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 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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.