June 22nd, 2017

Avoiding the Duplicate Content Penalty: SEO Best Practices

word cloud with duplicate content and other related SEO words

What is duplicate content, and should you be worried?

Duplicate content is an issue we regularly encounter when working with our clients to build a new website, improve the one they already own, or help build their content strategy. If you’ve ever worked with a web designer or content specialist, you’ve probably heard the term mentioned. More than likely, you’ve learned it’s something to avoid—possibly even fear. But the reality is that, while there are things you need to know and avoid, you probably have less to worry about that you might think.

So let’s take a moment to dig into the issue, understand how Google penalizes duplicate content, and look at steps you can take to ensure you follow SEO best content practices.

What is the duplicate content penalty?

Strictly speaking, Google doesn’t penalize duplicate content unless they suspect that someone is using it to manipulate rankings. Google knows how CMSs work, and understands the circumstances that lead to most duplicate content. This can happen when a CMS pulls blog posts into a category page, or when a paginated comments section duplicates the blog across each of the comments pages. It happens, and it’s not necessarily problematic. Google will see that this content all appears on the same domain and won’t penalize you for it.

However, if Google spots you engaging in behavior it deems malicious, it can deliver a pretty severe penalty. This includes anything Google thinks you’re doing to intentionally manipulate search results. This is the duplicate content penalty you need to avoid. So unless you’re copy/pasting someone else’s content wholesale and pretending it’s your own, you probably don’t have to worry about a penalty. However, that doesn’t mean your duplicate content concerns are over.

One Link to Rule Them All

Ideally, you want to sort out your duplicate content so that you don’t end up in a situation where your traffic is split between different pages. This can happen if a search engine can’t tell which page to direct traffic to, or if your inbound links to point to different pages. Your goal in resolving your duplicate content problem is to have one link be the authoritative source for your content. There are a few steps you can take to ensure this happens.

1. Don’t Duplicate Content

To start, don’t duplicate your own content or build your entire content strategy off duplicating someone else’s. An example of duplicating your own content could include using appreciably similar descriptions for related products on an ecommerce page, or intentionally reusing copy from one part of your site in another area without indicating which page is the original.

2. 301 Redirects

A 301 Redirect is like a change of address for your web page. It lets a search engine know that page content has permanently moved to a new location. This is key if you’ve change websites and need to make sure users get redirected to your new domain. But it’s also important in the case of duplicate copy if your domain can be reached via multiple addresses, such as example.com and www.example.com.

3. Canonical Tags

There are instances—as with a press release or syndicated blog—where the same content might appear across multiple URLs. Google usually doesn’t have any problems determining among these sources which source is the original. However, if you have legit reasons for publishing someone else’s content on your site, along with including a citation and link to the source, use canonical tags to point to the original version.

4. Be Consistent.

Make sure you’re consistent with your internal linking by always pointing to the canonical URL where relevant. If you have multiple people on your site managing your content, it may be useful to publish some guidelines about what the canonical link is.

5. Boilerplates

Many websites have a short piece of boilerplate copy which appears at the bottom of every page, where copyright information and contact info appear. This is also a spot where many businesses include a short line or two about their business—and that’s not a problem! However, that footer copy repeats across every one of your pages. Instead of putting a long piece of copy in your footer, keep it brief and link to a fuller description elsewhere on your site.

6. Thwart the Scrapers

Some websites are built on duplicate content. Scrapers might take entire blog posts and republish them on their sites with little more than a link back for attribution. If their entire site is nothing but republished content from other people, Google will probably notice and they won’t get much traction out of it. You probably only need to worry if they begin to outrank you, in which case you can report them to Google.

However, you can also include canonical tags in your blog post to thwart scrapers from the outset. Some will spot and remove the code, but many others will leave it be. This is also an important reason to create good internal linking structure: if your blog post links to other posts on your site, there’s a good chance the scraper will copy those links along with the rest of the blog. This might bring you some additional traffic, and it will help Google determine the source of the post.

For the most part, duplicate won’t hurt you. But it won’t help you, either.

Google’s own page on duplicate content claims to be pretty good at determining which version is the most relevant to searchers. This means that it’s unlikely you’ll intentionally damage your website if you have a duplicate content issue. The real issue is that it won’t do anything to help your site, either.

If you want your content to have a positive impact on your rankings, focus on creating high-quality content first. Keep it original, and publish regularly. Google rewards originality and added value above most other attributes, so focus on delivering the best content to your customers and you’ll be ahead of the game.

Need help with your content strategy? We’re happy to help. Contact us to get started.

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