Google’s Matt Cutts didn’t really say that we don’t have to worry about duplicate content

A recent video Q&A with Google’s ambassador to the world, Matt Cutts, is under heavy discussion among the SEO community around the web. In the video, Cutts says that we don’t have to worry if we have duplicate content on our sites. Or does he?

Wait, what’s this Duplicate Content business?

Some context: it is generally understood that duplicate content is a big no-no if you are trying to optimize your site. Duplicate content, according to Google, refers to when you have one “block” of content on your site, and it also appears (either exactly or in a similar format) somewhere else on your site or on the web. The reason this is considered bad by Google is that in some cases

“content is deliberately duplicated across domains in an attempt to manipulate search engine rankings or win more traffic. Deceptive practices like this can result in a poor user experience, when a visitor sees substantially the same content repeated within a set of search results.” (Duplicate Content entry on Google Webmaster Tools)

This can affect you, the site owner, if for example you publish a blog post on your own site, and on another site. Google doesn’t want to have multiple results for the same content in its search results since that’s really annoying for the user, so it tries to identify which is the original, or best version. Google could very well decide that the other site is the more important version of your content, and your own site can then lose potential rankings and traffic.

Moz has a very good tutorial on duplicate content if you want to find out more about it, and Yoast has a good tutorial on how to avoid it and fix it.

But it is often completely legitimate to have two copies of content on your site – for example, if you have a printer-friendly version of a page, or you have a mobile version of your site that serves a second page with a different URL to mobile devices. (Responsive design serves one URL to all devices, and this is Google’s preferred approach to the mobile web – and ours. More on responsive design in a coming post, but in the meantime check out my presentation on the topic.) That is why Google has come up with a number of ways to indicate to Google that two pages are actually the same, like by adding a rel=canonical tag to your web pages, which tells Google that Page B is actually Page A (don’t worry, all sites built by illuminea have this tag thanks to Yoast’s WordPress SEO plugin), and rel=alternate for mobile sites.

So now it seems that Cutts is telling us that other types of duplicate content are ok on our sites. But is he?

Here’s what Cutts is really saying, and not saying, about duplicate content

If you repress your excitement at the possibility that you can stop stressing over duplicate content, and really listen to Cutts, you’ll see that you still should probably stress over duplicate content. Here’s what he’s really saying:

  1. Legal content – He’s only talking about legal boilerplate type of content that is duplicated, like Terms and Conditions. So if any duplicate content can be understood to be ok from this video, it’s only that type.
  2. No guarantee – He doesn’t guarantee that this type of duplicate content is ok. He says it “probably won’t cause you a big issue.” Not very reassuring.

Therefore, until further notice, it’s a good idea to keep on caring about duplicate content on your site.

As part of illuminea’s SEO services, we provide site audits to identify potential areas where a site may not meet Google’s guidelines, like with the case described above of duplicate content.

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