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Keep Calm and Be Original: How Duplicate Content Affects Your SEO

Keep Calm and Be Original: How Duplicate Content Affects Your SEO

by Jessica Jones

You may have heard the term “duplicate content penalty” in reference to Google’s algorithms, but are you clear on exactly what it means? If not, you’re not alone – there is a lot of confusion and speculation about exactly what Google considers “duplicate content” and how it handles this content when it finds it. You may see some sources claiming that the duplicate content penalty doesn’t exist, and most will cite Google’s own statement about the term, wherein yes, they do in fact say “There’s no such thing as a ‘duplicate content penalty.'” It is important to note, however, that they follow that statement up immediately with “At least, not in the way most people mean when they say that.”

Duplicate rainbows? Awesome! Duplicate content? Not so much. What does it mean??!!??
Duplicate rainbows? Awesome! Duplicate content? Not so much. What does it mean??!!??

Yes, Google’s algorithms do detect duplicate content, according to Google’s support article on the topic. What happens when they detect it? Only Google could answer that for certain. Google never gives away all of its secrets, and when they choose to be vague they are uniquely skilled at frustrating the SEO world. Based on my research, however, the message that I’m perfectly confident in passing on is simple: originality, originality, originality!

If you start researching the issue of duplicate content, you’re going to find a lot of information, commentary, questions and speculations that are somewhat technical in nature – web developers trying to suss out the nitty gritty details about how Google handles issues like session ids, comment pagination and canonical links. While I may revisit and break down some of these subjects at a later time, right now we’re going to stick to a fairly straightforward issue: the actual page content.

Fully Authorized Duplicate Content is Still Duplicate Content

Early this year I talked about copyright infringement and how important it is to not use content that you don’t have permission to use. I’ve seen well meaning clients copy the content of other sites’ articles onto their own blogs, thinking that it’s okay as long as they provide attribution and/or a link back to the original article. That’s a misconception. While some authors might not mind and others may not notice or bother to take action, it would still be within their rights to ask that that article be taken down, and they could potentially have grounds to take legal action. Even with attribution, you do not have the right to use someone else’s content without express permission. That’s an important thing to know – the other important thing to know is that using content that’s not original isn’t likely to benefit your SEO anyway – even if you do have permission to use it.

Let me give you an example. A client sent me a large quantity of well-written, informative articles to post as resources on his website. The articles had been provided to him by an association that he is a member of, and he had full authorization to use the material on his website. There would have been absolutely no ethical wrongdoing in posting the articles on his site – and they were a great source of informative content, and very naturally filled with keywords relevant to his business. Great, right?

The problem here is that in his industry, a great deal of businesses are members of that same association – and many of those businesses have posted those same articles on their sites. A quick Google search for some of the material led me to page after page of identical content. I found all of these pages because I was searching for an exact passage, within quotation marks, from the material, but if I had simply searched for several applicable keywords Google wouldn’t have shown me so many pages with the same content. Why? Because Google values original content.

Google doesn’t want a user to search for several keywords and get a page of results that are basically all the same – it doesn’t make for a good user experience. Users want choices, variety, options – not the same thing over and over. Therefore, when Google detects that multiple pages have the exact same content, they will likely only show a user one of those pages at a time, and it’s up to their algorithms to determine which of the similar pages is the best choice to show.

So if I had put all of that material on his site, would Google have shunned his entire site? No, probably not. But it’s also unlikely that he would have gained any benefit from it, because his pages with that material would have been competing directly with other sites using the same material, and Google only wants to present that material once. So when Google says there isn’t a “duplicate content penalty,” it is probably true that they wouldn’t have actually penalized his site for using the material, but the use of that material would’ve put him into a competition that he wasn’t likely to win.

Originality isn’t Easy, But it’s Worthwhile

Maybe you’re in a similar situation – you’ve been provided with material from an industry organization, and using that material would be so much easier than generating your own. That material could prove very useful as a starting point, but unless you do something to differentiate yourself from other sites using that same content, you might find that your rankings aren’t what you’d hope.

Maybe you’ve been given permission to reproduce an incredible article from a reputable source. If you simply want to post the article for its own sake, it isn’t likely to cause any harm, but don’t expect that you’ll see an SEO benefit. Google is much more likely to show a user the material’s original source, and the more other sites that post that article, the lower your chances are for turning up in that search.

Generating original content for your site takes effort, and paying someone to generate that content for you can be pricey. When material is given to you for free, or at a very low price, it’s understandable that you’d want to make use of it. Hopefully now you’ve got a better idea of why you should resist that temptation. Content is king, but in order to get the results you’re looking for, that content should be original. Having a site with a smaller amount of quality, original content is going to do better for you than having a site that’s stuffed to the brim with duplicate content.