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Bob Rains Q&A: Does Duplicate Content Hurt SEO?

Twice each month, CAP’s own online marketing guru Bob Rains answers some of your questions about Internet marketing — from affiliate program best practices to search engine optimization, and all points in between.

Bob Rains Q&A for Monday, February 9, 2009: Does Duplicate Content Hurt SEO?


Question: I've often been warned that posting duplicate content (i.e., the same article or story on a number of pages throughout my website) will negatively affect my SEO standing, and that Google may even penalize my site for this. Do you know if this is true, and, if so, what is the extent that Google carries out such punishment? Will posting duplicate content have an overall negative effect on my SEO, beyond any kind of penalty from Google?

Bob Rains: Duplicate content. You gotta love it. Google keeps writing about it, and online marketers keep asking about it.

In particular, many people worry about whether they may be subjected to a "duplicate content penalty." I’ve heard weak SEO guys blabber about this on panels I’ve been on in the past, and it just drives me crazy. But don't take my word for it; this is what Google has to say:

“There's no such thing as a ‘duplicate content penalty.’ At least, not in the way most people mean when they say that.” — Google Webmaster Central Blog.

Yes, it’s true that penalties exist that are related to having the same content as another site — for example, if you steal content from other sites and republish it, or if you republish tons of content without adding any additional value. These tactics are clearly outlined (and discouraged) in the Google Webmaster Guidelines:

So …
•    Don't create multiple pages, sub domains, or domains with substantially duplicate content.
•    Avoid "cookie cutter" approaches with little or no original content.
•    If you are an affiliate program, work hard to make sure your site adds value.

And this is bigger than just search; it’s also about engagement, utility, and, most importantly, conversion. With all of these, unique and relevant content is why users visit your site in the first place.

Most webmasters who worry about duplicate content are not talking about scraping or domain farms; they're talking about things like having multiple URLs on the same domain that point to the same content. Having this type of duplicate content on your site can potentially affect your site's performance, but it doesn't cause penalties. From our article on duplicate content:

“Duplicate content on a website is not usually enough for Google punishment, unless it appears that the intent of the duplicate content is to be deceptive and manipulate search engine results.

“Google strives for variety; they want to show you ten different results on a search results page, not ten different URLs that all have the same content. To this end, Google tries to filter out duplicate documents so that users experience less redundancy.”  

Google Webmaster Central Blog states:

“1. When we detect duplicate content, such as through variations caused by URL parameters, we group the duplicate URLs into one cluster.

“2. We select what we think is the ‘best’ URL to represent the cluster in search results.

“3. We then consolidate properties of the URLs in the cluster, such as link popularity, to the representative URL.”

It’s important to consider the effect that duplication can have on your site's bandwidth. Duplicated content can lead to inefficient crawling. The more time and resources that Googlebot spends crawling duplicate content across multiple URLs, the less time it has to get to the rest of your content.

In summary: Having duplicate content can affect your site in a variety of ways; but unless you've been duplicating deliberately, it's unlikely that one of those ways will be a penalty.

Ask Bob Rains your online marketing questions. Email Bob at today!