The “Duplicate Content Penalty” Myth – Stop it Already!

Whenever I talk to a client about new content pages and/or blogging, eventually the topic of “duplicate content” comes up, and how to avoid penalties from Google. I’m here today to finally put this topic to rest. You can put the phrase “duplicate content penalty” in the same category as other scary, imaginary problems: the boogeyman, ghosts and lizard people controlling the banks and government. This is not to say that duplicate content doesn’t create problems, but there’s a big difference between that and getting a penalty from the Google Gods because you have two similar, or even identical pages.

In this article, we will discuss the truths and lies about duplicate content, manual action penalties, and we’ll also address the controversy surrounding “city landing pages”.

What’s True About Duplicate Content Penalties?

First, we have to look at what Google says about duplicate content:

Google tries hard to index and show pages with distinct information. This filtering means, for instance, that if your site has a “regular” and “printer” version of each article, and neither of these is blocked with a noindex meta tag, we’ll choose one of them to list. In the rare cases in which Google perceives that duplicate content may be shown with intent to manipulate our rankings and deceive our users, we’ll also make appropriate adjustments in the indexing and ranking of the sites involved. As a result, the ranking of the site may suffer, or the site might be removed entirely from the Google index, in which case it will no longer appear in search results.

Additionally:

Duplicate content on a site is not grounds for action on that site unless it appears that the intent of the duplicate content is to be deceptive and manipulate search engine results. If your site suffers from duplicate content issues, and you don’t follow the advice listed above, we do a good job of choosing a version of the content to show in our search results.

*Excerpts underlined for emphasis.

That’s it. No where on Google’s page regarding duplicate content is the word “penalty”, but they are clear that they will choose the most appropriate page to rank for a given search phrase. This means that if you have two pages titled “Car Accident Lawyer in Houston”, and they’re an exact duplication of each other, Google will choose one to put into search results and one to omit. They’ll usually include the page in the index that has the most internal & external links or social media signals because they’re ranking factors. But what they won’t do is remove them both.

Google also notes that duplicate content is not grounds for any action from Google unless it’s blatantly deceptive or manipulative. What this usually means is that you’re copying or scraping other website’s content and publishing it on your website, not that you have 2 pages that have the same (or similar) content. In fact, there are numerous legitimate reasons why you WOULD have duplicate content on your website:

  • Legal Notices
  • Product Descriptions (not so much for lawyers)
  • Marketing Taglines
  • Testimonials

Google is trying to reward content containing “added value” with positive rankings, and if your content is the same as other pages how can you add value to a User experience beyond what’s already available on page 1? Additionally, Google knows that if you are indeed a car accident lawyer in Houston, you’re very likely to have a lot of content on your website that discusses that topic, and some of that content may overlap. The bottom line is that if you or your content manager is creating unique pages with unique content you’ll be fine. Even if a mistake or two is made, there’s no need to worry.

Former head of Google Web Spam, Matt Cutts, lays it out perfectly in this embedded video.

What’s False About Duplicate Content Penalties?

SEO people are a funny breed. They like to take a bright & shiny thing that Google has said, and interpret it far beyond what the actual policy is. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a client say that their SEO professional told them something will be considered duplicate content and they’ll be blacklisted from Google. Additionally, when this information trickles down to a client, you never know how they will interpret it too. They may, (and often do), think that seemingly everything will trigger a penalty. The fact is that a “manual action penalty” is very difficult to get if you’re doing legitimate search engine optimization, and nearly impossible to get for duplicate content. The only instances I’ve heard of websites getting a penalty is when the SEO company was using “PBNs” (Private Blog Networks), or buying backlinks from sketchy or penalized websites.

Do a search right now – there are still no reported examples of any website in the history of the Internet being issued a “manual action penalty” from Google for duplicate content (outside of copyright infringement, plagiarism or blatant, large scale copy & pasting). In an article written by Andy Crestodina for Neil Patel (article source), he cites a very unique instance where a PR company copy & pasted the client’s Home page into a press release, immediately duplicating the content across hundreds of websites. This is a very legitimate reason for Google to become concerned, and very rare thing to happen.

Are City Landing Pages Duplicate Content?

This is a very contentious subject. There’s been a trend for years in attorney SEO & marketing where a lawyer will publish a city landing page like “Los Angeles Bike Accident Lawyer”, and then copy most or all of the content and plop it onto a page titled “Long Beach Bike Accident Lawyer” and simply change the city name throughout the content. Is this okay?

Moz has a great article explaining the ins & outs of city landing pages and how to use them, and not use them. Since I can’t add any additional value here, I’ll suggest that you read the article and I’ll give my opinion on what I’ve seen work and what I’d avoid as someone who specializes in lawyer SEO.

  1. Don’t just change the city name. This is lazy and it adds no value to the User. You almost certainly will not be penalized for this, but your pages may get caught in a filter rendering your efforts useless.
  2. Add unique content and media relevant to the city and your experience there. If you’ve handled specific cases in a city, give an example. Make the page unique and relevant.
  3. Don’t use the same URL structure, Title & Descriptions. You should vary your technical on-page factors as much as you’ve enhanced your content.

There are a number of other factors on how to make city landing pages work, but the bottom line is that they do work when done by an experienced professional, they can rank, and you won’t get a penalty for implementing a “proper” city landing page strategy.

If your SEO professional tells you that you’re at risk for a duplicate content penalty, ask them to show you why. Ask them to show you an example of a website that has ever been penalized for the duplicate content penalty they think you’re going to receive – If it’s not a legitimate concern they won’t be able to; and they probably still believe in the boogeyman.

Do you have an example of a website that received a “duplicate content penalty”? Can you prove it wasn’t because of plagiarism or copyright infringement? Do you think I’m full of crap? Comment below, I’d love to update this blog and readily admit when I’m wrong.

Additional Sources:
https://moz.com/learn/seo/duplicate-content
https://searchengineland.com/myth-duplicate-content-penalty-259657

About The Author

Doug Bradley
Doug Bradley
I work with law firms to increase their presence on search engines through website optimization. Marketing a law firm hasn’t been “like it used to be” for a while now and the only guarantee is that it will continue to change. Learn more about my experience here.

2 Comments

  • Joel K Smith on September 26, 2018

    Spot on. It always reverts back to the SEO golden rule “Content is King”.

    • Doug Bradley on September 26, 2018

      Content is always king. Make good content, make it unique, make it valuable and you will be rewarded.

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