How to avoid a duplicate content penalty with your canonicals hall pass

24 September, 2014

Flickr Image Courtesy Jeff EatonDuplicated content is a sin.

A duplicate content penalty is needed to keep online law and order from descending into SEO anarchy.

Search engines see it that way.

Copying is the coward’s way out. If you get caught, you better have a damn good excuse.

Luckily, ecommerce sites do.

But before I give you the special SEO skills to avoid your duplicate content penalty, let me explain how Google thinks.

Why Google created the duplicate content penalty

Here’s Google’s perspective on duplicated website content, explained in a delightfully nostalgic school-yard story.

Why Ecommerce Duplicate Content Is Like HighschoolFlashback time…

You’re 17.

High school, big test, probably maths.

You haven’t studied – save for a nonchalant skim of a textbook on your walk to the bus.

We’ve all been there.

You have no idea what old Mr Grunson has been yammering on about all term. Something about permutations. Isn’t that what they put in milk?

You’re certain you’ll never need to know what our old mate Mr Pythagoras did in his life. You’re also certain you don’t care what his theory was about the lines of a triangle.

But you need good marks on this test. You can’t afford to be grounded and you don’t want your mum, dad and slightly rotund teacher on your back for the rest of the year.

Instead of cramming at lunch, you strategically take your seat right next to the 90% specialist Melanie. You know she’s that girl that will have a formula named after her one day. And you know old Mr Grunson is prone to a cheeky snooze after his afternoon vanilla slice.

Flickr Image Courtesy Peter Huys

With your supreme peripherals, you can subtly scan those golden answers.

With one unscrupulous act of moral treachery, you’ve turned your certain fail into certain domination.

Let’s hope it went better for you than it did for our friend Mr Bean.

You’re not helping anyone.

You know that old chestnut – ‘you’re only fooling yourself’. Well that doesn’t apply here.

You’re hurting Melanie, who deals with a short term identity crisis as you snatch the ‘maths genius’ tag from the core of her identity.

You’re hurting old Mr Gunson, befuddled by your sudden improvement and neglects to give you the special attention you truly require.

You’re hurting your parents, who didn’t know you had such callous deception crawling within your very soul.

You’re hurting Jared, the sulky emo kid who always scrapes in to second last, just a couple of marks in front of you.

Duplicated Content Hurts People

That’s what Google sees when you duplicate content. It sees inconsiderate lethargy.

People think copying is bad. It’s considered lazy, unhelpful and irritating.

Search engines are setup up for people. Their algorithms are structured to think the same way.

The copying police want to reward websites that provide the most unique, important and relevant content to the user and penalize those that piggyback on other’s good work. Google, Bing and Yahoo work tirelessly to ensure their algorithm rewards those with the best quality content.

They want Melanie to get the clicks and the customers. She’s earnt it.

Why ecommerce duplicate content is different

You can see why duplicated content can be a killer for an e-commerce site.

It stands to reason that thin or copied content would raise red flags for search engine’s computer generated criteria.

If your site has a number of pages low on unique content, Google’s latest Panda and Hummingbird algorithm updates should have you looking over your shoulder.

These two animals have been set free into the internet wild to capture and penalise duplicate content offenders.

But ecommerce sites are different, right? You have a genuine excuse.

You have a bunch of pages for the same categories and products, depending on different search and filter options.

It’s a nightmare to even think about coming up with 5 or six different descriptions for the same product. This doesn’t make the customer’s experience any better either. If anything, it makes things more confusing when a visitor sees the same t-shirt described in 4 different ways.

So you should be able to duplicate important information without getting into Google trouble.

Google gets it.

Luckily there’s a way for us to explain our duplicated content to the Google bots so that we can have a get out of jail free card.

Canonicals for duplicate content

Nothing to do with cameras or religion, Canonicals are the saviors of ecommerce website owners battling duplicate content.

When your site has a number of filtering or sorting options you are often left with the same URL being indexed. Canonical tags help you communicate to search engines, which of your duplicated content pages is the primary target you want indexed in search results. This way Google understands the reason for your duplicated content, rather than penalising your site.

Here’s an example of 5 different pages that require the same or similar content, but without some assistance, search engine algorithms don’t understand this context:

  • – Core URL (what we want indexed)

How do you know if you’re using canonicals for your duplicate content?

A canonical tag has the following format:


Head to your category, sub-category and products pages.

Search through the html code of these pages for a “canonical” reference.

If you can find the code above within each respective core page url, then you probably have canonicals setup already.

Activate some filtering or sorting options and do the same check on the html code of these pages. If you see the exact same code with the Core URL as “canonical” (like the example above) – then things are looking good. You’re canonicals are talking to Google and you’re at the top of the SEO class. Old Mr Grunson would be proud.

If you can’t find a canonical tag on some of your pages with similar content, it’s a good idea to go ahead and start including these tags within the coding of your site.

Implementing canonical tags for your duplicate content

Canonicals are often suggested as options in the configuration sections of your content managements system. With most platforms, you simply need to ‘turn the tags on’. If you can, activate the ‘canonicals’ option and check to make sure they are working.

If you don’t have the luxury of this option, you may need to manually insert the code in the html editor for each core URL (the primary, first level page) on your site. This can be a tricky and time sucking task.

Either way if you aren’t confident with this process, a developer or SEO professional will be very familiar with the implementation of canonical tags. It might be a good idea to pass the ball on this one.

