Have you ever visited a website from a Google search that just seems unhelpful? The content itself isn’t very useful. It actually sounds like it was written by a robot, and maybe it was.
Prior to 2011, this happened a lot because people figured out they could game Google’s algorithm by creating any type of content — even if it was low-quality. That’s why Google rolled out a massive algorithm update in 2011 — they wanted to reduce the amount of low-quality content that ranked highly.
Unfortunately, low-quality content still exists, even in 2019. Some website owners think that any content is better than no content, so they create cheap, sometimes automated, low-quality content with the hopes that it’ll rank.
The problem is, this type of low-quality content likely won’t ever rank because Google has categorized it as thin content. Once Google flags a website for thin content, it can be really hard to come back. It’s best to avoid thin content altogether, but there’s still a chance that thin content has ended up on your website without you realizing it.
What is thin content?
Thin content can be best described as useless content. It has no value to the reader — it might even deceive the reader.
From Google’s viewpoint, thin content is the lowest of low-quality. It shows that the content took absolutely no effort to create; it might even be stolen from another content source. Unfortunately, because Google is so secretive about their algorithm, it’s really hard to figure out what ranking signals they use to determine thin content.
The best way to figure out what type of content Google considers to be thin content is by studying Google’s guide to creating high-quality websites. In the guide, Google suggests that high-quality websites should:
- Have original content written by experts
- Not use mass-produced content
- Thoroughly edit the content for readability and grammar mistakes
- Not attempt to game Google’s algorithm with keyword stuffing or other black hat SEO tactics
On the other end of the spectrum, websites with thin content:
- Use content copied and pasted from other websites
- Buy mass-produced content that’s available to any other website owner
- Have typos, grammatical errors, and low readability
- Attempt to game Google’s algorithm with link-building schemes and other black hat SEO tactics
Thin content is essentially poor quality content that took no time or effort to create. According to Google, thin content typically comes from four areas:
1) Automatically generated content
This type of thin content comes from automatic translations, automatic transcriptions, and other automated sources that clearly haven’t been reviewed by a human.
Matt Cutts, formerly Google’s head of search spam, gives a good example of automatically generated content. Say you were to Google search, “risks of drinking caffeine.” You click on a result with the title, “Caffeine: Risks, Dosage, Etc.,” but when you get to the landing page, it’s loaded with ads. The only copy is, “We have no information on caffeine risks, dosage, etc.”
That’s an extreme example of automatically generated thin content, but it does happen.
2) Deceptive affiliate pages
These are pages where the website owner has clearly copied and pasted exactly what the affiliate wants him to post on his website. There isn’t anything original about it.
On top of that, the website owner takes deliberate steps to make it seem like there is no affiliate relationship between the two websites.
For example, let’s say you have a website that reviews office supplies. An office chair supplier comes along and offers you $50 for every one of their chairs that someone buys after visiting your website. They suggest you create a blog post about the chair and link to their website. The office supply company is also nice enough to send over a pre-written blog post that you can use.
If you take their content, publish it as your own, and make it seem like it’s not a paid relationship, that could be categorized as thin content.
Google wants you to clearly identify any affiliates that you work with. You can do this by mentioning that the link is an affiliate link and also using a nofollow tag on that affiliate link.
3) Content taken from other sources
These are pages that are either scraped or copied/pasted from other websites. They might also just be really low-quality guest blog posts with the sole purpose of building links.
If a website publishes blog posts that are automatically copied and pasted from blog posts on other websites, that’s scraping. It’s one reason you might be flagged for thin content.
When it comes to guest posting, you could be flagged for thin content if the guest post is clearly only intended to drive traffic back to the main website.
This could happen because the guest post has way too many links in it that send traffic back to the original website. Or, it could just be really low-quality content that’s clearly only written to get a backlink to the original website.
4) Doorway pages
Doorway pages are identical pages built to rank for one specific term and then funnel traffic to another page.
For example, a plumber might think it’s a good idea to have 20 different pages with the title, “Quality Plumbers in [city name].” All of those pages are identical and have very little content. When someone lands on one of those pages, it’s clear that the website is immediately trying to redirect them to a different page.
