Is duplicate content really affecting your SEO?

As many people will know, a lot of what is considered to be good SEO practice is speculation. It’s credible, but it’s not concrete – which is why a Q&A with one of Google’s Webmaster Trends Analysts, John Mueller, is a rare bit of insight into how the search engine operates and we jumped straight on it.

This particular Google Hangout was a discussion about duplicate content, and Mueller was taking questions directly from participants on the chat, and from social media followers. Duplicate content is typically something we advise against; at Nettl of Gloucester, we believe that creating unique content for each page of your website is the best way forward, and that duplicating content from other pages on web can be harmful to your search ranking. To an extent this is still correct, although it could be more nuanced – as we found after listening to Mueller.

We actually found that there is no penalty for duplicate content. Without context, this statement sounds absurd. It’s only when Mueller made the distinction between content duplication and content scraping that it started to make more sense.

What is ‘content scraping’?

This is the practice of misappropriating someone else’s website content. We witnessed an instance of it recently, when a client of ours found that their entire website – structural elements, as well as written content – had been ‘scraped’, and all they had done was change the colours and insert their own branding. On this occasion Google had not picked up on it, but they swiftly acted once it was reported; once a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) report had been filed by the client, it was pending for a day before Google removed the website from search. The offending website then proceeded to remove the website after they had been contacted by our client.

These blatant abuses of others’ content should be avoided.

What about product descriptions on ecommerce websites?

This is a question I had in my mind before watching the Hangout – what about mass-produced products that are sold by multiple online merchants? Surely you shouldn’t have to go through each item and tweak the descriptions in order to avoid penalties? And that’s exactly right – you will not get in trouble at all.

Mueller also suggested that, in this scenario, if a searcher is looking for a particular product, then soon the distance of a reseller will be a factor in how high up their website displays in the rankings.

What happens if I have duplicate content on multiple pages on my own website?

Nothing in terms of penalties. If Google’s crawlers recognises that there is duplicate content on your own website, it will ignore it; they only index one copy of a page and do not register the other page(s). If your circumstances mean that it is difficult to avoid duplicate content on multiple pages, you can take steps to ensure that your pages are more efficiently managed. These include:

301 Redirects (set this up for your duplicate pages, and have it pointing to your preferred page)
Rel=”canonical” (performs a similar job to a 301 redirect, except it’s less time-consuming)
noindex, follow (allows Google’s bots to crawl links, but will omit a particular page from the search results)
– Make use of geotargeting (delivering unique content to a user based on their location) and hreflang (gives Google an indication of the language of the content)

If you are not making it clear to Google which page(s) you want to be seen in the search results, it can also make it harder for you to track metrics – particular if Google is choosing to display your least preferred page.