Duplicate content can be a real SEO killer. For obvious reasons, search engines pay close attention to duplicate content and online publishers risk having duplicate content ‘filtered’ out.

While Google and other search engines are pretty good at identifying original sources and widespread acceptance of the canonical tag should eventually help, for online publishers who syndicate prolifically, dealing with duplicate content issues can be a challenge.

An interesting post on The Nieman Journalism Lab blog demonstrates that newspapers aren’t completely clueless when it comes to SEO and duplicate content issues. In fact, the Tribune Co. plans to take an interesting approach to the duplicate content issue:

Payne said he’s readying a plan to rid the Tribune Co. of duplicate content. “The goal will be to always have only a single URL for a piece of content across all of our sites,” he told me in an email. For example, when The Los Angeles Times writes a story, it exists, of course, at latimes.com. But when The Chicago Tribune picks up the piece, the current system creates a duplicate of the article with a chicagotribune.com URL.

Under Payne’s plan, Tribune readers would instead visit the Times domain. Meanwhile, a cookie or URL parameter would make the page look like the Tribune’s site and serve the Tribune’s ads. One article, one URL, maximum SEO.

In other words, Tribune Co. is going to be taking a sort of white label approach to duplicate content. Will it work? The intentions may be good but I’m skeptical:

  • The use of different URL parameters would defeat the stated ‘one URL‘ goal and would not eliminate duplicate content issues.
  • Cookies are problematic since they’re not 100% reliable. I’m not sure how comfortable Tribune Co.’s syndication partners will be with using them since one would reasonably expect Tribune Co. to reap all the benefits, both through SEO (Tribune Co.’s sites would get all the SERP love) and cookie attrition.
  • Since different content is being displayed to different users, Tribune Co. may run into issues some publishers experience with geolocation/IP delivery/cloaking.

The good news: it’s clear that some newspapers understand just how important SEO is to their business. Tribune Co. has a director of search optimization, Brent Payne, and beyond duplicate content he’s “convinced that the SEO game is won by ranking high on the search results for
three- and four-word phrases
“. He just might be right.

The bad news: I’m not so sure the plan to deal with duplicate content, as described in The Nieman Journalism Lab post, makes much sense, especially if URL parameters are used, demonstrating that good intention won’t always lead to good strategy.

As many newspapers struggle to survive and succeed out in an increasingly competitive internet market, the winners just might be the ones who get their SEO right.

Photo credit: Alex Barth via Flickr.