The issue of content duplication is a real headache for many digital marketers. On one level it’s common sense: after all, if everyone has the same content about the same subject, why should a user choose your website over another? But there seems to be quite a lot of misunderstanding out there about what counts as duplication and what could actually happen to perpetrators. We asked Daniel Collier, SEO Manager at SiteVisibility, for his expert view… 

What is the duplication issue anyway?
Google dislikes duplicate content, as it believes it provides a poor user experience. This was the drive behind its Panda algorithm update, and the subsequent updating of that algorithm to look at duplicate content, thin content, poor-quality content and keyword-stuffed content. While it’s OK for there to be an amount of duplication on a page – for instance, from the main nav, footer and any forced product descriptions for e-commerce websites – Google doesn’t want the majority of the page being duplicate. Plagiarism is frowned upon too, of course, so Google wants to encourage each website to produce its own unique content.

According to Econsultancy, ‘content duplication is more and more prevalent and can lead to serious search losses, irrespective of who created the original’. How and why?
Due to the Panda algorithm, a website can experience vast drops in performance and rankings within Google if they have a high prevalence of duplication, both internally and externally. It’s about more than just cannibalisation of traffic, it’s about whole pages seeing their rankings reduced significantly if they are seen to be duplicate or poor quality. And if it’s external content you’ve duplicated, you could even be reported for copyright infringement or IP infringement – and in the worst case, get taken to court.

Let’s say I’m a reseller with 1000s of product lines. Can I just reuse the manufacturer’s descriptions or do I have to manually rewrite every one? 
Most resellers have to use the entire manufacturer’s description anyway. To avoid these pages being seen as duplicate, unique content should be introduced to them. This content could be UGC in the form of reviews, or related product feeds, or a supplier's own description and review of a product.

Amazon seems to build product pages that contain the basic info that every other reseller has PLUS their own extra info, along with reviews, video, and all the other ranking signal boosters. Is this a good approach – ie not rewriting everything but adding more to the page to create some uniqueness? 
Yes, Amazon is the market leader in this, as can be seen from their domain strength and good rankings.

Let’s say I’m an electronics retailer. I have separate pages for 5 products – all are the same except for colour. From a usability point of view, you’d want the same copy to describe the same things, but because of the duplication issue I’m wondering if I have to vary the wording. What would you advise? 
If there is a reason for having the colour differentiator, such as if the product is a kettle, toaster or microwave, and there is search around those, then we would recommend introducing unique content around the pages and following the Amazon example. However, if there is no search around the different colours then it is worth canonicalising the pages back to the main product page to ensure no duplication penalisation. Read more about canonicalisation.

Let’s say I’m a travel brand that’s researched and produced a range of destination guides eg Colorado. But I also want to create landing page content for specific searches eg ‘Ski holidays in Colorado’. Do I need new content that’s different from the original guides, or can I just lift material from what I’ve already produced?
You need new content, otherwise you’ll have internal duplication. Plus this gives you a great opportunity to produce a guide that focuses on the ski-specific aspects of Colorado rather than general Colorado holiday info. There may be some crossover, but the majority should be unique.

We’ve always advised brands to use the standfirst element of a content page (the sub-deck bit) as its meta description (or something very similar). But recently a client told us that they’d been advised not to do this for fear of duplication penalisation. Is this really true? Can I really not lift an on-page sentence or two of my own for use in my own metadata?  
You can. Duplication wouldn’t be a huge worry, as Google themselves will sometimes do this if a company hasn’t specified a meta description. But sometimes the standfirst element is more editorially intriguing, whereas for your search snippet a more explicit CTA might help you better pre-qualify your traffic and potentially increase your click-through rate. So the rule of thumb I always advise trainees for structuring a meta description is: Say what it is, Say why it’s awesome, Give the CTA. For example: ‘Content marketing and strategy training events from Sticky Content will teach you to write content that engages and persuades your audiences. Book today!’

What about ‘thin content’ and ‘boilerplate content’? 
It’s bad. Websites should always strive to introduce more content to thin pages, and unique content around boilerplate content.

So as a content writer, what in a nutshell do I need to be aware of/think about so as not to fall foul of the duplication issue?  
Write unique content. It’s fine to gain inspiration, but not to copy (copying includes taking copy and just changing a few words). If you do want to use copy from another website, perhaps a favourable piece of coverage on a blog or news website, then you can use quotations and cite your source as you would when writing an essay or white-paper, or you can set a canonicalization tag on the page to ensure Google understands you have copied the other page and do not intend to rank with the same content.

Is it necessary to write posts for your different social channels?  
This makes sense, as each social channel is being used for different reasons. People live their life on Facebook, share their opinions on Twitter and conduct business on LinkedIn.

Where can I go to find out more?
Google has a good guide to duplication.