Yes Virginia You Can Hurt Yourself With Duplicate Content

So last week google had a blog post entitled Demystifying the “duplicate content penalty” and if you haven’t read it I’d recommend doing so. However I’m going to disagree with some parts of the post, because IMHO you really can hurt yourself with duplicate content.

I’m going to start off with a story to make my point … lets imagine it’s a bright sunny afternoon and I’m outside working on my car. I’m watching my 8 year old nephew, he’s a precocious young lad, but unless you give him clear instructions he likes to do things his own way. As a result he sometimes makes mistakes, but he means well.

I’m under the car and ask him to go into the house and get me a flashlight. Instead of going through the front door which is 20 feet away he runs around the back of the house, goes in the back door to the kitchen goes in the “junk drawer” and brings out the small “quality challenged” blue plastic flashlight with “#1 Uncle” written on the side that he gave me last Christmas. Ok technically he got me flashlight, but it really wasn’t what I was looking for. However I didn’t give proper directions, so it’s partly my fault, so we’ll try again. This time I tell him to go in the front door, go down the hall, open the closet and get the flashlight inside. He goes in the front door and down the hall to the closet and gets the first flashlight he sees. He comes out with my 4-D Cell Maglite. Ok it’s better than the #1 uncle flashlight, but what I really wanted was my mini maglite, because the 4 cell maglite is just too big too work with under the car …

Whats the point of this story … lets pretend that instead of my house we’re talking about my website. Then instead of my well intentioned nephew lets pretend we’re talking about the google bot. And instead of looking for a flashlight what we’re really looking for is content on my website. Do you want it to be in one spot under one URL, or do you want it 6 categories, 4 tag archives, and monthly, daily and yearly archives? Lastly do you want google to guess at which URL’s you want the content indexed under or would you much rather tell it where to look and what to ignore?

Hopefully you’ve just had a lightbulb moment, and realize this whole “let google sort it out” mentality is littered with numerous opportunities to go off the track. As a site owner the most important part of your site are the individual pages (or single post pages if you run a blog). When you leave it up to Google you are hoping they guess that’s what you wanted, while they do get it right in many cases, there are lots of times where they don’t. Here are some quick and easy ways you can fix that and help Google understand what it is you really want.

Don’t display full posts on your homepage or in your archives, only display the full content on the single post page. Personally I like to limit it to a few sentences, the first paragraph or wherever there is a natural break. You are ultimately writing for people, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take steps to make the machines interpret it how you want.

Categories, Dates, or Tags, choose one and block google from crawling the others. I’m a big fan of using categories because it helps set up a SEO Siloing structure, but if you prefer tags or date based, go for it. Now notice I didn’t say eliminate the other navigation paths, I just said block them from being spidered, preferably using robots.txt (see mine for an example). Remember your readers may remember you made a kick ass post last Halloween and a date based archive is the quickest way from here to there.

Limit the number of paths Google can use to find your content. If you choose categories as your primary structure keep your posts in a few categories as possible. The more categories google can find the post under the more opportunity there is for them guess at the wrong one. However if you put your posts under only one category, you’ve given google only one choice, which makes it pretty hard for them to get wrong 🙂

Finally lest someone think this was just a clever way I could sneak in few links to a new flashlight client, I like your thinking, but you’re barking up the wrong tree. I actually have about 8 different mag lights in the house in varying sizes. The oldest flashlight I bought in 1986 at my second job, working at the hardware store for $30. In 1986 $30 was a lot more money than it was today, but I can say it was money well spent, as I still have the flashlight and it still works 20 years later.

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