Anyone who follows football bloggers on Twitter will no doubt have seen in recent days a lengthy debate about the introduction of the Guardian Sport Network. For those who haven’t, the GSN syndicates content from a collection of writers on its own Sport Blog, the idea being content for the Guardian and exposure for the bloggers.
But there’s a problem. These writers aren’t being paid for the use of their work and to many this is a very contentious issue. There aren’t many people who are willing to work for free yet within journalism it is rife, with people expected to work for free for months or even years as part of getting on the ladder.
Actually, there are two problems. As well as the paid/unpaid argument which has attracted plenty of attention, the manner in which this scheme works directly threatens the well being of these writer’s own websites.
The other problem with the Guardian Sport Network
In my day job I work in SEO and I’ve hand-coded websites, including this one, so I know plenty about how these things work. SEO used to be seen as a grubby exercise in spamming the internet, but Google is rapidly forcing the industry to adjust its focus – content is now king which is as it should be. One of Google’s tactics is a full-frontal assault on content duplication and it is this area where the Guardian Sport Network is going to cause problems which most people won’t be aware of.
Whilst there is no getting away from the fact that syndication is also duplication, there are ways of directing search engines to another page, even on another site, as an original version. Unfortunately, the Guardian Sport Network does the opposite, indicating to search engines that it is the original – you can tell this from the source code if you know where to look. This is a standard method which most large sites use to handle their internal site structure, so this isn’t something the Guardian has implemented especially for the sport network – it just uses what was already there.
However, the consequences of duplicating content en-masse can be very severe:
- Massive loss of search engine rankings;
- Massive loss of search engine traffic;
- Devaluation of links out from the affected site (who else do football bloggers link to if not each other?);
- A long struggle to recover from the damage.
This is far less of a problem for the Guardian than it is for a small, independent blog because Google places value in what it calls “trust factors” – as an official media outlet the Guardian is viewed as a trusted site. Given that the Guardian Sport Network indicates itself to search engines as the original source, it’s highly possible that the writer’s site will be flagged as a duplicate – essentially as a plagiarist. Scary.
A brief Google experiment
Let’s conduct an experiment. This is a post on SportsScientists.com and this is the same (slightly edited) post on the Guardian Sports Network, republished a few days later. Virtually identical. Now let’s try to find this content in Google – we’ll select a snippet from the article and search for it. This is the snippet in question:
And here’s the result in Google, with the part in bold being the snippet we have searched for:
The Guardian’s version of this post comes out on top, with Sports Scientists only 3rd – even after only a few days, Google has prioritised the Guardian above Sports Scientists. Another aspect of this is the appearance of other duplicated versions – as a major news source, much of the Guardian’s content is scraped automatically and republished on other sites of dubious repute. What’s to tell Google that Sports Scientists don’t fall under this banner? Frankly, not much.
Whilst publishing the content on the GSN with a link back will bring in some traffic, it will only be for a short-term period. To keep the flow coming, bloggers are going to need to keep churning out the content for syndication and for no money in return. This traffic might outweigh search engine traffic now, but what happens when the GSN relationship ends? Search engine traffic is something which can grow to very significant levels given time and the right kind of effort – publishing reams of duplicated content is not the way to achieve this.
My advice to bloggers would be to steer clear of the Guardian Sports Network, and to keep a very close eye on search engine traffic if you’ve already signed up.