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What is Thin Content? Understand Google’s Thin Content Penalty & SEO

What is Thin Content? Understand Google’s Thin Content Penalty & SEO

In the world of digital marketing and online business it’s largely common knowledge that content is king. Most businesses are aware that content is one of the best ways of driving interest, appealing to shoppers, and even boosting search engine performance.

But if content is king, then thin content is a proverbial assassin.

What is thin content? How exactly do thin content and SEO correlate?

What exactly constitutes good content is pretty vague. And a lot of marketers can be frustrated by slow or disappointing results after weeks spent writing and creating new content. Even worse, if they are confronted with a thin content penalty.

Thin content is on-page content that has little or no value to the visitor. This means content that is automatically generated, unhelpful affiliate content, content that has been stolen from other sites, or content on doorway pages. Basically, content that’s just not useful. We’ll go over what all this means more later, but these are the details that Google gives users in Search Console.

Content has become such a big part of marketing that it’s essentially the foundation for every major marketing strategy. Content marketing is even known as its own strategy and has evolved into a full-blown world of work. Now 72% of marketers say that content increases engagement for their online business, as well as generating 72% more leads. Information from Demand Metric says that content based inbound marketing generates 3X more leads then outbound strategies, and costs 62% less.

Plus, content is the baseline for every other popular method of marketing, including SEO, paid advertising, social media, and more.

This is why merely having content is no longer enough. It’s why creating content that caters to visitor needs and why getting optimized content is important for staying competitive and maintaining keyword rankings. For this reason you’ll want to know how to avoid thin content in SEO and beyond.

Jump to these sections to learn more:

What is thin content?

The term “thin content” is one possible message for a manual action that can be given to websites or web pages by Google. This reason is given when the search engine finds low-quality pages or shallow pages on your site.

Google describes thin content as “low-quality or shallow pages on your site,” or content that offers little or no added value to user experience. Google also warns that pages can be penalized if they don’t “provide users with substantially unique or valuable content,” especially in cases where they are in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Remember “content” doesn’t just mean text, it also means images, headers, videos, multi-media, interactive graphics, navigation tools, and more.

Here are a few other examples of bad practices that could get your SEO hit with a Google thin content penalty:

  • Automatically generated content. Like text that makes no sense to readers or text that is stitched together from other content.
  • Thin affiliate pages. This means content from a brand (or affiliated brands) that is copied across multiple pages or domains.
  • Content from other sources. For example: scraped content or low-quality or irrelevant guest blog posts.
  • Doorway pages. Pages which don’t really represent the main content, but instead force visitors to click through to another page to find what they need.

Google’s Matt Cutts also gave some information on SEO thin content back in 2013. The above examples are the most common ones and are usually done by marketers intending to broaden their SEO reach or to find shortcuts to better rankings.

Doorway Pages as Thin Content

Doorway pages usually represent efforts to rank for a wide range of similar keywords with multiple pages that really just represent the same topic. A common example is pages that target keyword rankings for specific regions or cities, and then funnel users to one page.

Some other examples of doorway pages include:

  • Pages generated to funnel visitors into the actual usable or relevant portion of your site.
  • Lots of pages that are too similar and seem to be aimed at getting search results rather than a clearly defined, browsable hierarchy.
  • Pages with matching content where certain keywords are simply swapped out for different subjects.
  • Cloaked pages or pages that only search engines can see, but are designed to redirect visitors to another page.

Thin Affiliate Pages

Affiliate content appears to Google as low quality since it provides no more added value on your site than it would on any other site.

According to Google, a visitor might ask themselves: “If I land on this page, what’s the added value of that versus landing on someone else’s affiliate page? Or even landing directly on the merchant?”

This is why affiliate content can be detrimental for online retailers and vendors that don’t bother to offer their visitors better quality content.

If you have no original content, then why should someone care about your site? Thin content in SEO is essentially when a site’s text, or info, or visual elements are not relevant to the visitor’s intent or does not provide them with what they are looking for.

Thin Content That’s Automatically Generated or Scraped

According to Google this is content that’s “been generated programmatically. In cases where it is intended to manipulate search rankings and not help users, Google may take actions on such content.”

This means text that doesn’t make sense to humans, or is generated by a tool simply for the purpose of having content. It can also mean text translated poorly by an automated tool, text generated from markov chains, text generated using synonymizing, scraped text from Atom/RSS feeds, or text that has been stitched together from multiple sources.

Merely quoting or citing sources shouldn’t be a concern here. But content that is stolen or copied under shady circumstances will get your site hit with a thin content SEO penalty by Google.

According to Google, “Purely scraped content, even from high-quality sources, may not provide any added value to your users without additional useful services or content provided by your site; it may also constitute copyright infringement in some cases.” They insist that taking the time to create original content that sets your site apart is best practice.

