What is Thin Content?
June 15, 2021
Thin content, auto-generated pages, cookie-cutter pages, doorway pages, and more are all forms of low-quality content. Each term has a specific definition, but simply put these terms refer to any type of page on a website that doesn’t add much, if any, value to a visitor. When people arrive on these pages, they are, at best, disappointed and will have a negative experience using your website.
Google, in their Quality Rater Guidelines, talks about this in terms of purpose—they want to rank pages with “beneficial purposes” highly in search results. A low-quality page’s purpose is unclear and vaguely defined. As well, a low-quality page’s purpose isn’t helpful for a human visitor.
One of the common misconceptions with thin content is that it is based on some type of word count. It is not. The length of the page has nothing to do with the quality of the page. Long pages with lots of words can be considered low quality if all those words add no value. Think of an article “written” by a spambot—a spambot can spew out thousands of mostly nonsensical words creating an exceptionally long page. Does that page serve a beneficial purpose and add value to visitors? Alternatively, a short page can be quite valuable and serve a beneficial purpose. Think of an entry in a dictionary defining a word.
Thin Content Examples
There are, broadly speaking, two types of thin content: automatically generated and manually created.
Automatically generated thin content includes things like tag pages or category pages. It isn’t always the case that category or tag pages provide low-quality content; on some websites these pages can be quite valuable. On an ecommerce website, category pages are critical to the shopping and conversion process and on some blogs, tag pages are critical for finding relevant content. Those types of category or tag pages will probably perform well for visitors and in search results. However, in other cases, tag or category pages add little value for visitors since people can reach the pages within that category or containing that tag in other ways; there is no reason people need to visit the category or tag page.
Manually created thin content pages are often pages that the company wrote that are simply too short given the subject matter being discussed. We’ve all seen these pages—they might have a lot of words but don’t really tell us a whole lot or answer the questions we really need answered. While there are certainly exceptions, these types of pages likely won’t perform well in search results, especially very competitive search results. Manually created thin content can also include user-generated content, like a forum where answers to questions aren’t very helpful in addressing the main question asked.
Finding & Evaluating Thin Content
One of the best ways to find thin content is to review each page of your website. You don’t want to look at the whole page. Instead, you want to look at the main content of the page, ignoring headers, footers, sidebars, and other templated information from consideration. Focusing strictly on that main content, the first step is to determine the purpose of each page. Decide if the page meant to share information, to sell a product, to help people find something, to entertain visitors, and so on. Once identified, the next question is if that purpose is clearly communicated within the main content of the page itself. If the purpose is clear, would that content be beneficial to your visitors?
While you can do this type of evaluation yourself, it is often helpful to recruit customers or users and ask them to review a few pages of your website to see if they understand the page’s purpose and see if they find the pages valuable. Customers or users will have a better understanding of what value they are seeking from a given page and if your current pages deliver that value. As well, when you are closer to the page’s subject matter, you may pick up on subtle indicators of purpose or value, but your customers or users won’t catch those subtleties.
Along with this qualitative evaluation of the page, you can also review various quantitative metrics to understand how the page is working for visitors. With the metrics, you are trying to answer questions like:
- Do you find that visitors frequently visit that page and click on links contained within the page’s main content? (Learn how to track internal link clicks)
- Does that page rank highly in search results, including for competitive terms? (Learn how to review rankings in Google Search Console)
- Do a lot of people who come to your website visit this page? (Learn how to measure a page’s total pageviews)
- Does this page help contribute to conversions? (Learn how to set up goal tracking in Google Analytics)
- Are other websites linking back to this page? (Learn how to check backlinks)
The more times you answer yes to those questions, the more likely it is that this isn’t a thin or low-quality page. But if you answered no to most of those questions, then that page is likely a low-quality page.
You can also use these questions to identify pages that are potentially low-quality. What pages receive the fewest pageviews (or no pageviews)? What pages don’t rank in search results? What pages don’t help contribute to conversions? What pages have high bounce rates? These questions help you find potentially thin content and you can then use the qualitative methods discussed above to review those pages more deeply.
