Back in the day, search engine optimization was very different from what it is today. While the process still produces good results, it was much more efficient a decade ago.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, a marketing agency could make big bucks for its clients by simply using duplicate content and other nasty content tricks. Basically, you didn’t even have to create articles and instead, you could simply repurpose what other sites were creating. In time, this phenomenon became known as SEO thin content.
The problem was so widespread that even the most authoritative sites and news portals were affected. The biggest issue is that quality creators were destimulated to write pieces given that anyone could overtake them in search engine rankings by using a few tools.
Eventually, Google had to address thin content by introducing a thin content penalty. In this article, we explain the history of thin content, how it affects your website, and whether you should be worried.
History of search engine content
More than a decade ago, Google was such a mess. Hyper-optimization was running rampant, and you could find all sorts of low-quality content on top of search engine results pages. Basically, you could propel a useless piece to the top of search engines by using a few simple tricks, such as increasing word count or spamming the same keyword over and over again.
Marketing teams were creating content by copy-pasting entire articles from other websites or by implementing various prohibited link-building and page-creation techniques. In some cases, these new thin content pages would become even more powerful than the original piece.
Besides stealing high-quality content from other sources and destroying other people’s hard work, some scrupulous marketers went a step further by adding black-hat techniques to the mix. As a result, the search results were littered with duplicate content, nonsensical articles, and other thin pages. You could easily destroy valuable content from authoritative sources, pushing forward low-quality websites and awful, spammy pieces.
All of this changed with the new Panda algorithm, which was rolled out by the company in February 2011. Google’s algorithm had a simple task to fix thin content and penalize all websites that were using unlawful techniques. Over time, the search engine giant introduced other improvements that would further separate the wheat from the chaff.
What is thin content?
Thin content pages, also known as shallow pages, are all pages that provide little or no value for end users. These pieces could be copy-pasted from other sources, rely on keyword stuffing, or barely differ from the original content.
When we talk about the concept, most people think of blog posts. However, the term can refer to just about anything from videos, images, and other multimedia. In fact, we can use it for just about any element present on web pages, from meta descriptions to navigation tools.
It doesn’t take an SEO expert to identify thin content; these web pages are noticeably worse than original, high-quality content that occupies the top spots of Google search. Here are the most common types of thin content that we recognize:
- Content that lacks depth
- Automatically generated content
- Duplicate content
- Ad-heavy website content
- Doorway pages
Here’s what each of these thin content types refer to:
Content that lacks depth
As you can tell by the name, this type of content provides limited information to users. These articles often have low word count or use the same keywords a bit too often. While this might be relevant content, it usually has low value to users.
Given that these pieces are too optimized, they might not answer all the questions a reader might have on the topic. The posts might also lack internal links and external links that would further help the reader. Google can figure out that a piece is too short by analyzing time spent on site (although this might also indicate low quality).
Automatically generated content
At one point, these content strategies became so popular that third-party websites started creating tools that would help you with the process. You could get software that automatically scrapes sections of content from other platforms and mash them together into one nonsensical amalgamation. This has become known as automatically generated content.
These pieces were created by mixing text from various sources and putting it all together. Because of that, the articles would be all over the place, being characterized by low readability and limited usefulness. What’s worse, some of these web posts were so bad that they couldn’t even answer the basic user’s search intent despite text being taken from quality pages.
Companies would make auto-generated content by scraping RSS and Atom feeds, using markov chains and synonymizing, or simply copy-pasting paragraphs from different sources and stitching them together. Luckily, this type of content on your website can easily be detected nowadays.
Duplicate content was perhaps the biggest perpetrator during this wild, hectic search engine optimization era. As the name implies, these pages are copied word for word from other sources and provide no value for users.
What’s worse, you could also suffer from duplicate content without doing anything wrong. For example, you can use the same affiliate pages taken from various other sources during a marketing campaign. These might be external marketing materials that you, as an affiliate, use to promote their products and services on your own site.
In other words, even if you didn’t want to manipulate rankings, you might get hit by a penalty nonetheless. The issue might become even worse if you copied low-quality affiliate pages that provide no value. This is why it’s important to use a no-index or canonical tag in these situations.
Ad-heavy website content
Almost every person who has a website is looking for ways to make a profit out of it. Back in the day, a popular strategy was to create a site, optimize its pages for maximum visibility, and then place as many ads as possible. Savvy marketers could make nice money from this strategy without having to hassle creating quality content for search engines.
With the instruction of Panda, Google started penalizing platforms that have too many ads, banners, pop-ups, and other promotional elements. Such pages were considered intrusive, not providing enough value to users.
Doorway is a technique where you would create lots of pages revolving around the same or similar topic. Then, you would try to reroute all this traffic to the same, better-quality page where you would try to convert users (thus “doorway”)
Marketers could execute this strategy by simply using the same piece and changing the name of the city or its main keyword. That way, you could slightly tweak its focus so it appears in numerous search queries, but to appeal to a similar target audience. On top of that, companies would also use cloaking techniques to conceal certain pages from users.
5 Steps for finding thin content
Having a page or two with thin content isn’t necessarily an issue. Most notably, it won’t lead to a thin content penalty, although you might get little value from search rankings. Still, it isn’t something you should support, as the issue might start piling up on your site, affecting your conversions and authority.
