As the world’s largest search engine continues to crack down on spam, many marketers have seen a considerable drop in their profits in recent years, and a large number of affiliate marketers in particular have seen their profits go from five figures per month to nothing overnight. Google’s algorithms are constantly evolving to weed out content that provides nothing of value to human viewers, and the most important update of recent times was specifically concerned with penalizing what Google describes as ‘thin content’.
What Is the Thin Content Penalty?
The latest update in Google’s menagerie of algorithm changes, Panda 4.1, effected around three percent of search results within a few weeks of its rollout on September 25, 2014. A year earlier, Google announced a manual penalty for offending websites, and the major Panda algorithm update was introduced to further support it. If you’re your website receives a manual penalty for thin content, you’ll receive a notice in the Manual Actions section of your Google Webmaster Tools account. As a result, your website will be removed entirely from the search engine results, something that can have devastating effects on your business.
What Is Thin Content?
Google’s head of Web spam, Matt Cutts, provides a fairly straightforward explanation of thin content: content that offers little or no value to human readers. In other words, thin content is that which has been written solely to manipulate the search results or is excessively promotional in nature to the extent that it provides no benefit to its intended audience. If you receive a penalty for thin content, the explanation provided is fairly intuitive, and Google cites some of the most common examples of such content as being automatically generated content, copied, scraped or plagiarised content, doorway pages and thin affiliate landing pages. Following is a more in-depth explanation:
- A website may have multiple doorway pages with each one targeting a specific keyword phrase in the search engines, and the targeted keywords are the only difference in the content of each doorway page. In other words, the pages exist solely for the purpose of manipulating the search engine results.
- Thin affiliate websites are among the most common offenders, and they tend to be a result of unenthusiastic would-be marketers who hope to launch a poor-quality website for the sole purpose of selling a particular affiliate product. Such websites provide little or nothing in the way of original content, insight, research or anything else that would be of interest to its intended audience.
- Sites with content from other sources are also cited by Google as examples of what tends to be thin content. Websites that make use of article syndication services, typically from low-quality online article directories again provide nothing original or of value to the reader. In other words, the majority of content on your website should be original and unique instead of being scraped from a spammy RSS feed or article syndication website.
- Automatically generated content is the spammiest kind of content of all, largely because it makes absolutely no sense to human readers, but contains search keywords in an effort to manipulate the search engines. Such content is created by a program, such as an article spinner, from a source consisting of nested synonyms to create hundreds of ‘unique’ articles.
Identifying Thin Content
Identifying the type of content that is likely to be penalised by Google is usually quite straightforward. After all, you’ve probably already seen enough spam to know what falls into the category of thin content. Some of the more obvious types of content to look out for are those that are clearly written for the search engines and make excessive use of keywords as well as anything that has been automatically generated. However, it may also come as a surprise that thin content is not always published intentionally. The line gets a little blurrier when picking out content that has been scraped from other websites, such as copied product descriptions used on affiliate websites. Google has come down particularly hard on such affiliate websites in recent years, not least because their only goal is to make money rather than publish any original content that might actually be of interest to its readers.
Thin content doesn’t necessarily mean actual spam, as you have seen from the aforementioned examples. While you should easily be able to identify thin content that falls into any of the four categories mentioned previously, other content might also be flagged as thin content, particularly if it dominates your website. It’s a good idea to ask people you know to look at your website and report back to you to let you know if they find your content helpful or not. In other words, you must make sure that every piece of content offers genuine value to human readers. Fortunately, there are also various tools that can help you identify thin content, and it is wise to be proactive instead of waiting for Google to give you a manual penalty from which you may never be able to recover.
An important metric to track when identifying thin content is the bounce rate (i.e.: the number of visitors who leave a webpage almost immediately upon visiting). You can use tools such as Google Analytics to determine bounce rates, and if you find any pages with a bounce rate of more than about 75%, you should take extra steps to determine whether or not the content is compelling enough to keep readers on the page. You should also make sure that you are promoting your content to the right audience. Another consideration is content length: you can use a tool like Screaming Frog to analyse content lengths of all of the URLs on your website: if most pages consist of short articles of less than 250 words, then you may have a problem.
Dealing with Thin Content
You really only have three choices when it comes to dealing with thin content: you can either delete it, improve it or rewrite it entirely. Content that can clearly be defined as spam should be deleted immediately, but things get a bit more complicated when the content in question was previously helping you to rank. You should also delete any duplicate or scraped content if your website possesses large amounts of it. After all, Google will not pay heed to a reconsideration request unless you have made major changes to your website.
If you still believe that some of the problematic content presents some potential, you may want to consider rewriting it, taking into account the following factors when doing so:
- Ensure that the newly rewritten content is in a scannable, Web-friendly format, complete with subheadings, short paragraphs and, where appropriate, bulleted lists.
- If you’re a local business, differentiate any regionalised pages by writing about the area that each one is targeting and how your business concerns people in that particular location. Better still, consider merging the pages.
- Beef up written content that is too short to provide anything of value. A typical blog post, for example, should be at least 500 words, although there will, of course, be exceptions.
- Lower the number of internal links in the problematic content, along with any repetitive instances of key words or phrases that you are trying to target. Don’t forget, that your content should be written for people, not search engines.
Sometimes, the only practical solution is to completely start over, rewriting the problematic content from scratch. Starting over takes a lot of time, and if you tend to outsource your content creation, it can also get expensive. However, the benefit of having excellent content on your website can be enormous, both for encouraging social engagement, increasing search engine rankings and building up recognition for your website and/or brand.
Identifying and dealing with thin content can be a major undertaking, particularly if you have made use of dubious SEO practices in the past or you have failed to properly identify your target audience and appeal to their needs and desires. However, once you have eliminated the problem, you’ll be ready to send a reconsideration request through your Google Webmaster Tools dashboard. Google will manually review your website, and provided that they are satisfied that you have made the necessary changes, your website should start appearing in the search results again. On a final note, make sure that you get the problem solved the first time, and in the future, make certain that you carefully monitor and edit any content being published on your website as well as on other online portals that you use.