How Duplicate Content Drags Down Your Rankings
When you hear the phrase “duplicate content” in a discussion on SEO for the first time, you know it can’t be anything good. You know plagiarism is universally bad, and even if it wasn’t, users wouldn’t want to read the same content twice. It seems obvious that Google would penalize duplicate content, and they do.
But here’s the trap most newcomers fall into: “duplicate content” doesn’t only refer to plagiarized or directly copied material, and unless you’ve done a recent onsite audit, it’s actually quite likely that you have some kind of duplicate content on your site. This article will help you understand what types of content Google views as “duplicate,” what the risks and penalties are, and how to prevent duplicate content from dragging down your ranks.
Traditional “Duplicate Content”
Traditional duplicate content is the type of content that comes to mind intuitively when you hear the phrase. It is content identical to, or highly similar to, content that exists elsewhere on the web (usually on your own site). There are a handful of reasons a site would intentionally duplicate this content:
- Reproducing old content to make your site appear more updated.
- Copying material over and over again to add more pages to your site.
- Plagiarizing material to pass off as your own.
All of these situations are deceitful, sometimes to users and sometimes to Google, and for the most part, webmasters know to stay far away from these practices. If you engage in them, you probably deserve a penalty.
Sneaky Duplicate Content
I call it “sneaky” duplicate content because of how easily it can sneak up on you. You have no intention of creating duplicate pages, but they can happen anyway. Usually, this is due to a technical hiccup or an unwitting reproduction; for example:
- If you have two versions of your website for http:// and https://, Google may index both versions of each page separately, then mark those pages as instances of duplicate content.
- If you have a “printer friendly” version of a web page, it will display as a separate URL with the same content.
- Full and mobile-modified forms of web pages, like forum sections.
Unfortunately, most of these instances can arise naturally as you build and modify your website, unless you’ve specifically taken preventative action to stop it.
How Google Penalizes Duplicate Content
Google is fairly open about its duplicate content policies. According to their reports, if Google encounters two different versions of the same web page, or content that is appreciably similar to onsite content elsewhere, it will randomly select a “canonical” version to index. The example they give is this: imagine you have a standard web page and a printer-friendly version of that same web page, complete with identical content. Google would pick one of these pages at random to index, and completely ignore the other version. This doesn’t imply anything about suffering a penalty, but it’s in your best interest to make sure Google is properly indexing and organizing your site.
The real trouble comes in when Google suspects your content of being maliciously or manipulatively duplicated. Basically, if Google thinks your duplicated content was an effort to fool their ranking algorithm, you’ll face punitive action. It’s in your best interest to clear up any errors well in advance to prevent such a fate for your site.
How to Find and Clean Up Duplicate Content
Fortunately, Google also makes it easy for you to find and correct duplicate content on your site. When you log into Google Webmaster Tools, head to “Search Appearance,” and then “HTML Improvements.” This will allow you to generate a list of any pages that Google detects as being duplicated. Once you have this list, you can begin eliminating the duplicate errors one by one with any of the following methods:
- Eliminate one of the versions of the duplicated page, or modify it so it reads as a unique entry. This is the simplest but potentially the most time-consuming option, depending on how intensive your rewriting process is.
- Create 301 redirects to forward both user and web crawler traffic to the appropriate version of the URL. This is especially handy for http:// and https:// confusion.
- Use canonicalization tags to tell Google what to index and what to ignore. This will help you direct Google’s random index selection process to be in your favor.
- Use the Search Console to tell Google how to crawl your site. There are a number of options here that can help you focus and inform Google’s web crawlers.
It’s also worth noting that title tags and meta descriptions can also suffer from being duplicated. It might be tempting to replicate portions of your meta data to save time, but it’s far better for you to write unique versions for every page. You can find duplicated instances of meta data in Webmaster Tools as well.
Let’s do a brief recap. “Duplicate content” can refer to plagiarized material, copied content for the purposes of site inflation, but more importantly for the average user, pages that Google indexes twice. These duplicate forms of content are easy to track down with Google Webmaster Tools and fix with canonicalization adjustments or redirects, but if they go unnoticed, they can cumulatively bring your rankings down. Be proactive and scout for duplicate content at least once every few months—unless your site management process is flawless, it’s probably that duplicate content will surface when you least expect it.
Want more information on content marketing? Head over to our comprehensive guide on content marketing here: The All-in-One Guide to Planning and Launching a Content Marketing Strategy.
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