When the copycats attack your ecommerce content

It’s not just lazy content managers that search engines are trying to penalise. Content can be duplicated across different websites, with cunning thieves prowling the web for quality, high ranking content and stealing it for themselves. Unfortunately, canonicals wont help you battle content bandits that publish your work on other websites.

‘External’ duplication refers to this conniving practice. If you have seen a rankings drop, or you are worried about a down turn in traffic, it’s always best to check if your content has been copied or scraped by other sites. Search engines can have trouble determining the original source of the content. Even if you were there first, someone else’s bastardry can result in severe penalties to you.

As you can see from this webmasterworld forum thread, there’s still some conjecture around the issue. It’s unclear whether Google targeted content scraping in their Panda update. But if your content is copied, you might face a ranking penalty. To compound your pain, the copycat site can often outrank you as a result (especially if you don’t have a high domain authority/good Google rep in the first place).

The consensus – scraped content negatively effects the victim’s SEO efforts in 2 clear ways:

  • Outranking – The scraper can use the stolen content to achieve an improved page ranking, meaning the genuine content creator may find the scraped content outranking the original page.
  • Reduced SEO – If the scraper has a dodgy or suspect website, the original owner of the content may receive a reduction in ranking (or even a penalty) for the duplicate content AND the association with a low quality website.

Ecommerce Duplicate Content Bandit

(If you have had any content created or written by an agency, freelance writers or contractors, well… you just never know. If you’re trying to work out why your search engine traffic has hit a stop sign, it’s a good idea to run a test for plagiarism on any outsourced work.)

Find out if you’ve been scraped by an ecommerce content thief

Although there are many duplicate content tools available, we rely on the trusty, method of typing stuff into Google. That is – manually inserting snippets of text from your website into the Google search bar. Much more professional…

If you combine this tactic with duplicate content tools (one of our favourites is Plagspotter) you have a good chance of ironing out any issues you may have.

To check, grab a random assortment of content from all levels of your site. You may want to structure it as follows:

  • 1-2 paragraphs from homepage
  • 1-2 paragraphs from at least 5 different category pages
  • 1-2 paragraphs from at least 5 different sub-category pages
  • Product descriptions from 10 different products

Grab the pieces of content and search for them in Google search results. Make sure the content is between “ “ speech marks.

Have a good look at the results. If you find your page comes up first then you are likely the originator of the content and no further action needs to be taken.

If you are noticing other sites coming up first, whether it is for product descriptions, category descriptions or general page content, now is a good time to take corrective action.

These are the simplest ways to search for scrapers. Granted, this is a bit of a ‘man’s look’.

If you’ve noticed a rankings drop, and you’re worried about duplication, blogger extroadinaire Kristi Hines goes through a whole stack of detailed options to help you get to the bottom of things. She’s no stranger to folks stealing her amazing work, so she has developed a good trick bag to combat the bullies. Check out her post if you’re still stuck.

How to deal with external duplication

To be 100% sure you overcome this problem, the solution is simple.

Re-write unique and valuable content on the pages you have identified.

Sadly, this is time consuming and unfair. In addition, you might have already created the best possible content for your page.

In this case, there is a few other options.

  • You can directly contact the scraper (if you can find the culprit) and ask them to take your content down

This is Google’s attempt at allowing you to dob on your scraper. You can alert Google about by filling out three simple fields.

Unfortunately, there is no promise of any kind of fix, action or outcome. The tool was announced by the Google oracle Matt Cutts, so it’s a fair guess that your info will be sent to the spam team for consideration.

For those of you wanting to make an ecommerce Fort Knox for your content, an article from Speed Awareness Month gives you some detailed technical info on locking down your content to prevent content thieves.

If you have been affected by the Google Panda or Hummingbird updates, it may take a number of weeks after the content issues have been fixed before you start to experience a rebound in your rankings. No matter which action you take – even if you rewrite your content, you might need some patience.

Unfortunately Google has some busy bots and a lot of penalty appeals, you’ll have to wait in the queue for quite a time.

The Google Content Penalty Queue

Search Engines need your help with much more than duplicate content

It’s clear that search engines don’t exactly think like humans. They don’t really think at all. They work off a computerised algorithm, not common sense.

If you want Google to know something, you need to explain things in search engine language. If you play by the algorithm’s rules, the search bots will understand.

  • First priority – work on creating the most helpful, valuable, educational and entertaining content for your potential customers. That’s the hardest part. Without helpful content, it’s a long and difficult road to the front page of your customer’s search results page.
  • Next priority – you need to translate your best in class content into search engine language. If you have duplicated content on your ecommerce site, it might still be the best possible content for your customer. You need to explain this to Google.

Same goes for everything else. Your page headings, your image files, your link profile, your URL’s. You can use all of these tools and more to show search engines why your content deserves to be ranked number one.

Duplicate content might not be your only issue. If you think there’s some more room for SEO improvement for your online store, you might want to check out our DIY Ecommerce SEO Audit.

There’s over 70 pages of our best advice to make sure you’re giving your content the best possible chance to bring you more customers through search engine results. In fact, most of the info for this post cam straight out of the DIY Ecommerce SEO Audit.

Oh, and feel free to copy all of our best secrets. You don’t even need to tell Google. We just want to share the online marketing love.

By James Dillon
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