Duplicate Content: Is It Really That Bad?

Of all the site issues that I can get on my clients’ case about, the one that is most often met with the most groans (and the most inaction) is duplicate content.

“Is duplicate content really that bad?” they ask me. “Is my site going to get penalized?”

Like all answers in the SEO world, the answer is both yes and no. There is no duplicate content “penalty” per se, but that doesn’t mean that duplicate content still can’t cause positions to be dampened.

In my mind, there are two types of duplicate content:

  1. Internal Duplicate Content – exists within a single domain
  2. External Duplicate Content – exists across multiple domains

Internal duplicate content, which exists within a single domain, is most often the result of a Content Management System. For example, a CMS may dynamically add breadcrumb data to the URL, or generate more than one URL for a product description page if that product is listed in more than one category.

Internal duplicate content can also occur when a site experiences linking inconsistencies (some pages link to http://www.sitename.com/directory and then also http://www.sitename.com/directory/index.asp, etc).

External duplicate content, which exists across multiple domains, is simply copied or stolen content. If your product descriptions come direct from the manufacturer, chances are those same descriptions appear on many other reseller sites and possibly even the manufacturer’s own website.

Search engines won’t be too interested in you if you look like everyone else. Having unique copy differentiates your site from your competitors’.

But does this mean that you are going to be penalized for having duplicate content?

For duplicate content that exists across one domain only, Google will just pick the page that it likes best, and then off the other pages will go to the supplemental index. That’s not a penalty – that’s just smart filtering.

Of course, if someone else has identical copy to your site content and the engines decide their page is more relevant than yours, well, you’re in for a bigger problem there. (This also is just smart filtering – but it sure can feel like a penalty.)

The supplemental index is one thing – but let me go back to duplicate content issues that may exist with dynamic sites and/or URL inconsistencies.

Everyone knows how important external links are when it comes to SEO, but internal links are too often overlooked. The more internal links that point to a page, the better its positioning potential. This is why it’s so important to have a strong internal navigation.

Duplicate content weakens a site’s navigational structure. Instead of having links throughout a site directing relevance towards a single URL, the links all point to a bunch of different URLs. This fractures page relevance and disrupts your entire site’s navigational structure. Why should search engines pay attention to a page if only one internal link is pointing to it, instead of five or six?

No matter which type of duplicate content issue you’re experiencing – internal or external – you should try to find a way to fix it. Even with the debunking of the much-feared duplicate content “penalty”, that doesn’t mean that duplicate content issues still don’t have the potential to affect your search engine positions.