SEO and the Duplicate Content “Problem”

By Peter Kent

Should you syndicate your content to other websites and e-mail newsletters? The basic concept? You write something (something interesting or useful or entertaining, theoretically) and then provide the information to other website owners so that they can post it on their site. In return, you get links from the article back to your site.

Some site owners use this form of syndication as the only type of promotion they do — and it can sometimes work well. They write articles and distribute them as widely as possible. But many sites already have a lot of content. Why not give it away and use it as a technique to grab more search engine positions, generate links to your site, and brand your site and company?

One oft-cited reason for not doing just that? The duplicate-content issue. There’s a lot of talk in the SEO world about duplicate content, and much is quite simply wrong. There seems to be a general feeling that duplicate content is “bad,” and that having duplicate content on your site will get your site “penalized.”

There are two types of duplicate content:

  • Content duplicated within your own site; multiple copies of the same page, for example.

    This a problem, though it’s unlikely to get your site penalized. What’s more likely to happen is that a search engine may ignore most of the pages and just pick one as the “primary” copy.

  • Content duplicated across multiple sites; the same article syndicated across the web, for example.

    The idea that content duplicated across multiple websites can get a site penalized, thrown out of the Google index even, clearly is nonsense. There are many good reasons for content appearing on multiple sites, as Google is well aware. In the words of one Google article on duplicate content, “This article describes how you can use canonical URLs to improve link and ranking signals for content available through multiple URL structures or via syndication.

    In the world of content management and online shopping systems, it’s common for the same content to be accessed through multiple URLs. With content syndication, it’s also easy for content to be distributed to different URLs and domains entirely.”

Google isn’t saying you shouldn’t syndicate content, it’s just saying that they’d like you to use “canonical URLs” to manage duplicate content. They quite clearly accept content syndication as acceptable; they would just like for you to help them along a little.

The “canonical URL” tells the search engines the “preferred URL” for the content. For example, if you add this to a page within the <head> section

<link rel=“canonical” href=“https://www.yourdomain.com/rodent-racing/rats -to-watch-in-2015.html” />

the search engines will assume that the “preferred URL” for this content is the page specified in that tag, regardless of where it found this particular page.

Do you have to use a canonical URL? Will you be “punished” if you don’t? Know that, as Google says, “While we encourage you to use any of these methods, none of them are required. If you don’t indicate a canonical URL, we’ll identify what we think is the best version or URL.” In fact, even if you use the canonical URL, Google states that it might not use the URL.

So, the first thing you should remember is that you shouldn’t fear duplicate content. It’s not the huge danger often claimed (although within a site it can be a real problem; this certainly does not mean it’s okay to have a thousand pages with the same content except for switching out a state or city name here and there). The web is full of duplicated content: press releases, news feeds, and yes, syndicated content. Plenty of websites do just fine.

In fact, here’s a great example: AP, the Associated Press. They distribute, among many other forms of content, “thousands of stories in text each day.” These articles end up on thousands of websites. When a particular quote in one AP story was searched for, the article was found in 1,300 websites, including sites owned by The New York Times, ABC News, Yahoo! News, The Washington Post, and the Daily Mail.

Were those pages using the canonical URL? Yes, but not to point back to AP.org, but to point to the primary location for the article in their own websites!

How badly has syndicating content hurt the Associated Press? Well, it certainly doesn’t seem to be hurting with Google. Google still indexes AP.org (more than 13 million pages when at the time it was searched for); it has a PageRank of 9 (admittedly an out-of-date measurement), and Google News accepts AP articles distributed by hundreds of different news sources.

So content marketing — syndicated content, as it used to be widely known — can be used without harming you.

However, the second point you should consider is that even if you are worried about syndicated content, you don’t have to have the same article you have on your own site distributed widely. The article can be modified in various ways to make it different. It’s much easier to modify an existing article than write a new one. You can take an existing article, add a few things, remove a few things, change titles and subheadings, modify a few paragraphs here and there … and you have a new article.

By the way, another huge advantage to using syndication is that the links you get back to your site are from relevant sites. Remember, the search engines like relevant. If you write articles about rodent racing and get them posted on other sites, what are those other sites likely to be about? Quite likely, rodent racing.