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Wait, did Google just say it’s OK with duplicate content?

Posted on February 2, 2021

 

In two of his recent SEO office-hours hangout videos, Google’s Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller responded to questions about duplicate content and its effect on rankings.

His answers to these questions seem to have been presented by some sources, including Search Engine Journal, as almost an indication that duplicate content is no big deal, and can’t result in any negative rankings or penalties for your website in Google.

“Duplicate content” has long been a dirty word in search engine optimisation (SEO), so we thought we’d look a little beyond the headlines and listen to what Mueller said. Is he saying you can you use the same text again and again across your website? Can you even pinch text from another website and not suffer any consequences (as so many people often do when adding content to their website)?

The truth is that while Mueller does dismiss the idea of duplicate content resulting in a “negative score” and a website not featuring in Google, there are several very important caveats to this, some of which he mentions, while others he doesn’t:

Formats make a difference

What prompted this discussion initially was a January 22nd question from a YouTuber who said they often create blogs that use the same text as their videos, and was wondering whether Google sees this as duplicate content. You can hear both the question and answer around the 27:30 mark here:

Mueller clarifies that a video and a blog are seen as different types of content for different audiences, and that since some people will use Google to find videos, while other people will use Google to find blogs, this is not deemed to be “duplicate content”. So, the first issue to clear up is what we mean by “duplicate content”, and I wouldn’t say it’s an earth-shattering revelation that Google sees the difference between a video and a blog even if their words are the same.

Duplicate text, however, is a different matter.

Pinching from elsewhere is plagiarism

Still, Mueller does go on to say that even duplicate written content across a website will not result in a negative impact on your ranking, but rather only on one of the pages that contains the content appearing in the results. A week later, on last Friday’s hang-out, he gave a similar response to what seemed like a follow-up question, this time at 4:20:

Firstly in response to this, it’s important to realise that he’s talking about duplication within the same website. If people start hearing that duplicate content is OK, a big worry is that not only will they reproduce the same text multiple times on their own website, but they will take copy from elsewhere and stick it on their website, thinking that’s perfectly fine. It isn’t – that’s still plagiarism.

A lost page ranking IS a penalty

Following on from the above, this also raises the question of what you consider a “penalty” or “negative score” to be. While duplicate content may not result in Google putting a “black mark” against your website’s name, it does mean only one of the offending pages can rank. That is, in effect a penalty, isn’t it? At the very least, it’s a wasted opportunity to maximise the number of your website’s pages that appear in Google, and would guarantee that one of your pages just did not rank – why would you do that?

How much text is “duplicate”?

Once we accept that duplicating content limits the number of pages within a website that can rank, we should also ask how much of the text on a website is allowed to be duplicate before Google sees a page as simply a replica of another page. Does it have to be a 100% cut and paste job, or will Google detect the same sporadic sentences and phrases being used in both?

Only Google really knows the answer to that, so at Engage Web, we run everything we publish through a copy check tool to ensure it is sufficiently different to anything else on the web.

We see Mueller’s comments as a clarification of Google’s position on what duplicate content is and how it’s treated, not as a licence to churn out the same text page after page. That means we’ll continue to create original, high-quality content for ourselves, for our clients and for the many web design and digital marketing agencies for whom we also provide regular content.

John Murray
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