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We have identified a large number of pages on our e-commerce site which we are sure will be considered thin content. These pages are categories of products which have "0 products" in them. The issue we have is that these categories are populated by users listing their own products meaning a category can be full of good listings (and content) one week and completely empty the next.

We have a couple of ideas and would really appreciate any advice on the best solution from an SEO/UX perspective. Our current plan is:

  • 404 any categories which have not had any listings for X amount of time (remove them permanently from the site)
  • Hide categories from nav on the site when they have no listings present and noindex these pages to avoid any thin content being crawled.
  • Users would still be able to add content to these categories when they add new products.
  • Remove the noindex tag when an empty category has new listings added.

Questions we have on this are:

  • Can a large scale 404 (to the scope of ~3000 pages) cause SEO issues?
  • Can a noindex tag being switched on and off repeatedly cause SEO issues?

Any help would be much appreciated especially as I am a bit of a newbie on webmasters stack exchange.

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Short answer. Having thin content will hurt you even with enough pages that are not thin. However, Google at least understands that this happens for some sites such as e-commerce and is a bit more forgiving generally. So just a few pages here and there will not hurt, however, it would be better that all pages that Google indexes should be quality or at least base-line quality.

It would be best to noindex any page that is thin or empty that may be repopulated or is empty recently. If any page is empty for a reasonable period, then I would go ahead and delete it. I would make this reasonable period of time long enough to allow search engines to see the noindex generally. It may not be possible 100% of the time- I would not worry about that. Just pick a good period of time. Because you noindex'ed the page previously, there is no cost deleting the page after a reasonable period of time. In fact, there is no cost issuing a 404 for any page. This is normal business.

Google does prefer that a page 404 if it does not exist. As well, Google prefers noindex for pages that are of low quality. The reason for this is because they want the SERPs to be populated with quality results. If you can help Google, it is well appreciated. There is no SEO cost using noindex and/or 404. These are things Google likes and gently encourages.

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  • Thanks for the help, it is much appreciated. Sometimes you just need a bit of reassurance that what you are planning to do isn't SEO suicide! Thanks again. – tkf247 Aug 6 '15 at 11:39
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A 404 code is generally good when pages are meant to be unavailable, but if you need to permanently have a page unavailable (aka gone for good), you need to use the 410 error code which means GONE.

When google comes across pages with status 404, it will retry scanning the page later at some point because it means the page is not found. When google comes across pages with status 410, google will drop the page from its SERPs and may never attempt to scan it again unless you advertise it to google via a link or through a sitemap.

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