Duplicate content can be a source of frustration for site owners, regardless of their chosen industry. It can crop up in a number of ways, not all of which might seem obvious. For instance, did you know that Google treats URLs with a trailing slash vs. no slash as two different URLs? Did you also know that Google prefers one URL type over the other? Lots of people don’t, and examples like this only add to the confusion about what constitutes “duplicate content” and what doesn’t. At the same time, reading more about duplicate content gives the impression that it’s a huge problem just waiting to cause issues for everyone. Fortunately, this isn’t true, and Google’s Matt Cutts has stated that roughly 25-30% of all web content is actually duplicate content.
That being said, duplicate content can still cause issues for online businesses (especially those in eCommerce) who are looking to optimize their marketing and SEO efforts. In this article, we’ll dive more into what duplicate content is, what you can do to avoid it, and how you can fix duplicate content on your website.
From a narrow perspective, duplicate content refers to content that’s exactly the same or at least very similar to content found on your website or other sites throughout the web. Most of the time, this isn’t intentional or malicious. A well-crafted blog post gets updated or rewritten, but not enough is changed. Alternatively, a company story or product description comes out so well that you’re tempted to use it in more than one place.
No matter the circumstances, duplicate content can happen in a variety of ways, some of which are clearer than others. For instance, if our agency were to repost this blog word-for-word on our website, that would be an example of duplicate content. The same would be true if we were to republish it elsewhere.
From a broader perspective, duplicate content can also refer to content that adds little to no value to your visitors. If there’s no useful information to be found in the content once they click on your page, their user experience suffers. Ultimately, this can lead to search ranking penalties for the website hosting said “content,” as user experience is a known Google ranking factor.
Duplicate content matters for a number of reasons, but the easiest way to explain it is to break down why it matters for search engines and site owners separately:
Search engines, like Google, index a lot of content, and they do this pretty often. When there are multiple versions of content that appear too similar to one another, search engines can get confused as to which piece of content they should include or exclude when indexing. Additionally, there are other link metrics to consider, such as authoritativeness of your links, how trustworthy they are, and whether your anchor text or link equity should be directed to one page or split between multiple. Lastly, search engines need to know which versions to rank for relevant query results.
Duplicate content is also an issue for site owners, as the presence of duplicate content can have negative effects on your search rankings and overall traffic. This is because like other search engines, Google tries very hard to only index and show pages with distinct information. They don’t want to show multiple versions of the same content, so they’re forced to try and choose which version will provide the best result and user experience for the person clicking on it. As a result, the visibility of every single one of those duplicates is diluted.
If that weren’t enough, link equity can be further diluted when other websites have to choose which version of the content is the “correct” one as well. Instead of all links pointing to one single piece of content, those links get spread between multiple versions, thus exacerbating the problem.
As highlighted above, most duplicate content issues aren’t a result of someone maliciously or intentionally pasting the same content word-for-word onto multiple pages or websites. While that can sometimes occur, duplicate content often occurs as a result of the following:
Most websites are accessible via any of the following URL variations:
If each version is hosting the same content, you’ve effectively created duplicate versions of each of those pages. Here, it’s important to note that Google tends to prefer HTTPS URLs over HTTP URLs, preferring nicer-looking URLs as well.
Things can also get tricky if your URLs have variations in case, such as the following:
Because Google sees URLs as case-sensitive, a variation here can lead to duplicate content issues if each URL is hosting the same content.
It should also be noted that Google treats URLs with trailing slashes and non-trailing slashes as unique URLs. For our own website, this might be represented by the following:
If our content was available at both URLs, this would lead to duplicate content issues. Ideally, we’d want only one version to load, with the other version redirecting. Since Google prefers this approach as well, this helps our site to stay within Google’s general guidelines for site optimization.
Whether you run an eCommerce business selling a product or a lead-based business offering a service, your website is full of multiple types of content. Additionally, it’s not uncommon for that content to be scraped or copied by other website owners hoping to boost their own search rankings, especially if your website is seen as more reputable. While this is done either manually or via automated bots, it can lead to duplicate content issues, as the same content is now live on multiple websites.
Pro Tip: If you want to safeguard yourself from content scraping, you can add a self-referential rel=canonical link to your existing pages. This tag points to the URL the page is already on, thus creating a self-canonical page. Adding this tag tells search engines that the current page (yours) is the original piece of content.
Anyone who runs an eCommerce business knows how much work it takes to write out unique product descriptions for every item they’re selling. It’s a draining and time-consuming process, leading many eCommerce businesses to look for the quickest way to get their products online and in front of customers.
Often, this means using the same product description provided by a manufacturer across multiple pages. While this might seem logical, you have to account for other retailers of these products doing the same thing. Thus, if your goal is to rank for a specific product and keyword associated with it, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Google doesn’t want to show multiple versions of the same content (i.e. your product description), so they’re going to choose what they believe is the “best” version of that content to rank. This might not necessarily be yours, and that’s a problem.
Another common cause of duplicate content is the presence of URL parameters for different products, namely items that might have different sizes or colors. To give an example, let’s suppose a retailer of baby clothing is adjusting their digital marketing efforts and decides to make a few product pages for some of their baby t-shirts.
If everything gets set up correctly, every size and color of their t-shirts will be on the same URL, with each product having its own unique description. However, it’s not uncommon for sites to create different URLs for every version of a product, using the same description for each of them. If this occurs for different colors of the same baby t-shirt, this can result in hundreds or even thousands of duplicate product pages. Yikes!
Fixing duplicate content is actually not as difficult as it may seem, and doing so comes down to ensuring Google has what it needs to index the correct version of your content. Here are some of the easiest ways you can fix duplicate content:
Often, one of the best ways to combat duplicate content issues is to set up a 301 redirect, aka a permanent redirect from one URL to another. Written as an HTTP status code, it ensures all users who request an old URL (or, in this case, duplicate content) will instead be sent to the new one, like mail being forwarded to the correct address. If implemented properly, this can help boost the relevancy of the content on the original page, positively impacting its rankings as well.
Another SEO-friendly way to deal with duplicate content is to use canonical tags. Represented in HTML as rel=”canonical”, canonicalization is important because it tells Google and other search engines which page or URL to focus on for crawling and indexing, even if you have similar or marginally different content on multiple pages. In other words, it flashes a big, glowing sign to Google that says, “Hey! These are all important URLs, but this one is the most important.”
Another thing to consider in dealing with duplicate content is to use the meta robots noindex tag. Like the “rel=canonical” tag highlighted above, the robots meta, no follow tag is a snippet of code you can add into the HTML head of the page that you want to exclude from search engine indices. By adding the code “content=noindex, follow”, you tell Google to crawl the links on the page, but you prevent them from indexing those links.
Another tip for avoiding duplicate content issues is to be consistent with your link building strategy, aka maintaining consistency if you’re using any of the following URL variations:
In other words, if you have one internal link that uses a trailing slash but a second link to the page that doesn’t, you’ll inevitably create a duplicate content issue for that page.
At the end of the day, by understanding what duplicate content is and how it can affect your SEO strategy, you’ll be in a much better place to fix problems should they arise. Ultimately, this can aid you in building a stronger website for your business, with rich, unique content to help your brand climb higher up the ranks of organic SERPs.
Should you need some extra tips on improving your online marketing strategy, the content and web development experts at VELOX Media would be happy to help! As a Google Premier Partner with over 13 years of experience in SEO, link building, content marketing, and more, our team has worked to drive needle-moving revenue for B2C and B2B brands across multiple competitive industries. Learn more about what VELOX Media can do for your online business today!