By Jonas Sickler published October 16, 2019

Thin Content: Why You Should Fix or Remove Low-Quality Web Pages

If you’ve performed a content audit for a website that is older than a decade (or even five years), you may have unearthed the remnants of a very different initial content marketing strategy. Blog post topics overlap, 200- and 300-word articles fill the resource section, the once-rushed landing page now sits with its original 100 words.

These thin pages now sit forgotten, representing a bygone era in SEO.

When you encounter low-performing content like this, it’s tempting to adopt a no-harm, no-foul policy and sweep it under the rug to focus on new content. But I strongly discourage this approach, and here’s an example that helps explain why:

Don’t sweep low-performing #content pages under the rug, says @JonasSickler. #SEO Click To Tweet

You’re looking at the number of sessions for a site after an eight-month spring cleaning. Organic sessions increased from 8,598 in June 2018 to 30,927 in February 2019 – a 360% increase in organic traffic. Not bad, but what’s really staggering is that only five new posts were added to the site in this period.

How is this possible?

I’ll get there, but first let’s look at why the spring-cleaning strategy is effective.

Thin content and SEO

“Thin content” is a catch-all term that describes any useless content – pages with a sparse word count, duplicate content, doorway pages, ad-riddled pages, and blog posts or articles that lack readability and depth.

In the past, churning out content fell into the “can’t-hurt, might-help” category. Except it can hurt. Every followed page on your site pulls crawl bandwidth and link equity, both of which are finite resources. When those resources are diluted across useless pages instead of given to content that matters, site authority and organic rankings drop.

There’s also the SEO impact of poor usability to consider. If users repeatedly bounce after five seconds, Google decides the page isn’t delivering the experience the user wants or needs.

And if you have enough content that performs poorly, it can easily tip the scales and diminish Google’s trust in the site as a whole.

Bottom line, thin content is bad news for your site.

Thin content pages are bad news for your site, says @JonasSickler. #SEO Click To Tweet

Evaluating site content

To fix thin content issues on the site, we first ran a site crawl and looked at Google Analytics and Search Console metrics. We pulled the data into a spreadsheet to perform a more subjective analysis.

Each URL is labeled “improve,” “consolidate,” “remove,” or “leave.”

Then, we looked at the page title, page content, and queries bringing people to the page and identified each page’s target keyword(s). By determining this, we could measure the page content against the content currently ranking well for the keywords to see if it passes muster.

To remove or not to remove?

Thin content is often repetitive. That can make your spring cleaning easier because those instances of removal will be obvious.

When we decide to remove content, it most likely:

  • Targets irrelevant topics or keywords
  • Didn’t target a keyword and provides little value
  • Is outdated, like trend stories and old company news
  • Incorporates little-used or off-topic tags, categories, or author pages
  • Is extremely short or redundant content that doesn’t provide meaningful information
  • Consists of category pages with little to no content

Group pages by keywords (or topic) to get a feel for when the content repeats itself. Then consolidate the information on a single high-authority page or the highest-authority page in your bundle for that topic.

Consolidate repetitive but same-topic pages into a single high-authority page, says @JonasSickler. #SEO Click To Tweet

If a page’s content doesn’t pass muster, but it receives significant backlinks and/or traffic, keep the page and improve its content.

When you remove a page that has some SEO value but isn’t worth keeping, use a 301 redirect to its closest topical neighbor so visitors don’t dead-end at a 404 error page.

When you remove pages with no traffic or backlinks, you don’t need a redirect. Given that they have no authority to pass on, there’s almost no chance of a user ever ending up on those pages again.

Improve remaining old pages

With the low-value content removed, focus on the kept topics. Make sure each page targets a unique keyword, then optimize the on-page elements. To accomplish this, set a schedule for the time-intensive task of improvement.

Some actionable ways to improve page content include:

  • Revise content to satisfy the search intent for your keyword. Always answer the implicit question.
  • Add interesting stats or link to supporting content.
  • Remove unnecessary ads and CTAs.
  • Add helpful visuals but stay away from visual clutter.
  • Add videos, images and interactive content.
  • Fix broken links.

Don’t stop now

Any time you make a sweeping change like, say, removing 85% of your site’s content, continually monitor site activity to make sure there’s no unexpected damage.

In our example, the site’s new and improved content proved effective immediately, ranking in the top two for the head terms within days. Other pages moved up the rankings more slowly as Google took time to digest the changes depending on the type of content, the search intent and the previous page’s authority. But one way or another, the impact of your improvements should start to become evident.

TIP: Your spring cleanup is an ideal time to evaluate your SEO strategy. Investigate, for example, if search intent for high-value keywords has shifted. If so, publish content that reflects these changes.

Think of the spring cleanup benefits this way: When you drastically improve your content, Google begins to reward you with better rankings for long-tail keywords. As searchers discover and appreciate your content, your rankings will improve for broader, higher-volume keywords. In turn, even more people will see or link to your content, which should increase your rankings. We refer to this as the “SEO flywheel effect.”

The next time you’re faced with an onslaught of low-quality pages, work some spring cleaning into your strategy. Thin content hurts your SEO performance, but intelligent streamlining can help you transform your content into a massive increase in organic traffic.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Jonas Sickler

Jonas Sickler is the SEO manager for Terakeet, an enterprise SEO company serving the Fortune 1000 along with some of the most prominent disruptors in the market. Jonas writes about online reputation management, SEO, and marketing. His advice has been featured in more than 100 publications, including Forbes, CNBC, Marketo, Chief Marketer, U.S. News and Business News Daily. Follow him on Twitter @JonasSickler.

Other posts by Jonas Sickler

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