QUESTION: We’re a very small company with an 11 year website history, with web development resources somewhere between quite miniscule and non-existent. Nonetheless, SEO has been a keen focus of awareness since before it was called that, and up until that infamous “Florida” event 3 or so years ago, we did very well in the SERPs. Over the years a number of people have worked on the code comprising our site, and while there is nothing egregiously, obviously wrong with our content, no one knows if now we’re being penalized for something ‘lurking’ in our code that may be left over from yesteryear and never found and rooted out. The biggest worry and source of disagreement seems to involve “duplicate content”.

Two questions:

(1) is there a fast way to ensure elimination of all code that could be found objectionable to major SE ‘anti-spam’ filtering? and,

(2) is there any way to learn how the SE algorithms define “duplicate content”, e.g., is it a matter of word-for-word duplicity, or would a site get penalized even for re-worded content that had the same general meaning — appearing on more than one page?

– Steve F.

Thanks Steve, I am going to answer your questions in reverse order below.

Question 2 Answered:
First of all, duplicate content is any substantial piece of content that has been duplicated, word for word, elsewhere on your website. I know, ‘substantial’ is a bit of a weak explanation but there is no official formula describing how much content can be used without triggering a search engine’s spam alarm. Just to be sure, if you are trying to use foil the search engines by using slightly reworded duplicate content then chances are you will not end up a happy site owner. Search engines are getting ‘smarter’ by the day and frankly I and my SEO company are of the mind that working with them is far healthier than the alternative.

Okay, requisite preaching complete… now lets consider some basics regarding duplicate content so I can assuage any basic fears should they exist. Site navigation and small sections of the page that have, for example a text advertisement, are not of any concern. What would be a concern is if you had a large portion of the content on a page duplicated elsewhere within your site; say, a few paragraphs or a large percentage of the page’s content (even as little as 30% duplication may be an issue).

So what happens if you do have duplicate content, are you going to be banned instantly? No, Google (for example) will only negate the benefit of the duplicated page(s) and this negation would not result in a critical penalty. A critical hit would occur, however, if a website were composed of a high ratio of pages that had been determined duplicate content offenders.

Either way, duplicate content is wasteful and no good will come of it.

If you do not think you have any duplicate content then you are probably safe. There is, however, another possibility. Has someone duplicated your website and tarnished your good name? To check for this take some random strings of content and search for them on Google using exact searching (surround the query in quotes). If you come up with a site that is using your content you may have your answer right there – your site has been duped! If duping is the problem you need to contact the site immediately and let them know you have discovered their copyright infringement. If they do not pull the content then if I were you I would send a more formal cease and desist letter.

Question 1 Recapped: Is there a fast way to ensure elimination of all code that could be found objectionable to major SE ‘anti-spam’ filtering?

Question 1 Answered: There is no single tool that comes to mind which will tell you exactly what is wrong with your site; at least not one that I would recommend. If you need your site reviewed for spam then a search engine consultant like myself can be hired for a couple hours to scan your site and provide concise feedback; in such a case often other beneficial recommendations are made. If you want to check your website yourself then I recommend reading an article written by Jim Hedger (our in-house SEO writer for StepForth at the time) called 15 Shades of SEO Spam which will provide you with some tips on what tactics can cause problems.

The other option is to go to a reputable search engine forum and ask for the opinions of forum members; they are often very helpful and knowledgeable. Forums I recommend are: Search Engine Watch, Search Engine Guide, Webmaster World and Web Pro News