SEO and content marketing are full of myths and half-truths. One of the most well known is the demonization of duplicate content. If you have spent any time in digital marketing, this is a concept you have probably heard of. So, what is it and is it as bad as people say it is?
What is Duplicate Content in Digital Marketing?
According to Google, duplicate content is when large chunks of your text appear on more than one unique url. It could be content that appears word for word or is very similar. Usually this is done when you syndicate your content, use the same product description in multiple places, and on occasion, if someone plagiarizes your work.
Is Duplicate Content a Bad Thing?
Obviously, if someone steals your content that is unacceptable. However, the duplicate content we are referring to is not plagiarized content, but the majority of content that falls into this bucket – the product descriptions, posts on forums, and syndicated content.
So, is there a duplicate content penalty? No.
Google won’t penalize you for having similar content on multiple urls. The algorithm isn’t actively removing your content from search results because it is duplicate.
The issues with duplicate content
While your content isn’t actively demoted in search results, having duplicate content can complicate your SEO strategy.
One complication to your SEO strategy relates to content on your site competing against itself when it appears on a more well- known site. For example, if you publish your article on your own site and then publish it in its entirety on Medium or LinkedIn. Given the authority of those sites, your article at their url will outrank that same content appearing on your own site. If you use syndicated content as part of your marketing strategy you need to be sure you are doing it correctly (more on that later).
Another possible issue with duplicate content relates to backlinks. Backlinks have been shown to be an important ranking factor, but duplicate content can lead to diluted link power. If you have multiple pages with the same content, your backlinks will most likely be spread across pages and dilute the link power. Google will try to consolidate all of these signals and give preference to what it deems “the original content.” If you leave it up to Google to decipher which version is best, you may not have your preferred content version appearing highest in search results. Or, with the signals divided up between the different versions, you may find that none of your content ranks as highly as it could.
How to Use Duplicate Content Correctly
We’ve established that there isn’t a penalty for duplicate content, but it can cause ranking issues by the nature of how organic search and ranking works. However, there are some important things you can do to help mitigate issues.
Duplicate content on your site
Each page and post on your website should serve a specific purpose and hopefully help you avoid duplicate content. However, sometimes it is unavoidable. A few examples of common duplicate content on a single site:
- Web version and print version of a blog post or upgrade
- Products listed on several pages of a site with the same product description
- Service descriptions that appear on several pages
- URL structure issues such as letter casing and trailing slashes
You can avoid issues by redirecting old versions of your content to your new, preferred version. Use canonical tags in your html to signal to search engines which version is the original. Add nofollow tags to duplicate content (e.g. print versions) to ensure all search traffic is funneled to the version you want to be featured.
Duplicate content across several sites
Republishing on other sites
First, simply duplicating all of your existing content on another site is not a good content strategy. Strategically syndicating your content on other sites can be a great way to get in front of your target audience where they already are. It can also help build authority with prospects and Google. However, it can also cause problems for your own site ranking if not done properly.
Google will rank content based on what they think best matches the searcher’s intent. Let’s say your content meets the searcher’s needs, but is published on your site and on an industry site. Which will Google rank higher?
If the industry site is seen as authoritative on the topic and already gets more visitors than your site (which is often the case), the version of your content on the other site will rank higher than your own site’s version. However, if the site you are republishing on, Medium for example, offers canonical tagging, you can signal to search engines that the content is a copy of content that originates on this other url. Google will recognize that and give the credit to the original source. This does not mean that you eventually rank above the higher authority site, but it can help boost the authority of your site for related searches.
When choosing what sites to republish your content to, ensure they offer canonical tagging or will include a nofollow tag. And always link back to the original content on your own site.
A better way to pursue the use of higher authority sites is to create original content for that site so you aren’t competing with the exact same version on your own site. You could also create a shorter version of your original content and encourage people to head to your site for the full version or an upgrade.
Another common place you see duplicate content is with e-commerce product descriptions. If your product is listed on your site and then scraped for inclusion on another website (or vice versa), the same product description often appears on both.
There are several steps you can take to mitigate the issues related to duplicate product descriptions. First,you should take care to optimize the description for your audience. Next,add product reviews to build authority, give potential customers social proof, and keep the page fresh for crawlers.
Plagiarized content is the one form of duplicate content that is penalized. If someone is using your content without permission or without giving credit to the original author, Google wants to know about it. You should report this type of duplicate content to have it removed. In this case there is a penalty and the site runs the risk of being deindexed from search results.
When it comes to duplicate content Google algorithms are pretty smart, but it is always best to put in the work to ensure the bots don’t have to guess. Use the tools you have available to track duplicate content and appropriately tag it. Don’t be afraid to use duplicate content to your advantage to increase brand awareness and authority. However, be sure you are playing within the system and doing your due diligence on the backend. Before trying to add syndication or distribution to your content strategy be sure to evaluate your goals. If you are trying to grow an audience of interested prospects, you are better off creating content that lives only on your site and fosters potential customers where they are in their purchase journey.