The “Why Do We Have So Many Pages?” Approach
We want to know how many pages are on our website in comparison to how many pages we think are on our website. If we have way more pages than we think we should, then that suggests we have lingering thin content hiding on our website. Technically, I suppose, this is another quantitative metric to review but I’ve seen this happen too often with clients that it deserves a separate section.
The first step is to find all your website’s pages and compare that to how many pages appear to be on your website, including how many pages Google has found. Far too often, I’ve heard people strenuously disagree with Google’s reported page counts. “We can’t possibly have that many pages!”
After you’ve identified the page counts, you next need to identify the individual pages that have been found. As you step through the individual pages, you’ll likely spot several pages that shouldn’t exist. Those might be automatically generated pages that you didn’t know your website’s platform was creating or it might be manually-created content that you forgot existed on your website.
How Do You Fix Thin Content?
Option #1: Remove the Page
The easiest answer is to delete the low-quality page from your website altogether. If the page served no purpose and added no value for visitors, why keep it? By removing the low-quality content, you are also signaling to Google that you are actively working to clean up your website. When we’ve done this for websites, we’ve often seen big boosts in traffic once the thin content is removed—it is as if a weight has been lifted from the good content on the website.
This is a common solution for low-quality automatically generated pages that you want to remove from your website. Typically, these automatically generated pages can be removed in bulk; a few lines of code can delete hundreds or thousands of pages from your website.
When you remove these pages, you typically want to have the page return a 410 response status code. The 410 status indicates you have purposefully removed the page from the website. A 404 status code is acceptable too and works much the same way.
When you delete the low-quality pages, don’t forget to remove all the internal links referencing those thin content pages including the references on the XML sitemap file. Part of how you are communicating to Google (and visitors) that these pages are removed is by taking away all the references to the pages.
Option #2: Rework the Page to Make It Valuable and Purposeful
A harder solution, but one that can work quite well, is reworking the low-quality page to make it more valuable and more purposeful for visitors (and for search engine robots). This is especially helpful for manually created pages that have potential but aren’t quite good enough in their current state.
Reworking the page doesn’t necessarily mean writing more text, though it can. It could mean that you need to add more videos or images to the page instead since videos or images can convey information in different ways. Another option is to add in features to the page—like a calculator or quiz. You need to step through the page to see what additional questions customers or users would have when they are reading the page and find the best type of content to address those questions. You can also review competitor websites to get an idea of what other companies are saying about this subject.
One special scenario are forums (and other types of user-generated content). If this is the source of your thin content, you can still find ways to expand on this content to make it more valuable and purposeful. One route is to encourage users to help you expand on existing content, possibly by gamifying your forum to encourage better answers (why do you think so many forums offer points and tier levels in exchange for better questions or answers?). Instead of reworking the content, you can also rework the forum rules to remove unanswered or poorly answered questions after a certain time period.
Option #3: Noindex
Another solution is to noindex thin content pages. You can learn how to use the noindex tag in this article but the idea is to instruct robots to ignore this page and not include the page in search results. This is the ideal solution for pages that are high-quality for visitors but low-quality for people searching out your website on Google. For example, this might be tag pages are resource websites—once people arrive on the website and get to understand your website, they need the tags to find additional information, but those tag pages don’t offer any value when they are the first page visited.
Avoid Thin Content Moving Forward
Once you’ve fixed thin content, you want to police this going forward to ensure the thin content problem doesn’t return. If you turned off automatically generated pages, then you need to ensure that subsequent updates to your website’s code won’t turn those pages back on. If you have established rules for your forum to remove unanswered or poorly answered questions, then you want to make sure those rules are continually enforced.
As well, when you are adding new pages to your website, you want to confirm that the new page sufficiently addresses the topic it covers. This requires stepping back through the qualitative evaluation discussed earlier. Once the page is launched, keep an eye on the quantitative metrics to make sure this page is performing similar to other high-quality content on your website.
Thin and low-quality content is best seen as a plague on your website’s user experience. The lower the content quality, the less it helps anybody visiting your website and the more it is going to impede your SEO efforts. However, thin content is also easy to create making this an area you need to address regularly and monitor. If you need help reviewing your content to identify and fix thin content issues, please contact me.