Duplicate Content & SEO Best Practices

Duplicate content is exactly what it sounds like — content (usually text) on one site that identically matches the content on another site or page. Duplicate content can be damaging to a website's SEO.

What’s Considered Duplicate Content and How You Can Avoid It?

Website owners should be vigilant in minimizing duplicate content, as it can negatively impact the amount of trust your site receives from search engines and significantly hinder your SEO efforts. This means understanding the effects of duplicate content, knowing how to fix the issues, and taking measures to avoid these problems going forward for a properly optimized website.

What Is Duplicate Content?

On the surface, duplicate content sounds fairly straightforward — content (usually text) on one site that identically matches the content on another site. However, there are several ways — unintentionally or not — duplicate content can exist on a website. Depending on the volume of duplicate content on your website, and whether it is deliberate or not (to manipulate search engine results), Google may take action — which may involve deindexing repetitive pages. 

It is important to keep in mind that not all replicated content is considered duplicate content. According to Google’s Search Console Help, "duplicate content generally refers to substantive blocks of content within or across domains that either completely match other content or are applicably similar." However, if you have a website where you deemed it necessary to have a repeating segment of content that is fixed in place — such as a footer, widget, or contact region — it is typically acceptable. Where a site may get in trouble is having large volumes of exact match (or close) content placed on several pages deliberately to manipulate search engine rankings.

Effects of Duplicate Content on SEO

Duplicate content presents problems for both search engines and site owners. In many cases, when you replicate content you are standing in the way of your own SEO efforts. Duplicating content can have consequences in the following ways: 

  • Site Owners: When webmasters create multiple versions of the exact same content, they are pushing search engines to choose between two or more pages in an attempt to figure out which one will be the best result and provide the superior search experience. This flip-flopping between pages only diminishes the visibility of all of them. 

Additionally, inbound links to one page will hold more link equity than being spread out among several pages (duplicates). Links, of course, are a ranking factor, and visibility could be further impacted — making all pages rank more poorly. Site owners should conduct a regular audit of their site for penalty recovery, traffic loss diagnosis, website migration, and more. 

  • Search Engines: The reason search engines have trouble with most duplicate content is because they have a tough time deciding which page to index and which page to throw out. This indecision can only result in multiple low-value positions in the SERPS, as opposed to one high-ranking result for appropriate queries — and that it’s if it produces results at all. Duplicate content, when employed maliciously and irresponsibly, may result in Google deindexing your pages. 

What Causes Duplicate Content Issues?

As formerly mentioned, there are several ways duplicate content may pop up on your site, and fixing the problem will depend on how the content is replicated. The following are some common ways content can be duplicated, and webmasters should check in on their pages to minimize their chances of a decline in the search engine results pages:

  • URL Variation and Prefixes: Analytics code, click tracking, and session IDs can create alternate versions of URLs — creating a variety of pages with the same content. Site owners adding URL parameters should be aware that it may unintentionally create duplicate content. 

Analytics code, click tracking, session IDs, and printer-friendly versions of content can create alternate versions of URLs — creating a variety of pages with the same content. Site owners adding URL parameters should be aware that it may unintentionally create duplicate content.

  • Pragnation: Pragnation refers to the process of creating a printer-friendly version of your digital content. This process creates two pages of the exact same content, which may lead to duplication penalizations.
  • Spun and “Thin” Content: Perhaps the only blatantly intentional way to duplicate content on this list is by producing spun and thin content. Spun content duplicates a prewritten article while only slightly altering it. This process naturally can be considered duplicate content. This, in turn, produces multiple pages of thin content of essentially the same information.

Thin content provides no added value, is typically generated, and may even be scraped. Webmasters will also need to look out for the original content of their site being scraped, therefore creating multiple iterations of the content across several webpages.

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Is There an SEO Penalty For Duplicate Content On Your Site?

In a word, no, there are no automatic duplicate content penalties. However, there are manual penalties that may be applied to sites that are caught scraping content and republishing it with no added value — essentially, having the same content as another site, without proper attributions. 

The Google Panda algorithm puts an emphasis on correcting thin pages that have little to no value, are low-quality, and elicit poor user satisfaction. While you may not be penalized by Panda, the algorithm will take action to limit the visibility of redundant or other low-value pages, and this may mean that duplicates may be excluded from indexing and SERPs as a result.

How to Fix Duplicate Content Issues

If you have found that your site has duplicate content issues there are several adjustments you can make. First, identify which duplicate you would like indexed and displayed in the SERPS and consider the following: 

  • Check For Duplicate Content on Your Website: To determine duplicates quickly and efficiently, there are many SEO tools and plagiarism finders to tell you which pages have been replicated. 
  • 301 Redirect: Initiating a 301 redirect from your alternative pages to the original one can cease all the pages competing with each other and increase link equity and overall ranking.
  • Canonical Tag: The Rel=”canonical” designation on replicated pages signals to search engines that all duplicates should be treated as a copy. The canonical attribute essentially gives credit to a specific URL and shows that all metrics and ranking power should go to the original page. 
  • Meta Robots Noindex: If Google has trouble indexing duplicate pages, add this meta-tag — "noindex, follow" — to all alternative pages. This will signal to search engine crawlers that these pages should be crawled, but not indexed. It is important the search engine is still able to crawl these pages, but they will recognize that you would like for them not to be indexed.
  • Preferred Domain and Parameter Handling: If you have noticed your site spans across multiple URLs ("www.mysite.com" vs. "mysite.com" or http:// vs. https://), you may want to visit the Google Search Console to specify URL parameters for Google bots to crawl. Here, you can set up a preferred domain and/or certain parameters to crawl.

Avoiding Duplicate Content For the Future

Even if you have rectified your duplicate content issues, you are not out of the woods just yet. Webmasters will need to stay alert and make sure replicants don't happen again. In many cases duplicated content is unintentional, but now that you know how pages are duplicated, you can stay ahead of the headaches by following a few rules:

  • Be consistent in your internal linking: Especially if you have established the canonical version of your URL, make sure all internal links point to that URL (instead of the duplicate site or page). It may help to receive some link building training to not only understand how to build proper links, but to know of penalty recovery and link removal techniques (in the case of duplicates).
  • Syndicate cautiously: It is especially important when re-publishing content on other websites that you established the canonical version of your URL and ensure all internal links point to that URL (instead of the duplicate site or page).  
  • Understand your content management system: In several cases, it may be your CMS that has created duplicate content on your site. Familiarize yourself with your preferred CMS to ensure this does not happen.
  • Minimize similar content: Pages similar in nature, and especially containing much of the same information, should either be consolidated or each page should be further expanded upon. Additionally, too much focus on keyword density or an effort to really drive home important target keywords can lead to multiple pages covering the exact same topic while failing to satisfy different searches. 

When multiple pages serve the same purpose for the same audience, you are effectively competing with yourself — Google will usually pick what it considers the "better" page and choose not display the other. Consider carefully crafted keyword-focused content creation to fulfill your targeted keyword needs in one page and to avoid similar content issues.

Duplicating content deliberately, such as via scraping techniques, can be an easy way to get more content on your site — but this will only hurt it in the long run. Unintentional duplication does actually happen quite frequently too, so if you want a properly optimized site you will want to take care of your replicants.