Duplicate Content

Duplicate content occurs when blocks of text are published on different websites. An awareness of how duplicate content works in Google should be an important part of your SEO strategy. This morning I ran into a very interesting case of duplicate content on a site, where SEO efforts were actually working against the site, which I will explain.

Why is Duplicate Content bad?

When somebody searches for information on, for example, "how to install a car stereo", they are looking for a tutorial or article explaining how to do it. The user will usually click on several search results and read the page they like best. Whet they don't want is to read the same article on 10 different websites, with different colours and pictures. Seeing the same content on different sites is annoying as a searcher, especially with the sites like www.articlecity.com distributing content to hundreds of sites.

So Google and other search engines try to block this duplicate content from their results - they will choose the best copy (often the oldest, or page with highest PageRank or best links) and ignore the other copies. If you aren't the chosen copy, then this duplicate content problem prevents you getting any traffic at all from a phrase you might otherwise rank well for.

A Definition of Duplicate Content for Google

Firstly, most people have the wrong idea of what is and isn't considered "duplicate". The secret is in the Google snippet.

If the snippet for a given search phrase for two or more pages is the same or very similar, then this is considered by Google to be Dupliate content

Read this again - it's very important. It's not about the content on the page, it's about the snippet. If your snippets are the same as somebody elses, then you have a duplicate content problem.

A snippet, for those who don't know, is the short piece of description text in a search result.

Understanding Snippets

Obviously the secret to avoiding duplicate content is to make your snippets unique. But keep in mind that snippets change all the time depending on the search phrase entered - Google tries to give a useful snippet that relates to the search phrase, and bold's the words that match.
Here's how Snippets are made up - keep in mind this is a "rule of thumb" I use, rather than scientific fact (as with anything SEO related) but it does hold true most of the time.

  1. If the site has an Open Directory listing (www.dmoz.org) and the DMOZ description or title includes the search phrase, then the DMOZ description will become the snippet.
  2. Otherwise, if the site has a Meta Description, and the Meta Description contains the search phrase, then the Meta Description becomes the snippet.
  3. If the search phrase (or part thereof) occurs twice within 168 characters anywhere on the page, then the first occurance of this will become the snippet.
  4. If none of the above apply, the snippet is made up from 1 or 2 blocks of text on the page where the search phrase occurs (or the individual words that make up the phrase)

So if you are targeting a specific phrase on a page (and you should be) then controlling your own snippet becomes very easy. Simply write a unique meta description that contains your phrase twice.

If your snippet is unique, it doesn't matter if the rest of your page is duplicated on 1000 other sites.

Real Life Example

I can't give specific addresses, but here's how duplicate content can wipe your site out of the search results - I saw this happen to a site this morning.
  • A friend has a site optimised for a particular phrase.
  • His SEO company places a link to his site using his meta description as the description of the link.
  • SEO company's "links" page ranks on page one for the phrase in Google.
  • Client's site is not in the top 100 on Google for this phrase - their main phrase they are targeting.
  • If you repeat the same search but remove the SEO Company's site by using a minus operator in the search ie word1 word2 -"seo company name", this shows the same results but excluding the SEO Company's site. Client's site now appears at the top of page 2 for this search, where it would normally be ranked.
  • I have recommended they change the meta description to something unique, and I almost guarantee this will get them back into the search results for this term.


For legitimate site owners, the biggest risk is someone stealing your pages and outranking you on your own content. www.copyscape.com is a good way to check if your content is being used elsewhere.

If you write articles that are used on other sites, I suggest customising the first paragraph of your version so it's a little different to everyone elses copy. And give it a proper meta description.

If you use articles from article sites, write your own meta description for them (often editing the article is against the T&C).

NEVER use the same meta description across 2 different sites. DO NOT use the same meta description on every page of your site - you are better off leaving it blank than duplicating a meta description.

When you submit your site to directories or link exchanges, don't copy-paste content from your own site to make up the description. Instead, write something fresh. You really don't want your own link partners pushing you out of the search results because of duplicate content.

If you are submitting to lots of directories, be sure to change the description every 10 or so submissions.

Feel free to use PHP or other scripts to write a meta description for you, based around your chosen phrases.

This article on duplicate content from Google may also be of interest.

Harvey Kane

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