Content is a crucial aspect of any SEO strategy and has been for quite some time, and it would be remiss to talk about content without addressing thin content. Ever since the Panda Update, the purpose of content has been providing an enriching and informative user experience rather than simply appeasing search engines. As will be explored throughout this article, content does not exist simply as a vehicle for keywords or a means to fill up space – to bulk up a website and make it look substantial. As we always say: bigger is not better… better is better! However, despite the tides having turned some marketers are still thinking of ways to subvert this idea, which is evident in the continued preponderance of ‘thin’ content.
What is thin content?
‘Thin content’ is a catch-all term to describe any part of a website that provides little or no added value – either to users or the search engine themselves. In essence, thin content is created in hope that it would help websites achieve the results offered by effective content (i.e. top rankings, high CTRs, more conversions) without putting in the same amount of effort. Before the Panda update, the value of content was yet to be realised. As a result, businesses concerned about search engine rankings often would not give much thought as to whether the content they were creating was either substantial, useful, accurate or coherent.
What are some of the different types of thin content?
Google has stated that the concepts listed below fall under the wider umbrella of ‘thin content’, as each can be defined as a type of low-quality content that offers little value to search engine users. (Note: these tactics are not only outdated but also in breach of Google Webmaster Guidelines).
That’s right – some marketers want to create content without ever having to write a word. They can’t exactly ignore the fact that content helps improve search engine visibility, so they look for easy ways to get a piece of the action without doing, well… anything at all. One of these ways involves getting a computer program to automatically generate content with as little human intervention as possible.
Unfortunately, these programs are neither sentient nor literate. The best they can do is churn out a block of text that is ‘keyword rich’ and has the ‘optimum keyword density’ but offers little value in the eyes of real people (the only eyes that truly matter). And if you think that any of today’s search engines will prioritise gibberish or cut-and-shut content just because it contains some keywords, you must have missed our previous blog post about how not to use keywords.
Another workaround from actually writing content is to ‘scrape’ it from other websites. This content may be taken from reputable sources that already have a good deal of authority (such as national news outlets or respected blogs) or free article directories that exist solely to provide others with ready-made content. While this may be seen as a cut above auto-generated content, it’s still an attempt to give content an air of legitimacy and ‘substance’ (thus improving its search visibility) without looking overly spammy. That’s the theory anyway. But despite how this scraped content appears to users at first glance, Google does not like it.
For a piece of content to offer value, it has to be unique in some way. In the eyes of Google, websites that simply copy the content of others, word for word, are likely to have a disregard for relevance and originality. Such websites often face penalties, and some even get tangled up in copyright infringement. These are worst-case scenarios – but most of the time, scraped content simply will not get anywhere near top rankings. Matt Cutts, the former head of web spam at Google, claimed on his personal blog that “searchers are more likely to see the sites that wrote the original content rather than a site that scraped or copied the original site’s content.” So open up a Word document, position your hands over the keyboard, and write your own content. It’s not just better for your SEO, but for your business as a whole.
This tactic is like the sneaky version of scraped content. The content in question is still copied, but the text is modified slightly (or ‘spun’) to resemble a new and original piece of content. Spinners will either substitute certain words with synonyms (often in line with target keywords) or run the content through a rewording tool that keeps the grammatical structure of the text while paraphrasing its wording. In other words, while spun content isn’t a carbon copy it offers nothing new, original or insightful to either users or search engines.
The idea is that spun content is both easy to produce and much harder to flag as duplicate content (even though, in spirit, the content is still scraped). With this technique, we can see how black hat SEOs back in the day became increasingly cunning as they tried to work around search algorithm updates for quick and easy rewards. But ultimately, the impact of spun content remains very negative for any website looking for long term success. It’s unfortunate really because with all of this energy expended in trying to trick or ‘hack’ Google, black hat SEO marketers could have kept it simple and effective: find out what users want and deliver it in a way that’s informative and engaging.
