Duplicate Content Analysis; the impact on SERPs

When you develop a clients marketing, build website functionality, optimise content and then see the whole thing collapse, you have to take a moment to scream, then review whats happened. In the case of one client what became apparent was that we had bleated about dupe content for 18 months, only to see the ‘proof in the pudding’ in all-too stark reality.

The example site I’m referring to was worked on for 18 months. Rankings were developed, links built etc. Then, the client decided they knew enough and took it all in-house. Apparently the client felt they now had enough of an “idea” what all this SEO and online marketing was all about to keep sales and search engine ranks increasing.

In the space of 6 weeks the client managed to increase the duplicate page and duplicate titles count from under 60 to over 4000; this for a website with less than 200 products for sale. The impact on rankings was extreme; dropping from page 1 across the core terms to not even showing in the top 50!

How you might ask has this been achieved? Well the simple answer is the rather innocent, or naive idea that SEO is simple and straightforward. You have only to look at the SEO Periodic Table to see how complex the activity needs to be and how quickly things change; and yes that does mean Penguin’s and Panda’s cannot be ignored!

Now, we know that the fall in rank is not to do with bad links. Just before the client took the work in house all the links were sanitized to ensure none were giving negative link juice. One or two bad ones still exist but not so bad that it would kill the site; we are talking domain authority of 17-18 from the bad linking sites. So the key issues are likely to be structural and content within the site. The products themselves have a low volume of descriptive content. That which is there is the product of agency editing to beef it up and remove the duplicated phrases; you can only describe these product variations so many times. Recommendations on how to expand the content were ignored. Once the client took it over, the same duplicated content began to appear against individual products.

A key technical change also took place; the way the product categories are now published by the e-commerce engine. A new menu plugin was installed that has effectively meant every product is listed in almost every category variation. So instead of appearing in one or two guises within a couple of categories, the products were latently duplicated across more than 10. To compound the problem, all the previous categories that had been within the site navigation have been deleted. No 301 redirects put in place so all the past site structure abandoned, along with all those pages existing link equity. Just to compound the error, of the new categories, five new landing pages are published, available via the primary navigation, and currently state content is “coming soon”. Safe to assume this is likely to be the same products as appearing on all the other categories?

During our management of the site there was one incident where the client uploaded 100+ new products with no content and used the identical page titles for each product. That impact can be seen in the SERPs tracking chart below and the dupe content chart. Time was spent amending all the pages and creating unique content, but still the duplicate content rolled in.

Average positions, core keywords, Aug 12-May 13.

ranking over 18 months

Below is a competitor we were tracking over the same period – the drop in rankings corresponds to a major Penguin release but was quickly fixed

ranking over 18 months - competitor.fw

Once the client moved all work in house the number of products added to the site has remained the same however how the products are being viewed by users and the main navigation of the site has been changed considerably – this has led to a dramatic increase in duplicate page content and page titles, affecting the SERPs rankings catastrophically.

Duplicate Page Content

Duplicate Page Title

Blocked by meta-robots

So in conclusion, what we learned;

  • don’t discount the importance of unique content, and carefully considered categories
  • teach the client again and again the importance of the simple things
  • ensure clients receive training, then more training on how to use their CMS
  • when you stop working for a client, stop looking….its just to depressing!!

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