Recycled content is not self-plagiarism

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1. How to write two different classic types of blog post

2. How to repurpose that old content into a brand new post

3. An explanation of how you can recycle content without Google penalties


I was recently introduced to a brand new idea: self-plagiarism. I initially found this idea to be a bit silly. Surely you are allowed to have an idea and express it in two different places. But many people take it very seriously. And if self-plagiarism is a thing, then how does it affect Google rankings?

In 2011, Google announced a change to the way it ranks pages. It was called the Panda update (named after a Google engineer, not the cuddly bear). It was all about identifying sites which had lots of pages featuring identical content. Back in the bad old days of ‘Black Hat SEO’, creating these duplicate pages was a way of tricking search engines into giving you higher ratings.

The result of this change was a wave of fear about accidental self-plagiarism. It wasn’t helped by some reports that a few pages of duplicated content would effect where you turned up in a Google search. Google has written a fair bit about this too, and its position is if there’s identical copy on your site, it will choose one and ignore the others.


Can you steal your own ideas?

How does this relate to self-plagiarism? Self-plagiarism is where you reproduce something you’ve written in two different places. Mostly, it happens by accident. Sometimes, it happens because you have found the most elegant way to express an idea, so you repeat yourself. Sounds a lot like duplicate content, doesn’t it?

Recently I was reading a book about people being publicly shamed on the Internet, and read the story of Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer was a talented and admired popular science journalist. However, he was publicly shamed when accused of, among other ethical crimes, self-plagiarism. One of the magazines Lehrer worked for commissioned an investigation into his articles. The investigation found that in 18 posts, there were issues with incorrect quotes, factual problems and press release plagiarism. But as a chart produced by Slate magazine, you could see his primary, recurring sin was self-plagiarism—what they described as ‘recycling’.

In Lehrer’s case, the self-plagiarism was dishonest, and part of a larger pattern of deceiving readers and editors. It was a breach of trust.


Avoiding self-plagiarism

You can see why self-plagiarism and duplicate content inhabit the same murky ground. One can happen accidentally, but receive the same response as the other. There is a way you can approach your writing that will ensure you’re NOT crossing that ethical boundary. You can also do that without burning through all your best ideas by only using them once.

You can manage the expectations of people reading your blog by clearly marking the intentions of your posts or articles. Rather than having every post as a slightly rambling essay, establish what a post is for up front. It isn’t hard to say, “this is an interview with our practice manager”. Or “this post will explain to you how to clean your teeth properly”.


What do the pros do?

The second step is to distinguish (in your own mind) between the raw material for your blog post, and the blog post itself. This is what journalists and professional writers do. But people who aren’t professional rarely make the distinction. They think of a subject, and write about it.

But if you add a ‘research’ step in between thinking of something and writing about it, it gives you a chance to structure your writing a bit more than you otherwise would. That research, the raw material, might be some study you’ve done, or some stories you can tell about an experience you’ve had.

The actual post, however, can be a type of story. A story type might be an interview, or a how-to-article, or an essay.


Repurposing in practice

An example of what I mean might be an article on orthodontics. If you are a dentist and you want to write about orthodontics on your practice blog, you might start explaining what the range of products are.

But if you think about it a bit more, you might illustrate those dry product descriptions with case studies—like the middle-aged patient who didn’t think they could get ortho treatment, because it was just for kids. In fact, you might be able to come up with a few different cases for each product.

That’s great—you should write that all out on a piece of paper. Then you should set that aside, have a cup of tea, and get ready to start writing properly.


Four stories from one idea

What you really have there is three different articles—all from the one bit of source material. One of those articles might be a classic “how-to” piece—an educational article which will help your readers solve a problem they have. How-to articles are very common on the web, and sometimes hide a sales pitch which can be really annoying for readers. Make the article about the problem, and the steps to solve it, and your readers will be much more grateful.

That same raw material can also be republished as a list. A new headline, a few funny pictures with a bit less text, and you have something that is easy to read and easy to distribute.

It can also be re-written as a case study. This type of article tells the story of an individual whose problem has been solved by use of a particular product, service, or strategy. People love case studies, because they are very interested in people just like them. Just make sure the story is about the customer—not about you.

Then, if you draw out a common theme between a few case studies, you have a ready-made essay. But instead of leading with the customers’ stories, you lead each point you make with the theme or point of the story—then illustrate your point with the case studies as examples.


Why it’s Google-friendly

Although you are recycling your own ideas, this is not self-plagiarism. Because the intent of each article is slightly different. And although you are repeating the same raw material, this is not duplicate content. Because the ideas are structured and presented in a new way each time.


The next step

There is an easy way you can use Google to generate story ideas. And if you are writing already, make sure you use this one copywriting trick to get the most from your post.

If any of that is unclear, please feel free to leave a comment. I do read them and comment back, and I’m more than happy to discuss it with you.

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