This can also include:

  • Sites or pages that copy and republish content from other sites without adding anything original or creating more value for visitors.
  • Sites or pages that copy content from other sites and try to change it slightly to pass it off as original.
  • Sites that reproduce content feeds from other sites without providing value to visitors.
  • Sites or pages that are dedicated to embedding content (like photos, video, audio files, etc.) without adding or demonstrating the value of doing this.

Doing any or all of these things as an attempt to short-cut your way to rankings could get you a manual action penalty for thin content SEO.

Some history on thin content and SEO

To understand thin content and why Google has focused so much attention on it, we have to go back to the search engine’s now famous Panda algorithm update in 2011. The main goal of this update was to prevent site’s with low quality content from ranking highly in search results.

This update negatively impacted lots of sites as well as pages with low-quality and thin content, and it has steered the direction of content marketing and SEO ever since. It’s even a part of Google’s core algorithm.

The Panda part of the algorithm looks for duplicate, plagiarized, or thin content, as well as user generated spam and keyword stuffing.

Later, in 2017, Google incorporated the Fred update to its ever-increasing list of algorithm updates and changes. This too focused on avoiding low-quality thin content.

Many algorithm updates have focused on content in some way or another, but these two updates are the biggest ones to focus on low quality or “thin content” specifically. Fred now penalizes spam-like and ad-centered content, including blogs with low-quality posts, and/or pages designed just to generate revenue from advertisements. Even though Fred was more focused on spammy, non-user friendly ad practices, it was an extension of Google’s goal to avoid thin content, and thin-content SEO strategies from clogging up its search results.

If your ads are more prominent than your content, then you could be in trouble!

Best practices and recovering from a Google thin content penalty

If you’ve been hit with a thin content penalty, then here are some steps you can take to fix your site. Plus, all around best practices to make sure your site can perform better in search results.

The nice thing about content and SEO, is that fixing your bad content can prevent manual action penalties, but going the extra mile and creating great content can make you better off than before.

So, why is content so important?

Well because content is king! (We know, we already said that, but it’s true). Content has become the cornerstone of both inbound marketing and SEO. It’s also a segue into basically all forms of online marketing.

Content is at the core of what web marketing is all about, and it’s also the way that crawlers from search engines understand what your site is about. It’s how they understand page content, determine topics, measure value, and even how they find new links in order to navigate to other pages.

The best practices here come from Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, which should be your first step in fixing your site if you get hit with a thin content penalty.

Here are the Webmaster Guidelines on site content:

  • Create a useful, information-rich site, and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content.
  • Think about the words users would type to find your pages, and make sure that your site actually includes those words within it. (This is the core of SEO!)
  • To help Google fully understand your site’s contents, allow all site assets that would significantly affect page rendering to be crawled – CSS, JavaScript, etc. (If you are facing a thin content warning from Google, but you have lots of high-quality content, then check to make sure that your site is crawlable by Googlebot. This is how Google’s crawling and indexing works.)
  • Make your site’s important content visible by default. Google is able to crawl HTML content hidden inside navigational elements such as tabs or expanding sections, however we consider this content less accessible to users, and believe that you should make your most important information visible in the default page view.
  • Make a reasonable effort to ensure that advertisement links on your pages do not affect search engine rankings.
  • Try to use text instead of images to display important names, content, or links. If you must use images for textual content, use the alt attribute to include a few words of descriptive text.

You’ll also want to make sure that your content is in line with Google’s “basic principles” on content quality. The heart of avoiding SEO thin content is making sure your content is intended for users and not your own SEO success. Your content must focus on getting customers what they need first, then your organic rankings can come next.

These sorts of evaluations can seem vague and difficult to measure, but Google gives some guidance on what to think about when evaluating your content:

  • Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
  • Don’t deceive your users.
  • Avoid dishonest tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
  • Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.

So what is the next step?

If you’ve been hit by a Google thin content penalty then you’ll want to review the pages or content listed in the “Manual Actions” report in your Google Search Console account. (If you don’t have an account then you’ll want to get one. Monitoring and fixing your business performance is a big part of what Google’s Search Console is used for. And it’s a free tool!)

In fact, you won’t be able to know for sure if you’ve been hit with a Google thin content penalty without Search Console. You’ll be able to find it in the “Manual Actions” report on the left side navigation menu, or Search Console will send a message to the email associated with your account.

You’ll want to review the content on your site and ensure that it reasonably meets Google’s policies and Webmaster Guidelines.

In cases of copied, scraped, or generated content, it’s best to remove the content. In fact, since replacing content takes some time, if you’ve been given a Google thin content penalty then you might want to remove the content first and then replace it with original content as soon as you can. In all cases, replacing SEO thin content with original content is preferable no matter what the situation. Just adding to it might not be enough!

