to thin content. Not unless you were paying them to, but in that case, you wouldn’t want their link anyways.

    Note to editor: The first quote I tried to tweet had too many characters. You ought to edit it down a bit.

  31. Mark Ronson writes:

    It’s all about content! Yes, whether you have good marketing skills, you should have content that makes a sense! Keep it up!

  32. Market Research Syracuse writes:

    Thanks for sharing here. Agree with the thin content thoughts. Quality and depth to content is key. You can’t expect to write something not worth reading to rank on SEO.

    George

  33. SEO Services Coimbatore writes:

    Content with very good information for customers will certainly increase the site among the customers.so very good content is needed

  34. Madhushalini writes:

    Thanks a lot for such a wonderful post. I really like your way of blogging. Actually guys i heard about digital marketing.

  35. David Richard writes:

    Google Panda treated thin content as low quality content, which is harmful for website ranking.

  36. Andy Kuiper writes:

    One has to look after the fundamentals… and making sure to deal with thin content is one of them :-)

  37. Martin writes:

    In some cases seo makes no sense if sites with little or poor written content outrank the proper ones (putting backlinks aside). It’s like google ranks old poor sites created 10 years ago better taking domain age as more important factor.



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