Nowadays Google has sophisticated algorithms which can flag up spun content in a heartbeat – especially in cases where a website is regularly uploading or receiving links from spun content. But even to this day, there are plenty of cheap SEO agencies who approach small businesses, promising to create hundreds of pages of content with a view to boosting their search rankings. And they will actually create that much content, it just never ends up working in the long run. Any spike in search rankings that does occur will eventually be followed by a catastrophic drop, often due to a Google penalty (the Panda Update strikes again!). The moral of the story is this: if you want the results, you have to put in the work.
Writing for bots
With all of the above cases, the common denominator is the practice of writing content for Google bots rather than users. Content written for bots has the express intention of winning their favour; of spelling out why this particular page is worthy of higher rankings compared to other pages. Putting aside the tactics used to create this kind of content and the many problems they have, there is a more fundamental problem with the ethos underlying these tactics: bots are just bots. They do not have minds. They cannot digest a piece of content and act upon it.
Real people, on the other hand, can actually process the value of your content in meaningful ways. People can have a genuine interest in the content you write. They can get something from it. This makes writing content for people much more helpful to your business at the bottom line: because people have money which they may decide to use to buy your products or services (at least on the condition that their first impression of your business is not something akin to a spilt bowl of alphabetti spaghetti).
Fortunately in 2022, content has a totally different meaning than it did over 10 years ago. It has grown from a mere vessel for various quick search engine hacks (e.g. keyword stuffing) into one of the most powerful marketing tools available in the online space, and more broadly, an essential consideration when drawing up a comprehensive business model. In recent years, content has enjoyed new levels of accessibility and shareability due to the rise of social media, mobile devices, and of course global internet usage. In other words, content is serious business.
And you should treat it as such. ‘Content Marketing’ is a powerful and well-respected facet of marketing, to the extent that many agencies pride themselves on specialising in content marketing. Any marketer worth their salt will understand that workarounds involving thin content are never effective in the long run; that they are incompatible with the content landscape of today. Instead, they would do well to deepen their understanding of what constitutes ‘quality’ content in the eyes of Google.
How does Google define high and low quality content?
While Google’s criteria may seem shadowy and complex, at the end of the day Google wants you to understand its guidelines so you can create content that meets users’ various needs. That’s why (if you know where to look) you can see Google’s criteria for high and low quality content. For instance, Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines bestows the honour of ‘Highest Quality’ on pages that ‘are created to serve a beneficial purpose and achieve their purpose very well.’ In other words, content that’s been created to inform and enrich users and do so in a way that’s genuinely thoughtful, thorough and engaging.
It’s worth mentioning that these aforementioned criteria are used to define pages as ‘High Quality’. What bumps a piece of content up to the level of Highest Quality is the website’s general reputation and the extent to which it exemplifies Expertise, Authority and Trust (E-A-T). E-A-T is the primary model used by Google to measure website quality. If you’re unfamiliar with this acronym, here’s a rough definition:
- Expertise: Expertise relates to the credibility of the author (and the website as a whole) on the content’s subject. Expertise is also evaluated based on whether the author or website has official credentials, such as awards or membership of professional associations.
- Authority: Authority is measured through a combination of content quality, accuracy, reviews and citations. In other words, is the consensus among users and experts that this content is an authoritative source of information on a particular subject?
- Trust: Trust is based on the content’s accuracy, transparency and legitimacy. This means using quality sources, making claims that can be verified and providing evidence by linking to authoritative sources.
Now that we know what type of content is likely to rise to the top, let’s cast our eyes down to the bottom of the barrel…
If Google is not satisfied that a piece of content has been created with ample consideration for E-A-T, it is unlikely to be promoted in the SERPs. For example, if claims are exaggerated or based on outdated evidence then they cannot be considered either authoritative or trustworthy. This relates to the overall reputation of the author or website – have they previously been given a slap on the wrist for writing lacklustre content or taking liberties with the truth?
