Duplicate Content and the Canonical URL Tag

Note: This is a re-post of my latest SEO Blog post for LyrisHQ.com:

Duplicate ContentOnline marketers are often overly concerned with running into duplicate content issues on their Web sites. Concerns range from duplicate page titles and meta descriptions to having full articles duplicated through syndication, and even the dreaded URL parameter.

Ok – first things first, technically speaking there is no such thing as a “duplicate content penalty” imposed by any of the major search engines. That said, there are definite ways that you can damage your reputation with the search engines, but ultimately these instances are rare and you probably aren’t doing them.

To help dissuade some fears, I’ll clarify four common types of duplicate content that people are often concerned about, what affect they have and if you should be worried. I’ll also conclude with a quick description of the new (game changing) canonical URL tag which should make everyone’s lives much easier in the future.

Types of Duplicate Content

1. Meta Content

  • What is it? This is a number of HTML tags that sit in the “head” of a Web page. It includes items such as your page title (the one that displays at the top of your browser bar), meta keywords and description tags.
  • Should I be worried? Not about being penalized, but definitely about diluting your keyword ranking potential. You won’t be penalized by the search engines for duplicating of any of these items on your site (and of course meta keywords are essentially useless). That said, it’s crucial that you create unique and appropriate titles and meta descriptions for each page on your Web site. As most of you know, titles and descriptions are your Web pages’ primary exposure to visitors in the SERPs – if your content in these areas isn’t compelling to potential visitors then they’re not going to click, plain and simple.

2. Page Content

  • What is it? This is anything in the “body” of your Web page – headings, paragraphs, lists etc. Concerns usually arise when there are news items or articles that are duplicated in multiple areas on the same Web site, or syndicated to external sources (i.e. via RSS).
  • Should I be worried? Again, not about being penalized, but definitely about diluting your keyword ranking potential. The more duplicate content you have on a site, the more you compete with yourself for keywords, potentially diluting your ability to rank higher with specifically targeted page content. Unless you’re doing something like recreating entire Web sites under different domains and claiming the content as unique, you will likely never be penalized for duplicate page content. Again, your visitors and usability should prevail and page content should only be duplicated if absolutely necessary for your visitors.

3. Page URLs

  • What is it? This is usually when one Web page can be accessed via multiple URLs, and is most commonly found when using dynamic pages within a Web CMS. For example, a single destination page may be accessible from different URL formats such as www.example.com/page/index.php, www.example.com/page/, and www.example.com/page/?id=1.
  • Should I be worried? Not about being penalized, but definitely about diluting your keyword ranking potential. Are you seeing a pattern yet? This type of situation is very similar to that of page content – it is very likely that all three versions of the URL will get indexed and as a result the rank of the page content will be diluted between three competing versions when there should only be one.

4. Domain Level

  • What is it? This is the most overlooked type of duplicate content that we find. It includes having multiple domain names pointing to the same Web site, as well as using the www and non-www versions of your domain. Any domain (including www vs. non) pointing to your site could be mistaken for duplicating another full version of your site if the domains aren’t properly redirected.
  • Should I be worried? I’m sure you can guess what I’m going to say here – these elements have the same pitfalls for page rank as page URLs above. The easy fix for this is to always make sure that all versions of domains (www and non-www versions) pointing to your Web site are properly 301 redirected to the primary domain so that all traffic will land on your primary domain, and the only pages that will get ranked by the search engines are those on your primary domain.

The Canonical URL Tag

Recently Google, Yahoo! and MSN Live announced that they will be supporting a new “canonical URL tag” to help Web site owners control and eliminate self-created duplicate content in the search engines. The tag is part of the head of a Web page, in the same section you’d find the title attribute and meta description tag. It uses a meta link format to tell search engine robots where the location of the original version resides.

For example, if a SEO & PPC Expert finds the tag:
[<link rel=”canonical” href=http://www.example.com/article1/ />]

on a the page: http://www.example.com/latestarticle/

the tag tells the search engines that the page in question (http://www.example.com/latestarticle/) is to be treated as a copy of the URL http://www.example.com/article1/, and that all of the page rank and authority belongs to the original Web page, not to the “duplicate” version. As a result, the canonical URL tag gives Web content managers more control over managing duplicate content, making our lives easier. Here you can read more about web design Ecommerce and web design Brighton

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