The best way to go about things is to simply address these pages as soon as possible. Nowadays, you can’t get any traffic from thin content anyway, so it’s much safer to eliminate it altogether. Here’s how you can identify thin content quickly and efficiently.
Perform an audit
SEO experts consider audit the best way to assess your web pages. It is a meticulous process that gives you insights about everything on your site, ensuring that you don’t miss potential problems. Besides identifying thin content, this is a good opportunity to find other potential issues that prevent you from reaching the top spots in search engines.
We suggest using Google Search Console to quickly skim through all the pages. The tool is fantastic for duplicate problems and will give you a breakdown of all the posts on your site. Most importantly, the platform has a tab where you can check if you received a penalty. You might also consider using Google Analytics for additional insights.
Although this is a bit of a roundabout solution, you can use Content Management Systems to go through your articles. WordPress allows numerous integrations that allow you to check content based on keywords. If you’re worried about similar web pages, you can track them down and correct the issue within the same CMS.
Use website search
Another good trick is to check the URL and keywords within the site. You can type in your main keywords and see what pieces pop out. If necessary, you can go through articles one by one to assess whether they’re original enough.
If the website retrieves too many blog posts for a specific query, it might be a sign that it perceives them as similar. You should pay attention to the first few results, as they are the closets in relevancy and might use the same keyword.
As mentioned, these elements can also cause a lot of headaches. Because Google analyzes metas to understand web content, using the same title tag and meta description might indicate that you’re trying to game the system. Even if it wasn’t on purpose, you need to alter your metas so that the posts are diverse enough.
Meta tag check is especially important for companies that used bad practices in the past. For example, many brands would simply copy-paste the same tags to save time, which is something that would come back to bite them later on.
The safest, but the most exhausting method, is going through all your pieces one by one. This strategy can be efficient for smaller blogs with limited content, but it’s a real nightmare for large platforms.
When checking content on your website, you need to put yourself in users’ shoes. Besides checking specific page elements, like word count, readability, and repeatability, you also need to consider user intent. Does this piece explain the topic appropriately? Would you consider it thin content if you saw it elsewhere?
To get the most out of this process, we suggest you create an Excel sheet and type in all the titles and main keywords for all the articles. Once you’re done, you can check if the keywords are too similar to one another, after which you can do another checkup of related pages.
Fixing thin content
Thin content SEO is a process during which you fix or eliminate all pages that provide little or no value to your readers and, thus, search engines. The process is especially important for blogs that write about the same topic all the time and allow guest posting.
We suggest you perform an audit every year. Here are the main things you can do to address the problem:
Use prevention measures
Before we get into the fixes, let’s mention all the preventative measures you can introduce to avoid thin content in the first place:
- Obviously, you should avoid any gray-hat or black-hat tactics that would put you in trouble
- Whenever writing new posts, try to give a unique spin. Create a unique style and tone that would differentiate your blog from others
- Even if you take information from other sites, make sure that your post is significantly different from theirs. Don’t rewrite sentences and paragraphs word by word, but add new information and sentences (even if it means adding fluff)
- If you have the money, create your own visuals. Images from Shutterstock are used all over the web, so they can affect the posts’ uniqueness
- Make sure that selected target keywords are different enough to warrant a new article
- Using content optimization tools is a good way to introduce relevant keywords that are tailored for Google. It will also help you avoid potential keyword issues as you’ll focus on phrases that matter while also avoiding keyword stuffing
With these simple tricks, you can easily avoid identical pages and thin content.
The simplest way to go about things is to eliminate thin content outright. That way, you don’t have to worry about potential consequences and whether the piece will still be similar after a rewrite.
Deleting the pages is vital for sites that knowingly use shady techniques or were hit by a thin content penalty. In these cases, Google won’t give you a big leash, so you’ll have to make deep cuts to your blog content. Most notably, content deletion is essential for duplicate pages as these are more heavily scrutinized than other shallow pages.
If the thin content was caused by a mistake and you wanted to create two distinct pieces on two different topics, you can go with article rewrites. This is much easier than making a post from scratch, as you already have the relevant information on the page. Of course, you can also add new sections to further enrich the piece.
You can also do a good job by simply removing or paraphrasing the main keywords. Sometimes, thin content occurs due to keyword spamming, so you can do a fantastic job by simply focusing on these terms.
Add extra information
Low word count is another problem you need to tackle. If your piece is unique and doesn’t need a rewrite but is still classified as thin content, you can add a few paragraphs to enrich the information. Adding another 500 words will be enough in almost every case.
If you have lots of similar pages on your blog, and most of them have thin content, you can add more value to them through consolidation. Put several articles onto one page, thus significantly improving user experience. As long as the pieces were unique, this should fix thin content issue.
For the most part, thin content is a thing of the past. Although previously an integral part of SEO methodology, it can put you in a lot of trouble nowadays.
Given that Google has started relying on user engagement metrics to assess the quality of pages, you can no longer game the system as you could in the years prior. Website visitors and their experience should always be in the limelight. So, when creating new articles, make sure they’re readable and engaging and answer users’ questions.
If you’re struggling with thin content or are simply looking to update your pieces for modern SEO, you should contact MiroMind. Our team of writers knows how to implement the best practices so that each piece would receive the most value from search engines.