Duplicate Content: How Unique Is Unique Enough?

April 20, 2013

Why Does Google Hate Duplicate Content?

Let’s say you’re looking for a new book to read. So you ask a friend for a recommendation. They suggest a popular fiction book. You start to read it, but it’s just not for you. You ask for another recommendation, and they hand you the same book you just rejected.

Well, that’s… not very helpful.

To Google, duplicate content is that book. It’s the same scenario, just instead of a friend handing you the same lame book two times in a row, it’s a search engine showing you the same unhelpful content in two, or maybe even more, sites in their search results.

Search engines are designed with one priority in mind: to provide searchers with the most relevant, helpful results.

If a searcher didn’t like the content they found in the first result, it’s doubtful they’d like it anymore on a different site a few results down from the first. Which is why it’s absolutely essential that search engines like Google streamline their results to avoid including those kinds of duplicate content.

We all know that duplicate content can hurt your rankings. But in a world where it feels like every song’s been sung and, as some put it, there’s nothing you can say that someone hasn’t already said—it seems almost impossible to eliminate duplicate content completely. That’s because it pretty much is.

So what exactly counts as duplicate content in the eyes of the search engines? And how unique does your content really need to be?

Duplicate content is a complex issue, and far from black and white.

When it comes to the content on your pages, there are two types of duplication to watch out for, and both can be equally detrimental to your rankings:

Internal duplicate content:

Small instances of internal duplicate content (from one page of your own site to another) are often overlooked by Google, a couple of key phrases used on differnet pages—not a huge issue.

But, if you’re in the middle of a big site move to a new domain or re-doing the architecture of your site, making sure that no pages are accidently duplicated is essential. Google has a number of tools that can be useful in situations like these—301 redirects and rel=canonicals are helpful as well as proper etiquette.

External duplicate content:

Generally speaking, if an entire page is copied word for word—that’s duplicate content, no surprise there.

But it’s not quite that simple, there are levels of duplicate content. Is one duplicate sentence too much? Is lifting a paragraph from elsewhere too much? What about quotes? Are those punished by search engines or is it an acceptable practice?

We learn what plagiarism is at an early age, we get pamphlets about it in high school to remind us as we write our papers and prepare for our tests. Anything that would fall under the parameters of “plagiarism” applies to duplicate content and should be almost immediately obvious for readers, and Google, to spot (and punish).

What’s important to keep in mind is that unique content may be one thing, but unique value is another.

The words on your page may be different from those of another, but are you giving your own opinion, your own suggestions, additions, spin, personality, and more? If not, even though the combinations of your words are unique, you’re not really providing anything unique at all—Google’s algorithm is quickly evolving to detect value like this, but even if you’re still able to fool the search engines, you can’t fool readers. Don’t you really want to give searchers, customers, and readers something they’ll actually appreciate? We thought so.

In short: few quotes here or there are not going to cause your rankings to plummet, but wherever possible strive to not only provide your own words in your own context, but provide searchers and search engines with content of value: that’s the stuff first page rankings are made of.

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