Articles and syndicated content - help or hindrance? shares this meaning of “syndication”  (see #8) when used as a verb: to publish simultaneously, or supply for simultaneous publication, in a number of newspapers or other periodicals in different places: Her column is syndicated in 120 papers.

In most cases, being syndicated is seen as a positive thing.  You’ve hit the big time, you’re in demand, people what to hear from you.  All good signs you’ve made it.  Naturally syndicated content on the Internet, when exposed to search, causes some ripples to form in the fabric.
As the author of the content, you don’t have much to worry about.  Your deal is to write and then be seen across a range of websites.  The websites, however, have some cause for concern, as the engines are unlikely to simply rank the same article highly over and over, just because that article appears on a different domain.

The author my face the issue that their own website is constantly outranked by more widely known domains (think of popular news websites).  In the big picture, though, this is a small concern.  In fact, if you’re a syndicated author with work appearing across a range of online properties, chances are good you’re not allowed to post that same content on your own website anyway.  That alone negates the problem for the author around their content being wrapped up in a duplicate content battle with a higher profile website showcasing the same content. The higher profile website may outrank the author simply because it is more popular.  If users prefer the trusted news website over the author’s own website, the news site will have more links, greater traffic and will end up, in the long run, outranking the author’s own website.  Now, don’t go running to the hills thinking popularity = outright rankings.  I’m drawing a broad picture here – it shouldn’t shock anyone that highly popular websites tend to outrank lesser known websites.

The smart move for the author in this scenario is to leverage their relationship to build links from those popular websites back to their own.  They should work to include a link to their own website in any “BY:” line or bio posted on the site using their content.  This is old-school guest blogging at it’s very best, in fact.  The author’s own site not only gets a boost from the inbound links, but will see direct traffic, allowing the author to build a loyal following of direct readers that last beyond their syndication agreement.

Now, all this information is great, I know, but let’s get to the meat of the matter here.  Using syndicated articles on your own website.  After all, many folks online are not the authors, but the syndicated location using the authors’ content.

I’m going to set aside the “legalities” side of this discussion, as this is a search blog, not a legal blog.  We can work from the understanding that any time you are using someone else’s content on your website, its being done so with permission.  This post also takes the view we’re talking about content that is openly crawlable, not behind a login and intended to be indexed and ranked.

Now, the idea of using articles as content on a website has exploded over the last few years in popularity.  Article sources are seemingly everywhere and are viewed as a quick way to get content to build out a site on an almost endless number of topics.  Prices vary for the content, and in most case, the old axiom of “you get what you pay for” seems to hold true.  The article sites often allude to their articles being able to “help with your SEO”, and some even make the claims outright.  They are playing off the idea that depth of content matters to the search engines, and while depth of content certainly can play a role in determining your value to a searcher, it’s not the only signal.

In fact, one item often overlooked in an article website’s marketing material is the fact that the content they serve up is usually duplicate in nature.  Unlike a popular author who is syndicated across major news sources online, almost anyone can be syndicated through article websites.  The main point often glossed over, however, isn’t where an author may be syndicated.  It’s whether the content is unique.  Unique as in “appearing in one location only”.  The truth is, that on any popular topic, a decent article will likely be used by many websites.  The article sharing site is happy to have multiple websites looking to use the article.  They receive a piece of each payment for usage.  Or they receive a link back from every site using the article.  In either case, they benefit from that article being spread far and wide.

The author can benefit for exactly the same reasons as the article website.  In fact, the one who doesn’t get the intended benefit is the end-user website who was simply seeking content to build out their site.  That link points their users to an often unrelated service, so even that outbound link holds little value to visitors of the website.  Any payments they made to the article site won’t necessarily pay dividends in helping their rankings.

And let’s not forget those unscrupulous consultants and agencies who will charge a client for creating content for them, only to raid the cupboards of an article site, then tell the client the content is unique.  Happens every day, sadly.

To a search engine, duplicate content simply shows there is an issue somewhere.  It could mean the CMS needs to be tweaked to cure a duplicate URL issue.  It could mean a lack of interest in producing unique content, instead thinking that buying content from other sources will work and the engines won’t notice.

Setting aside the duplicate content issue, you’ll often find that articles from services lack basic things like proper punctuation, proper grammar and even, sometimes, the proper syntax, leaving the item nearly unreadable.  Publishing something like this on your website raises quality flags for the engines.  Worse, if visitors to your website see lack luster content, thin content or unreadable content, they’ll signal their displeasure by simply leaving you for another website.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the engines see the Internet not as a series of linked object, viewed in series, but as a blanket, viewed in its entirety, all at once.  This means we can, and do, see instances of duplicate content wherein the same article is used across multiple websites.  The bottom line here is using articles from a service, unless they are verifiably unique, is risky.  At best such articles won’t hurt and your visitors may still feel they’re useful.  At worst everyone from the engines to your users will lose faith, causing your rankings to plummet.

Before anyone heads for a ledge, we’re not talking about the use of one or two articles here or there.  We’re talking about bulk use of articles comprising the majority of a site’s content.  No, there is no “tipping point”.  If there were, we wouldn’t be able to share it as the goal here is to help folks understand the value of producing quality content, not to define the edge of the shortcut.

Ask yourself this as a test: “Is most of my content unique?  Did I create it?  Does it appear anywhere else on the Internet?”  If you answered anything other than “Yes, yes and no”, you have some work to do.  Understand, some types of content are exempt.  Things such as specifications for an item will, by their very nature, end up duplicated.  Quotes often surface in many locations. That’s not an issue for anyone.  Unless it’s the only content on your page, but then you have a thin content issue.

Search is a complicated business.  Sweat your content.  Make it good, make it unique and make it easy to find.  Taking shortcuts through article services can often lead to the engines simply ignoring you.  Avoid the pain and invest in creating your own deep, unique content.  That combo wins every time.

…and if you’re looking for a way to figure out if your content is unique or not – or even if others are using your content, here’s a simple test:

  • copy a portion of a paragraph, or a random sentence (more is better)
  • head to Bing’s home page and slip what you copied into the search box
  • hit the button and see what comes back

As noted above, there are legitimate instances when content will end up duplicated across websites, but if you take a random sample from your content that you believe to be unique, and it turns up on other pages, it’s worth investigating further.  It could simply be someone quoting you, so nothing to worry about there.  It could be someone copying your content, and you might want to follow up on that.  Or it could be the content is from an article service and has been used on other sites, not just yours.

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