If you’ve got hundreds, possibly even thousands of pages on your ecommerce site, ensuring that each one includes a sizeable chunk of unique copy can prove difficult. Consequently, many e-tailers choose to cut corners.
However, when you choose to reuse the same text time after time or use a generic manufacturer’s description, this can have a negative impact on your search engine rankings and how visitors perceive your site. On the flipside, writing content requires resources. Whether you have an in-house team or are outsourcing the work to a professional copywriter, there is a cost factor.
So, do you take the risk and decide that duplicate content is better than nothing at all, or should you invest in unique copy for every page?
There’s certainly no one-size-fits-all answer to this particular quandary. For smaller, newer online businesses, other priorities may exist. For instance, there isn’t much point in spending your entire budget on content if you have insufficient stock to meet demand. So there is a balance that needs to be made.
This is why it’s important to have structure and a plan when it comes to creating content for your ecommerce site. Make sure that your top level pages are given priority. You don’t want to have low quality or duplicate content on your homepage for instance; so if you’re working with a restricted budget, make sure some of your resources go towards populating your most profitable pages.
Remember, despite the fact that you might have hundreds of pages, each of which offers a potential entry point to your site, your homepage is still the first place that most people will navigate towards. This is where the majority of inbound links will be pointing and also the page that will be optimised for your primary keywords. So, if you can only afford to cover the cost of one page of content, this should be your starting point.
As your business grows and revenue increases, then you can perhaps look at developing your on-page copy. Build your category pages, sub-categories and popular products.
But why is duplicate content an issue?
Google has always sought to punish low-value sites, using a number of metrics to measure quality. The relevance and originality of text are central to these checks.
Whilst duplicate content has been penalised for some time now, the Panda update in 2011 really brought this issue into the wider public consciousness. Millions of pages were demoted overnight, many of which featured small snippets of information or copy that was used elsewhere.
As with many major algorithm changes, the Panda update hasn’t finished yet. Every month Google tweaks it, adding new elements and targeting different ranking factors. We’re currently up to Panda v3.3, with v3.4 due in the very near future. This provides a decent demonstration of just how seriously Google is treating content issues and the levels they are willing to go to in order to solve them.
So if your site is found to have duplicate content, it can be tricky to get a footing in the search engine results, particularly if your domain isn’t particularly strong or the term you are targeting is particularly competitive. Whilst Google claims that there is no such thing as a duplicate content penalty, it’s certainly true to say that they don’t look kindly on sites that borrow copy. As a result you may not be penalised, but you also won’t feature above other sites that are better optimised (which is pretty much a penalty in a different guise).
One potential workaround is to introduce user comments on the page. As we discussed in an earlier post, allowing your customers to leave reviews on product pages will not only help to encourage others to make a purchase, but will also bolster on-page copy. Whilst the content is unlikely to be too in-depth and may lack the quality of a decent product description, it ought to be unique and also contain your target keywords.
So, effectively, your customers can do some of the hard work for you. It certainly works for some of the larger online retailers. Whilst it is a regularly used example, Amazon offers a classic example of this. Whilst their domain strength is probably enough to ensure decent rankings, many of their pages simply have a short manufacturer’s description or expert review taken from other sources. As such, they shouldn’t (theoretically speaking) have enough content to realistically rank against better-optimised sites. However, thanks to a wealth of user reviews on each page, they generally have hundreds of words of context-rich, keyword optimised unique content ready for search engine spiders to crawl and index.
Does this apply to every page on the site?
Ideally, if a page has its own URL, it should have an element of unique copy. However, if you are a clothing store and you offer men’s jeans in sizes 28-42, it would be excessively time-consuming to write an original description for each variation. Minor changes are often all that is required, just to ensure that the content reflects the item that users are looking at.
It’s important to remember that you don’t optimise websites, you optimise pages. Every link will increase its strength (and that of the domain as a whole) whilst the content provides context. There are other factors to consider, but these are certainly the big two. Therefore, investing the time to produce an engaging, unique piece of copy can help you to leapfrog competitors and start attracting new customers from a wider selection of search terms.
So what have we learnt?
Firstly, there aren’t duplicate content penalties per se. You can still achieve rankings, but the likelihood is that you will always be limited as to where your pages will appear within results. So if you value Google rankings as a source of traffic, some form of original content is necessary. Whether you start from scratch (preferable) or rework sections of another piece of existing copy that you’ve produced, there should be no room for endless duplication.
Your visitors should also appreciate this. When you produce your own copy, you can put your own stamp on it. This means that it reflects your brand as well as the individual page. This creates an ongoing theme, developing familiarity for existing customers and encouraging others to give you a try. Site content is essentially a written sales pitch, so make the most of this opportunity.