Two other things to consider is the content’s length and depth. Certain subjects require a fair bit of meat on the bone for the reader to gain something of value. Put it this way: if you’re writing a piece of content on quantum mechanics or the reunification of Germany, the content likely needs to be longer and more in-depth than if you’re writing about stocking fillers or recapping last night’s Hollyoaks. Otherwise, you’ll be spreading yourself way too thin and not providing anything of real substance. This is something to really bear in mind when defining thin content – will users learn a lot about a particular subject or will they walk away with a superficial understanding of a whole bunch of topics?
Finally, websites are likely to get on Google’s bad side if their content isn’t accompanied by information about its creator. It should be easy to understand what makes that creator a trustworthy source of information, and if there is no good reason for that creator to remain anonymous, then this could cast a shadow of doubt on their expertise.
Now you know what Google is looking out for when reviewing your content. But of course, creating unique and engaging content is easier said than done. So what can organisations do to ensure that they sidestep any allegations of sub-par or thin content?
Ways to avoid being penalised for ‘thin’ content
Consider the value you are offering users
Content without a clear purpose is simply words on a screen. Before you type a single word you need to ask yourself: what do you want users to walk away with? This could be a brain full of useful information on a certain topic or a recommendation for a certain product or service. Once you’ve pinned down the value of your content, it’s your job to deliver it to the best of your ability. Bear in mind that this will likely also affect how you present your content. For example, the value of our SEO Glossary is that users can refer to it if they need clarification on a piece of SEO-related terminology. Therefore, we’ve broken our glossary down into simple, bite-sized chunks with a search feature so users can find what they’re looking for as quickly as possible.
Show that you’ve done your research
Research forms the foundation of content, and just like a real foundation, there will be gaps to fill and areas to build on. For instance, have you unearthed something that will cast your chosen subject in a whole new light, or have certain core concepts become outdated? Essentially, for your content to offer real insight it needs to be placed in a wider conversation.
Research is also key for fulfilling Google’s E-A-T criteria. For example, it allows you to show your expertise by proving that you’ve done your homework. Secondly, relating your content to existing sources bolsters your authority, and fosters a sense of trust by being transparent about where you’ve obtained your information from.
Scope out the competition
Scrutinising your competitors is a crucial part of research because it will help you make sure that you aren’t just rehashing what’s already out there. As previously mentioned, you should be looking for gaps that you can fill so that the value of your content cannot be disputed.
Competitor research can also give you a heads-up on whether your content is too thin. For instance, if trusted websites are covering a topic in over 1,500 words then 250 words isn’t going to cut it. Alternatively, if competitors have opted for a listicle and your content is looking closer to War and Peace, Google might get the impression that you’ve prioritised length over value.
Check for social sharing and link earning
Many content creators will publish their content and then not give it a second thought. They should follow up to see whether it is engaging their target audience, otherwise, they can fall into the habit of putting content out into the ether with no idea of its actual real-world value.
Social sharing and link earning are two important ‘engagement signals’. When content is shared by users across various platforms, that means that users have deemed it worthy of a wider audience. Rather than simply monitoring traffic, which depicts whether people have glanced at your content, social sharing shows whether or not it is resonating with your audience. Similarly, when other websites link back to your content this is an indisputable marker of authority. When websites naturally accrue backlinks they’re getting all of that link juice (which you can learn more about in our guide to PageRank) which will certainly give your organic search visibility that extra bit of oomph. So be sure to check for shares and citations to see whether you’re on the right track, and you’ll be setting yourself up for long-term engagement and success.
Yellowball is a leading London SEO agency with a team of in-house content creators, technical experts and account managers. It’s our job to get to the heart of your brand and deliver on what your audience is looking for, offering a superb user experience and offering data-driven insights that deliver real results. Take that next step towards success in organic search, and contact our team today.