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July 16, 2008

Duplicate Content and What You Should Know

Is duplicate content penalty a myth or a reality?  Well I would say that it’s a bit of both.  Many folk have been terrorised into paranoia over duplicate content, but here are the facts.

“Duplicate content is bad.”

Okay, so I said it.  But please note that I didn’t say that it’s evil or that your web pages are certainly heading to supplemental hell.  But duplicate content can be bad for the following reasons.

  1. Multiple copies of the same content are not useful to the internet as a whole
  2. Multiple copies of the same content on your website could dilute your “link juice”
  3. Multiple copies of the same content can hamper effective indexing of your website.
  4. Multiple copies of the same content will confuse the search engines as to which copy may be the original.

Multiple copies are not useful to the internet.  Okay so we often turn on the TV only to find that while there are over 100 channels on offer there’s still nothing on.  But imagine if out of the 100 channels there were only really 8 to choose from, the others were simply showing the same thing as on the others.  Duplicate content works in the same way.  It serves us the same content on all the channels.  The search engines quickly realised that good content ranks but that the same content shouldn’t fill all choices.  This is the real penalty of duplicate content.  The same content shouldn’t rank over and over because if it doesn’t meet the searcher’s needs then they wouldn’t have another option.

From the average webmaster’s point of view I would say that point 2 is the most important.  Can you imagine having 3 or 4 pages all with great content, but the same content, being indexed and linked to from related websites?  Sounds great, but if it is the same content then you have effectively shared the full linking power of that content over multiple pages.  So in this case instead of having one page showing up on the first page of the search results, you now have 2 on the second.  I know which scenario I would prefer.  The other side of the coin is with dynamic URLs you may find that several different dynamic formulas may take you to the same product page.  Again this could be seen as duplicate content by the search engines and with this may come the uncertainty as to which one to rank.  Quite often this will result in the relegation of both of those URLs to a lower rank.  Although I have a sneaky suspicion that the search engines are catching onto the dynamic URL problem and now will rank one page from a website and simply ignore the others.

Should you have multiple versions of the same content on your website as can often be the case of dynamic URLs then this may prevent the search engines from indexing your whole website.  Imagine once again you are searching through the TV channels and the first 10 are all the same, you may continue searching and reach channel 20.  If by this time you’re still searching then you must be really bored.  The Bots don’t have time to get bored, if it reaches page 10 and all the content seems the same it will assume that the rest aren’t worth indexing.  This could be a problem.  Added to this if it deems none of your pages worth indexing you could face a massive uphill battle to have your pages indexed, never mind ranking highly.

Originality is a difficult one because with no way of being able to certify that you were the first to post the content the search engines rely on the speed with which it was indexed.  Indexing of websites takes place at different rates.  Blogs generally are crawled and indexed a lot more frequently than a website that shows updates once a month on average.  In this case if you had added great quality content to your website only to have a blogger scrape it, you might lose the full benefit of this content as the blog may be indexed and be recognised as having first published it.  While this is an extreme example it is a good reason to regularly update your website to keep the search bots coming back regularly.

As you can see from the points above there is no definite penalty for duplicate content.  But for reasons that make good logical sense many times these pages simply don’t cut it at the highest level.  The question you should always be asking is, “will this benefit my visitors?” or even, “Will this impact negatively on my visitors?”  The answer to that question should quickly send you in the right direction and keep you from possible pitfalls.

Robert Cerff is a search engine analyst and marketing consultant for Prop Data Internet Solutions. He has ten years experience in e-commerce, online marketing and web development.