On the heels of John Mueller from Google making a statement about duplicate content not being a negative ranking factor this week, I wanted to just simplify and clarify for small business owners.  I have run into this issue over and over again throughout the years with small and local businesses.  The most common use is when local businesses try to create local SEO landing pages for every town that they want to target, in the hopes of organically ranking for that town.  It can be confusing because Google isn’t even always consistent with the rules.

Forms of Duplicate Content

Let’s start by talking about a few different forms that some may consider duplicate content.

  • Duplicate Content On Your Own Site (A):  This is what I run into most often and what I spoke to above. The local business creates a copy of the same few paragraphs for every town in their state or target market, only changing the town name, in the hopes of ranking for every town.  This is common and frowned upon by Google.  Google will typically find one version of this page and make it the original, and the other pages are viewed as duplicates and won’t rank.  This isn’t always the case though. In markets that are not very competitive, we still see Google allow duplicate pages to rank because they want to show the best answer to a query, and sometimes this option is better than nothing at all.  However, you should always aim to have unique and different content for each of these target towns or whatever you are duplicating. Even if the general idea is the same, there have to be some differences in serving that town or market. Speak to that and make the content useful and not duplicative.
  • Duplicate Content On Your Own Site (B): This doesn’t only happen with town pages. It can happen any time you have a site with a lot of similar pages. Product descriptions can be very similar in eCommerce, or even blog tags or categories can end up being duplicative if you aren’t careful to keep them organized and different. If your small business wants a specific page, target, or concept to rank, it needs to have its own original and unique content. Duplicating other pages just won’t typically work.
  • Duplicate Content of Another Site: I haven’t run into this as much in recent years as I used to. Your competitor is doing well so you just copy their content but change the name or another person in your industry in a different geographic market.  The standard internal audit tools don’t necessarily pick these up as much, but just like when copying your own content, this is viewed as duplicate and Google will typically only show the first version that they index. I had a client years ago that I found out copied their entire site from a competitor. This is even more clearly an ethical no-no but is viewed essentially the same.
  • Good Duplicate Content: So there are cases where duplicate content can be good. Though it may not be the traditional sense.  Google will tell you the top ranking factor is User Experience (UX). With that said, it can be useful to present users with different formats of the same content. Google’s John Mueller again pointed this out recently. For example, a how-to video and the transcript are essentially the same content. The transcript is writing out what is said in the video. This is not viewed by Google as duplicative. Different users have different preferences with how to absorb info. Some users may want the video, while others may prefer to read the text. This is the opportunity to re-purpose the same general information into different forms of content that may be able to rank differently. I encourage you to transcribe your videos or even explain your infographics.  This is a great way to put duplicate content to work for you.

Will Duplicate Content Hurt You?

As is often the case with SEO questions, the answer is that it depends.  You won’t get a penalty like in the old days. There are fewer and fewer manual penalties. Google has figured out how to ignore the content and links it doesn’t like with its algorithm.  So it won’t get you in trouble or penalize you in that sense. There are times it may prove useful to have duplicate content, even for the user.  One thing to keep in mind is that Google can’t look at every page on the internet. Every site has a “crawl budget”. Basically, Google is only going to look at so many pages of your site. They are only going to spend so much time looking at your site. If they run into a lot of duplicate content with their indexing, that they by rule, don’t want to rank, they are going to spend less time on your site. If you put a lot of effort in creating pages “to rank’ that are duplicative, you are wasting your time, and likely pushing Google to spend less time looking for good unique content on your site. In general, it is better to always use quality, unique content for anything that is important for you to rank.