The Custard Blog

Words of wisdom from our team of online marketing experts

What is Thin Content and Why is it Bad for SEO?

In February 2011, Google rolled out an update to its search algorithm called Panda – the first in a series of algorithm updates aimed at penalising low quality websites in search and improving the quality of their search results.

Although Panda was first rolled out several years ago (and followed by Penguin, an update aimed at knocking out black-hat SEO techniques) it’s been updated several times since its initial launch, most recently in September of 2014.

The latest Panda update has much the same purpose as the original – giving better rankings to websites that have useful and relevant content, and penalising sites that have “thin” content that offers little or no value to searchers.

In this guide, we’ll look at what makes content “thin” and why having thin content on your site is a bad thing. We’ll also share some simple tactics that you can use to give your content more value to searchers and avoid having to deal with a penalty.

What is thin content?

Thin content can be identified as low quality pages that add little to no value to the reader. Examples of thin content include duplicate pages, automatically generated content or doorway pages.

The best way to measure the quality of your content is through user satisfaction. If visitors quickly bounce from your page, it likely doesn’t provide the value they were looking for.

Google’s initial Panda update was targeted primarily at content farms – sites with a massive amount of content written purely for the purpose of ranking well in search and attracting as much traffic as possible.

You’ve probably clicked your way onto a content farm before – most of us have. The content is typically packed with keywords and light on factual information, giving it big relevancy for a search engine but little value for an actual reader.

The original Panda update also targeted scraper websites – sites that “scraped” text from other websites and reposted it as their own, lifting the work of other people to generate their own search traffic.

As Panda updates keep rolling out, the focus has switched from content farms and scraper sites to websites that offer “thin” content – content that’s full of keywords and copy, but light on any real information.

A great way to think of content is as search engine food. The more unique content your website offers search engines, the more satisfied they are and the higher you will likely rank for the keywords your on-page content mentions.

Offer little food and you’ll provide little for Google to use to understand the focus of your site’s content. As a result, you’ll be outranked for your target search keywords by other websites that offer more detailed, helpful and informative content.

How can Google tell if content is thin?

Google’s index includes more than 30 trillion pages, making it impossible to check every page for thin content by hand. While some websites are occasionally subject to a manual review by Google, most content is judged for its value algorithmically.

The ultimate judge of a website’s content is its audience – the readers that visit the site and actually read its content. If the content is good, they’ll probably stay on the website and keep reading; if it’s bad, there’s a good chance they’ll leave.

The length of your content isn’t necessarily an indicator of its “thinness”. As Stephen Kenwright explains at Search Engine Watch, a 2,000 word article on EzineArticles is likely to offer less value to readers than a 500 word blog post by a real expert.

One way Google can algorithmically judge the value of a website’s content is using a metric called “time to long click”. A long click is when a user clicks on a search result and stays on the website for a long time before returning to Google’s search page.

Think about how you browse a website when you discover great quality content. If a blog post or article is particularly engaging, you don’t just read for a minute or two – you click around the website and view other content as well.

A short click, on the other hand, is when a user clicks on a search result and almost immediately returns to Google’s search results page. From here, they might click on another result, indicating to Google that the first result didn’t provide much value.

Should you be worried about thin content?

The best measure of your content’s value is user satisfaction. If users stay on your website for a long time after clicking onto it from Google’s search results pages, it probably has high quality, “thick” content that Google likes.

If your content offers relatively little value – and it’s generally easy to tell when it does – there’s a possibility that you could be penalised or receive a thin content warning from Google, indicating that your site is at risk of losing its rankings.

Although thin content is relative – some niches, for example, will always have less detailed content than others – the following signs are generally reliable indicators that your website’s content is a little on the thin side:

  • Your pages have very little text content, often short descriptions of 50-100 words with large amounts of duplicate content that appears on every single page on your website
  • Your content isn’t relevant to what users are searching for, and doesn’t offer a useful answer to their question, causing them to “bounce” back to Google’s search results page after visiting your website
  • Your content doesn’t match what you promise in your page title and meta description, leaving users disappointed when they visit your website and giving your site an unnaturally high bounce rate

There are many ways to judge whether your content is thin or not, but one of the best ways is to put yourself in your searcher’s shoes and ask a simple question:

“Does my page’s content clearly and fully address the user’s search query?”

If your content answers the user’s question, provides detail on a keyword they want to learn more about or otherwise engages and informs users, it’s just what Google is looking for. If it doesn’t, it’s important that you take action to avoid facing a penalty.

Making thin content more helpful and relevant

Does your website’s content fall a little too close to the thin side? It’s relatively easy to fatten up your content and make it more relevant and helpful for the people that reach it from Google’s search result pages.

Start by reviewing your content from a searcher’s perspective. Does it answer their questions? If not, rewrite your content to actually answer the question that people are asking in search or better address the topic they’re searching for.

If your content isn’t unique – for example, you’ve scraped a product description for something you sell from the merchant’s website – delete it and replace it with new, unique content that offers your own take on the product you’re selling.

Avoiding thin content means stable rankings

One of the biggest benefits of SEO is stability. While traffic from a PPC campaign can fluctuate based on competition, the amount of traffic (and sales) a first-place search ranking can produce is steady and reliable, as long as your site is up to par.

Avoid thin content and you’ll be able to avoid the effects of Google’s constant Panda algorithm updates. In fact, if your site has high quality, engaging content, its ranking could improve when Google rolls out its next update aimed at penalising thin sites.

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