Content syndication can be a lifeline for publishers struggling to produce the volume or depth of content their audience demands. Similarly, for SEOs and digital PR specialists, syndication can be a real boon, particularly when it comes to a campaign’s target link numbers.
However, clients and marketers alike often treat syndicated links with a degree of caution and uncertainty. It’s likely you’ll already be aware that duplication isn’t usually a good thing in the eyes of Google - but you may not necessarily have a full understanding of the ins and outs involved.
As ICS-digital’s Head of SEO, I’m often asked whether content syndication is ‘worth it’ in terms of a link acquisition strategy. With that in mind, I’m going to try to break down content syndication through the lens of digital PR and off-page SEO - and the impact syndicated links have in terms of overall organic value.
Content syndication is the republishing of an article or other media – as a whole or in part – on a site or network of sites separate to the original publication. The term ‘syndication’ has become synonymous with almost any form of content duplication, but that’s not entirely accurate.
With ‘true’ content syndication, there’s a mutual understanding between publishers, and permission is explicitly granted for the reproduction of the original material or article - either as part of an official media partnership or on a more informal basis.
Syndicated content following best practice always identifies itself as such - usually with a paragraph linking back to the original source. Additionally, syndicated articles often have the original source set as the ‘canonical’ version of the URL, a clear designation that they’re essentially digital copies, while giving the first URL the full credit for the piece.
The rel=”canonical” HTML tag was introduced to allow site owners to specify where an equivalent URL exists for the content they’re publishing; ideal in the case of syndication! A canonical tag is a single line of code, often automatically generated by a website’s CMS, that sits in the header of the HTML document and looks like the following:
In practical terms, the existence of a canonical tag advises Google that it should combine all of the search signals and SEO value associated with the different URLs.
Canonicals also make it clear which URL is the original version, mitigating against any potential crawler or user confusion, and often relegating the syndicated versions in the SERPs in the process.
Sometimes, an article will be clearly syndicated in an ‘official’ way but the secondary site chooses not to add a canonical tag or cite the original publication source.
We often see this with regional newspaper publications, as well as different country variations of the nationals (e.g. Scottish, Irish, English and US variations of the same publication) - even when the article’s content and even slug are completely identical.
In my view, the main reason a site chooses not to mark such an article as canonicalised is to try to ‘game’ the system - they want to try to claim the full SEO benefits the original published URL receives.
Such gains are usually temporary. Google’s duplicate content detection systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and sooner or later, their crawlers will usually apply a ‘forced’ canonical tag to duplicated / unmarked syndicated URLs. This isn’t flawless, though, and it’s common for a syndicated article to be picked up first by Googlebot and thus supersede the original.
For this reason, we treat syndicated links without canonicalisation as exactly the same as ‘typical’ syndication - they are recorded in overall link numbers, but not counted towards link KPI - apart from the original URL.
As I mentioned previously, content syndication has become a whistle word for all manner of reproduction and duplication, even though that shouldn’t be the case.
Most prominently, you’ll often see the word ‘syndication’ used when we actually mean the particularly underhand practice of content scraping, spinning or aggregation.
You’ll have seen this type of site before: shady domains that automatically pick up articles published by reputable publications and repost them as though they’re their own. These sites will often ‘spin’ the story using automation by changing certain words or prepositions to avoid being flagged as duplicate content by Google.
Google has publicly commented on these type of sites previously, explaining that while it doesn’t have a specific penalty for duplicate content, it’s not something it advocates (and such sites may fall foul of other policies, including those on deceptive or malicious practices).
Google's Gary Illyes and others have added clarity on the matter, confirming that duplicate content can ‘burn’ crawl budget and dilute SEO signals:
This can be particularly troublesome when a content scraper manages to be seen as the original source of a piece of content by Google, leading to the actual genuine publisher dropping out of or being otherwise relegated in the rankings.
Usually, it’s good at detecting this sort of practice eventually, however, and for that reason - along with the general deviousness of the practice - we do not consider such links to carry SEO value, and therefore, are not the types of site we’d want to take credit for in our digital PR campaign reports.
When done in a transparent and ‘white hat’ way, content syndication has a number of clear and unarguable benefits from an SEO and digital PR perspective:
The main, and perhaps most obvious, benefit of content syndication is the increased number of eyeballs you’ll get on your campaign. While publication sites may share at least some of their target audience, your content will undoubtedly be out in front of a new, wider pool of users.
The benefits of this improved reach may be multifold, but amongst the most notable will be increased exposure for your brand, campaign or cause.
In addition to the uplift in brand awareness and sentiment, one of the biggest advantages of content syndication as it relates to your bottom line is the expected increase in referral traffic.
Of course, this is only the case where links are included and retained in reproduced content, but most syndicated articles will be an almost 1:1 copy of the original version. With more prospective customers clicking through to your site, your conversions and in turn, revenue, will inevitably rise.
One of the biggest questions our digital PR clients have around content syndication is whether they carry the same ‘link equity’ in terms of domain-authority-boosting value as the original published URL.
As we’ll touch on below, while Google frowns upon duplicated content in general, this isn’t the case for correctly identified syndication. Due to the nature of reproduced content, however, syndicated versions don’t always surface in the search results - particularly when a publisher syndicates an article in full.
That’s not to say there are no benefits whatsoever from an SEO perspective, however. Google’s John Mueller has stated that links from a canonical page are ‘seen’, and that ‘signals get forwarded and combined’ - so they do carry some SEO value; it’s just that quantifying that exact value is tricky.
For that reason, our policy on syndicated content from a digital PR perspective is that such links do count towards overall campaign link number targets, but may or may not contribute towards any agreed KPIs depending on our clients’ overall goals.
Content syndication, particularly when not done in line with best practices, can pose a number of challenges - many of which I’ve touched on today. However, the SEO and overall reach benefits are undeniable, and campaign coverage syndicated across a network of reputable publications can provide a massive boost in terms of readership, traffic and link equity / domain authority.
With that in mind, we definitely advocate the active pursuit of such coverage as part of the typical digital PR campaign lifecycle; it’s just worth taking a moment to consider how such links should be treated in the context of overall objectives and KPIs.
ICS-digital offers a world-class, award-winning digital PR service focused on driving results that go beyond link numbers, with our technical SEO team playing an integral role in making sense of the bigger-picture results.
Get in touch to find out how we can support your next campaign.