Deleting the content – This solves the problem of spammy or artificial content. In the long run though, a lack of content will hurt your website. It may be a good idea to delete content if you know for sure that it’s hurting user experience – but replacing it with a large amount of well-written content should be a priority.

Rewriting content – Maybe your content is too much of a keyword-stuffed, unintelligible mess to fix with a few extra sentences. Or, maybe you’ve copied the content from another website and it looks too similar to the original site, even if it’s fattened up. Whatever the reason: rewriting content is sometimes the best solution. This gives you a chance to work keywords into content more organically; you can also control the flow of your sentences, delivering an optimal reader experience.

It’s important to note here that in SEO “thin content” doesn’t mean not enough content. For Google, text length and/or word count are not ranking factors. When Google gives you a thin content penalty, it is usually because the content does not meet the above requirements, it’s not because of length.

Request a Review – Once you’ve deleted, edited, or added to your thin content, it’s time to file a reconsideration request with Google. This lets Google know that you’ve taken steps to fix your thin content problem – the Google reviewers can then give your website another look and hopefully remove the penalty.

Once the penalty is removed, your website can rise back up the Google ranks. And now that its content has been improved, it should keep going up!

Fixing thin content with EAT and needs met

In recent years, Google has introduced a couple of very important new concepts that should be the starting point for creating content: EAT and “needs met.”

When you’re sitting down to address thin content on your site, or just to optimize your existing content, it’s important to know what these concepts are.

We’ve already talked about “what is thin content?” But we should emphasize that thin content doesn’t refer to word count or the length of your content. Google and Bing do not use text length or word count as ranking signals. There’s no set definition for too little, or too much, content – the right amount will depend on what’s best for the site visitor.

In June 2019, Google’s latest core algorithm shook up rankings for a lot of websites with new focus on content and honesty on transactional sites. Around that same time they introduced the concept of EAT in their search quality rater guidelines – along with the concept of “needs met”.

EAT stands for Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness and reflects 3 main qualities that people should be able to find in your content. No matter what, you want to make sure everything you put on your site is expertly explained and written, authoritative on it’s subject matter (whatever it is!) and trustworthy in the information it gives. This is what EAT means.

Needs met is essentially what it sounds like, will visitors find their “needs met” when they visit your page? Ask yourself if a reasonable person actually finds what they’re looking for on your site. Can your content actually cash the checks that your h-tags, page titles, and meta-title tags are writing?

EAT doesn’t just apply to academic subject matter or original research. To avoid SEO thin content (and thus a Google thin content penalty) your content should ooze EAT. Writing EAT content for Google means doing so for any kind of topic from fashion websites, to blogs, humor sites, eCommerce sites, YMYL sites, and more.

Here’s what you want to think about when using EAT to address your thin content SEO:

  • Demonstrating a high level of Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (E-A-T) to potential customers.
  • Providing a satisfying amount of high-quality main content, including a descriptive or helpful title. Don’t inflate, mislead, or click-bait.
  • Satisfy visitors with website information and/or information about who is responsible for the website. If the page is primarily for shopping or includes financial transactions, then it should have satisfying customer service information. People want to know who you are to know your business is legitimate! Make sure that your information pages – like contact pages, about pages, FAQ pages, and more – are clear and helpful, this can help your SEO.
  • Have a positive website reputation for a website that is responsible for the main content on the page.

So what is thin content in regards to EAT?

These above items are the main guiding principles that Google has outlined for defining EAT in their search quality rater guidelines. You should ask yourself if your content checks these boxes and try to optimize it if it doesn’t. And you should ask yourself if it meet’s the needs of your visitors as well.

Site visitors want to know that what they find on your site is high-quality, if you consider yourself a professional in your business than you’ll want to prove it by demonstrating as much EAT/needs met as possible.

Is EAT a ranking factor? Well… not exactly. According to Google, there’s no one specific EAT measurement that is used as a search ranking signal. But the search engine’s algorithm’s do pay attention to a range of other (secretive) factors that align with what humans might call EAT.

Google’s Danny Sullivan claims they’ve “tried to make this mix align [with] what human beings would agree is great content as they would assess it according to E-A-T criteria. Given this, assessing your own content in terms of E-A-T criteria may help align it conceptually with the different signals that our automated systems use to rank content.”

To improve your search engine performance, you’ll want to make sure you have high-quality content. Good content is one of the single most important things you can do for SEO. Plus, if your site is hindered by SEO thin content, or even if you’ve been hit by a Google thin content penalty, then using advice from Google will be critical for growing your business.

Learn More About Thin Content & SEO

Radd Interactive works with businesses to improve their SEO ranking. Contact us today to see how our technical SEO company can help you with a Google thin content penalty or to improve your SEO campaign!

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