Over the past few years, content has exploded on the web. Most businesses are struggling just to get in the race, much less keep up.
Unfortunately, the ever-growing demand for content doesn't always result in the original quality the search engines (and users) are searching for. If you take liberties with the words of other websites, you may sink your own SEO.
Here are some common issues you might have missed...and how to fix them.
Degrees of Plagiarism
No one really knows how much stolen copy is taking up space on the web. Plagiarism can be subtle and hard to detect unless you've read the original source and made note of the structure and the information. Copyright laws are widely misunderstood, and many writers think what they are doing is fine...when in fact it's not.
Rewriting content from another website — the laziest (and fastest) way to write without using a spinning software — is a common practice among anonymous writers who work for cheap. Kelly McBride from Poynter.org calls it patchwriting.
If your writers are good at rewriting, the work will pass a plagiarism checker and you may never know...but it may still be illegal or unethical.
Patchwriting also presents several SEO problems. Semantic search attempts to go deeper than words to deliver content with meaning and value — something available nowhere else on the web. When writers rehash posts, no value is added. Rand Fishkin explains the concept well in this Whiteboard Friday video.
How does Google handle content that is not unique? The oldest version displays to users. Everything else is relegated to a lower position or worse; that link at the end of the search that directs you to omitted results.
Another lazy way to write involves cutting and pasting small sections from various sites to form a semi-cohesive idea. I was a little shocked to find out this practice exists, but many editors have mentioned it. Many marketing companies have wised up and include a warning in the hiring process paperwork...an agreement that all work is original in nature and cannot contain more than some percentage of duplicate words.
Some duplication is natural and to be expected when a lot of writers are writing about the same subject. There are only so many ways to write highly specific phrases like “30-Year Fixed-Rate Mortgage.” Search engines don't penalize that. Multiple sentences or even paragraphs lifted from other websites is a different story.
Professional writers have a pretty specific individual style (and most have a bad habit or two). They choose the same words, phrases and patterns. If they write in a specific niche, it is entirely possible to plagiarize your own work without realizing it. We writers are creatures of habit...and it's remarkably easy to forget what you wrote about 50 articles ago.
Is duplicate content plagiarism?
Duplicate content is common online, and only some of it will hurt your SEO. Some types of internal duplicate content, such as call-to-action paragraphs repeated on each page, merchandise that appears in different categories and pages meant to be printed, are common.
You may also beef up your content with syndicated industry news from other sites or interesting reblogs. According to Google, this is all well and good as long as it is handled carefully.
What isn't copacetic is content copied across multiple domains...an outdated black-hat tactic used to dominate the top of the search. That will get your site removed from the search engine results. Google is pretty clear on that point.
Plagiarism Goes Both Ways
While we've been talking about why you shouldn't plagiarize, but it's a two-way street. Not only can you negatively impact your own SEO efforts with a plagiarism penalty, someone can plagiarize your work and you can be penalized as a result. In the worst-case scenario, your entire website can be stolen.
That's right, thieves can rip you off and then outrank you for it. Or Google can decide you're the problem and remove you from the search results. Talk about adding insult to injury!
Keeping it Clean
It's not as difficult as you might imagine to avoid unwittingly plagiarizing another website and to monitor your own so your content isn't scraped and stolen.
Short checklist for original content:
- Outline clear guidelines for your writers and editors.
- Fact-check and verify all sources.
- Make sure each piece of writing brings something new and fresh to the table.
- Don't hire cheap writers. You really do get what you pay for.
Get the tools you need to monitor your content before and after it's posted:
- Unplag - While there are a number of free plagiarism checkers on the web that scan your copy and do a cursory check against online copy, if your reputation is on the line, you might want to invest just a few bucks to get an online plagiarism checker with a lot of additional features. Not only will you get a comprehensive scan with more sensitive filtering, you'll be able to upload multiple documents in many different formats, not just cut-and-paste text.
- Copysentry - One of the most popular plagiarism checkers online, Copyscape is a low cost cut-and-paste solution that delivers better results than any of the free tools I tried. Another of their products, Copysentry, monitors the web for content stolen from your website.
- SEMrush Position Tracking - The position tracking tool compares your website to competitors on a local or global scale. By monitoring your keywords, you can make sure your competition is not ripping off your content. You can be sure your competitors are checking keywords rankings.
- IFTTT - Use this handy “If This Then That” tool to create email alerts when your target keywords show up on other domains.
Finally, understand copyright laws. Dispel the myths, find out what your rights are and what constitutes plagiarism and learn what to do if your website is scraped.
Plagiarism on the web is not only illegal, it's bad business. You know what being at the top of the search page means. An SEO penalty for duplicate content can send your website (or your client's) to Google hell. Avoid it by making sure your web content is original and has a unique perspective. For the record, that also makes your content more exciting.