If the only goal of your page is to rank highly and direct traffic elsewhere, it could be a doorway page, and you could get flagged for thin content.
How Google identifies thin content
Google has two ways to identify thin content. First is through their 2011 algorithm update called Panda. The second is through a manual action.
If your website gets flagged by either of those, it can be difficult to come back from it.
Google Panda Update
Google rolled out its Panda update in 2011. The goal was to give ranking priority to high-quality websites.
This was the update that everyone claimed would kill guest posting. It didn’t actually do that, but it did kill low-quality guest posts for the sole purpose of link building.
Along with identifying websites with thin content, Panda also caused websites with low E-A-T and too many advertisements to be dropped from search rankings.
Even though this update is over eight years old, it’s still part of Google’s algorithm.
According to the Search Engine Journal, Google knows its algorithm has a few loopholes that allow bad websites to rank. To solve this, the search company has a web spam team that finds and removes spammy websites from the SERP.
Google prefers to let its algorithm handle most questions about ranking. Google only uses manual actions when a website has exploited a loophole that can’t be fixed by an algorithm.
If you’re hit with a manual action for thin content, it can be a huge problem. It’ll cause the pages that Google has identified as thin to temporarily, and sometimes permanently, be de-listed from Google’s search rankings.
How to find thin content on your website
At this point, you know that you need to take thin content on your website seriously. That raises two questions:
- How do you know if your website has been penalized for thin content?
- How do you know if your website has thin content but hasn’t been penalized yet?
If you’ve been hit with a manual action penalty for thin content, Google will actually tell you as long as you’re using Google Search Console.When you log into Search Console, you’ll see a section called “Security and Manual Actions” on the left sidebar.
Click on that and then click the link that says, “Manual Actions.” At this point, you’ll see one of two things. You’ll either see a list of manual action penalties or a notice that you have no penalties.
If you see “No issues detected,” that’s a good thing, but it still doesn’t mean your website is free of thin content. It just means that you haven’t been manually flagged for it.
Your next step is going to be reviewing organic traffic in Google Analytics. You want to go as far back as 2011, if you’ve had Google Analytics installed that long.
You’re looking for any noticeably large drops in traffic. If you find those, even if they’re a few years old, try to identify the pages responsible for those drops.
For example, in 2015, this anonymous website saw a large drop in organic traffic:
Over the course of two months, they saw a drop of more than 10,000 users. That website owner should focus in on those few months in 2015 and examine the pages that lost the majority of that traffic.
The drop in traffic in this case wasn’t due to thin content, but it’s still a good exercise to go through for your own website.
Once you’ve reviewed your Search Console and examined your past organic traffic, the next step is performing a website audit to find thin content on your website.
You’ll be looking for pages that:
- Have duplicate content
- Don’t have original content
- Have little or no traffic
- Simply have no value
- Siteliner is a simple tool that crawls your website and looks for duplicate content and other issues that might lead to thin content. This tool can also be used to look at word counts on your pages. Thin content is more likely to have a low word count.
- Screaming Frog is a more advanced tool than Siteliner. It crawls your website and tells you about various issues you may have. To identify thin content, Screaming Frog will find the pages that have duplicate titles and meta descriptions. That could be an indicator of thin content.
- Yoast is a good tool to use before you publish your content. It will give you an idea of the page’s keyword density, word count, external and internal links, and other signals that could result in thin content.
Those three aren’t the only tools that will help with thin content, but they’re some of the most useful.
How to fix thin content
Once you’ve found thin content on your website, your next step is fixing it. Generally, there are three ways to fix pages with thin content:
1) Use the best search directive
First, make sure you’re using the appropriate search directive. For fixing thin content issues, you should be using one of two directives:
The directive rel=canonical can be used when you need to have two pages with nearly identical content. Give the page that should be ranked this tag, and Google will give that page higher priority.
For example, if you write a blog post on your website and republish it on another website, the republished version should use a rel=canonical tag and link to the original version of that blog post.
