One of the big fears with modern SEO is the issue of duplicate content. When Panda rolled out in 2011, one of the first things it tore from the search results was the prolific presence of web shops with hundreds or thousands of products, all with nearly identical product descriptions. Even today, web shops are vulnerable to unchecked duplicate content issues, which can be holding a site back when it could otherwise thrive.
Duplicate content – and thin content, which product descriptions often fall into as well – comes in a number of forms. Some are caused by settings in the typical ecommerce web infrastructures, while others are a result of business laziness.
• If your product descriptions have been copied word for word from the manufacturer, you’re copying content. In this case, it’s a scraped content issue, with duplicate content on the side. If there’s nothing that makes your shop unique compared to the manufacturer, Google has no incentive to show the user anything other than the manufacturer.
• If you wrote detailed product descriptions for your products, but have copied them across multiple very similar pages, you’re running into copied content issues. This is generally an issue with product page design rather than copied content, so at least your existing descriptions can be salvaged.
• If you use a product search that dynamically displays products in a results page, that results page will be 90% similar across the board regardless of search. This is helpful for the user, but from Google’s perspective, each page is a unique entity with copied content. This is generally an issue with software configuration and many businesses don’t realize it’s happening.
Thin content is another issue altogether; if your product description pages are too short, they aren’t offering much value to your users. This is a relatively easy issue to solve, as long as you can spice up your product pages. While doing so, however, make sure that they avoid the above duplication issues.
One reason product descriptions are particularly vulnerable to duplication issues is because of their volume. Even a small web business may have dozens or hundreds of similar products. For example, a site that sells cell phone cases may have dozens of cases for the iPhone 5, all of which are identical save for a color or pattern on the back. If every one of those cases has its own web page with a distinct URL, they are going to very quickly earn flags for copied content. Apparel stores fall into similar traps, with identical products in different sizes.
Virtually every product sales industry falls victim to this in some way or another. A manufacturing company selling valves will have different sizes of ball valves; a potential penalty if done improperly. A hardware store may have a dozen different types of nails or screws. A blog theme reseller might have a handful of themes revolving around a particular base, changing colors or background images. Only the smallest shops with only a handful of unique products can avoid these issues.
Remember how Panda thrashed ecommerce websites when it first rolled out? Well, that was when it first rolled out, back in 2011. While many of the same issues are still actively fought with Panda updates, Google has refined the algorithm and made it a little less restrictive for small businesses.
Essentially, Google has taken a particular stance. Duplicate content will not hurt you, they say, as long as you’re not using it maliciously. If you are stealing content from another site, that’s a penalty. If you’re using an ecommerce software platform that, configured as it is, generates a number of product pages that aren’t all that varied, you might be able to get away with it. Google won’t actively penalized you for accidental or minor duplication issues.
On the other hand, that’s strictly regarding penalties. There’s a difference between penalties and harmful behavior in SEO. A penalty is an actual negative action taken against your site by Google. Some issues – like duplicate content – can hurt your search ranking without actively penalizing you. You just won’t perform as well as you could.
With that in mind, how do you identify which duplicate content issues you may have, and how do you fix them?
The first question you should ask yourself is; where did your product descriptions come from? If your answer is “copied from another source,” be it the manufacturer or another shop, you have a serious issue you need to fix. You will need to create all new product descriptions from scratch.
If your content is original, check to see if you have a number of different pages for very similar products. Using the iPhone case example above, having a different product page for every case would be overkill and can lead to duplication issues.
To fix this issue, merge your pages. Rather than have 50 pages for iPhone cases in all the colors of the rainbow, or 15 pages for a pair of shoes, one in every size, roll all of those pages into a single page. On this page, use a color preview to dynamically show images for each of the colors of iPhone case. Use a drop-down box to allow the user to select a specific size of shoe when they go to order. This way, instead of 50 pages for iPhone 5 cases, you have one page for that particular case brand for that phone.
This does a few things. First, it fixes any possible duplicate content issues that come up from having a dozen pages with only a single change between them. Second, it allows you to focus your efforts on expanding the descriptions for whole products rather than creating unique descriptions for each color of case. It also gives the user a better experience; they don’t see search results filled with identical products in different colors and it’s easier for them to find a product and customize it later.
Speaking of search results, the issue above – that many shops have without realizing – regarding search results is easy to fix. You just need to make use of the canonical and next/prev attributes.
• Canonical allows you to set the basic search page as the “real” page and tell Google that all other pages like it – search results with populated items – are derivatives and can be ignored.
• Prev/Next are tags that are added to paginated search results. They tell Google that page 1, page 2, page 3 etc of the search results are all part of a single larger entity.
Thin content comes from product descriptions that are just too short to have solid value. You can fix this in a number of ways.
• Expand the actual product description.
• Include detailed specifications.
• Add user comments and testimonials.
• Include links to similar products or related purchases.
• Include video guides on how to use or install the product, if applicable.
All of these can help turn a thin 200-word product description into a robust page packed with value.