This helps Google understand that the republished version is an intentional duplicate. As a result, Google is less likely to rank the duplicate version of the page. That’s a good thing for the original piece of content.
Noindex should be used when the thin content page needs to exist, but it does not need search engines crawling and ranking it.
You can use this on pages like shopping cart pages, internal search results pages, blog category pages, and more.
2) Beef it up
This is a great option for thin content. Simply make the content more valuable by adding original commentary, new research, different forms of multimedia, actionable advice, and more.
You can do this by creating completely new content on that URL, or if you have a few similar thin content pages, combine them into one page. If you’re combining pages together, you still need to make sure they’re actually valuable. Just putting thin content pages together won’t necessarily increase the value. It might just leave you with one thin page instead of three or four.
3) Delete it
Sometimes, the thin content isn’t worth keeping around. If the content doesn’t get a meaningful amount of traffic, doesn’t rank for any keywords, and just feels useless for your website, you can delete it altogether.
Just be sure to use a 301 redirect on any pages that you delete. There could be internal or external links on your website that send traffic to that page. A 301 redirect will make sure that anyone who still accesses that URL will find a much more helpful page.
What to do once you’ve fixed thin content
Depending on your circumstances, after you’ve fixed your thin content, you’ll either need to submit your web page for reconsideration or simply do nothing.
If you’ve been hit with a manual action penalty and have taken the appropriate action to fix your thin content, you’ll need to submit your web page to Google for reconsideration.
You’ll be asked to describe how you fixed the issue. Make sure you’re very thorough when answering this question. Real people at Google will read this description, so be very detailed, explain exactly what you changed and your strategy behind doing so.
You really only have one shot to get your web page reconsidered, so take your time with the reconsideration request.
If you haven’t been hit with a manual action penalty but still found pages on your website that might be considered thin, you won’t need to do anything after fixing the page. Google will continue to crawl your website and find the pages that you’ve recently updated.
One example of thin content (and the fix)
Let’s take a look at a page that could be penalized for thin content. This example is completely fictitious, but it’s one way you could end up with thin content on your website.
Imagine you run a popular marketing blog. To make money, you have a resources section on your website with individual pages that link to different affiliates.
One of those affiliates is a landing page creator called Land&Convert. For the Land&Convert page on your website, you simply copied and pasted their content onto your website and included an affiliate link.
The text you copied was this:
Land&Convert pages are built for two things: getting people to land on your website and converting them into valuable leads. Land&Convert pages are all built with best SEO practices, so your page will rank highly in search engines. Land&Convert landing pages are simple to create, free to use, and have a WordPress integration. What more do you need to supercharge your website?
On top of that, you didn’t identify Land&Convert as an affiliate in any way. It’s clear that you’re trying to hide the fact that they’re an affiliate.
Google catches on to this and hits you with a manual action penalty for thin content.
To fix this, you decide to rewrite the content and make it more valuable to readers by adding step-by-step instructions to using Land&Convert. Your fix looks like this:
Land&Convert may be an affiliate of XYZ Marketing, but we really believe that they’re the best in the business. Their landing pages are so simple to create that anyone can set up a high-performing landing page in minutes.
The best thing about Land&Convert is that their pages have SEO best practices built-in, and it’s free to use!
Here is the process of building a landing page with Land&Convert:
<Step 1 with screenshot>
<Step 2 with screenshot>
<Step 3 with screenshot>
Do you see why that’s better? It clearly identifies the company as an affiliate, the copy on your web page is original, and it also gives the reader instructions on how to use the tool.
Find and destroy your thin content
It’s pretty easy for thin content to accidentally appear on a website. Maybe you were working quickly and didn’t take time to review a guest post well enough. Or, maybe your CEO directed you to create a bunch of pages that rank for nearly identical terms. Google could flag you for thin content in either of those cases.
If you’re proactive in finding and getting rid of thin content before Google finds it, you’ll be much better off. With Google, it’s never easy to ask for forgiveness, and it’s not guaranteed that they’ll forgive you. Just avoid the problem at all costs from the beginning.