You need to know whether it is an ethical question, an SEO-related question or a practical one.
Recently I was brainstorming a client’s content strategy on a Zoom meeting and SEO guy had also joined. I know there are many reputed SEO companies that are doing great work, but I’m quite wary of SEO people who want to manipulate content to improve search engine rankings instead of following the quality and relevance of the content itself to automatically improve rankings.
During the conversation he very casually said that I should copy content from other websites and then shuffle it and change a few words here and there and it would be great for SEO. He said that it’s good to copy content from high-ranking websites because they have already improved their search engine rankings with that particular content format.
I was like, WTF? I mean, I didn’t verbally object because the client is quite enamored with the SEO guy, but inside my mind, I was already figuring how not to butt in and remain focused on the core topic – how to write valuable content that will organically improve the clients search engine rankings.
Let’s put aside the fact that Google may realize that you have copied the content from another website and therefore, you should be penalized, for a while.
Let’s focus on the ethical issue here. But before that, let’s also be realistic.
As a content writer, how do I define “copying content from another website or blog”? When does it become plagiarism?
Difference between plagiarism and ideation
I think we all know the meaning of plagiarism – picking content as it is and then using it as your own, verbatim mostly.
Even if you pick content and then change a few words here and there but more or less keep the entire thing intact without changing even the sentence structure, still it is plagiarism.
Plagiarism is a very serious issue in academics, research papers, scientific journals, journalistic writing and books and novels. As a student you can be expelled from a course. As a scientist you can be debarred and humiliated. As a journalist you invite contamination and ridicule. As an author you can be sued, and you may have to pay damages.
As a content writer, although it may be difficult for the aggrieved party to take action against you, if someone is hellbent upon taking action, he or she can. For example, an aggrieved party can approach your web hosting company if your web hosting company has a policy against plagiarism and copyright violation. They can take down your website. If you’re in the same country legal action can also be initiated.
It’s mostly Google penalization that deters people from plagiarizing content. Google can blacklist your website if you are a repeat offender.
But what about rewriting something completely in your own style, in your own language? Many bloggers do that. I have written tips on content writing and hundreds of other websites and blogs have published tips on content writing. Similarly, websites telling you how to improve your search engine rankings are everywhere. They have the same information, it’s just that, they have rewritten the information with slight changes, and with their own take.
Just because Wikipedia has an article on what is blockchain doesn’t mean I cannot publish a blog post on the topic of what is blockchain. Similarly, just because Investopedia has explained what is bookkeeping, another website cannot explain it. This is not copying. This is not plagiarism. It is because you’re presenting the information in your own language, in your own writing, in your own style. It becomes plagiarism when you directly pick the Investopedia article and publish it under your own domain name as your own article.
What about creating a famous story? Many authors have done that. Mary Shelley’s stories have been rewritten. Greek mythologies have been rewritten. Ramayana and Mahabharata have been rewritten. Sherlock Holmes novels have been rewritten. The main stress is on originality vis-à-vis your style. You can tell the same story in a different matter.
Should you copy content from another website to improve your SEO?
Now that we know what plagiarism is and what is not plagiarism even when you are writing the same thing, let’s come to the ethical issue.
Frankly, to an average client it does not matter how, as a content writer, I write content that improves his or her search engine rankings. The client is not worried about legal issues or even with the prospect of someone accosting him or her and complaining about plagiarism. The client is majorly worried about the SEO implications – Google may penalize the website, or even blacklist it, which would be disastrous. As long as Google is fine, most of the clients are fine.
As a content writer, I’m not.
Almost every client hires me to write original content, even if Google is the only reason. Like pirated software, pretty much everyone is okay with picking content from other websites as long as it is safe to do so.
But I have been hired to write original content. If I’m not writing original content, am I not cheating my client?
You may say that the client is hiring me less for the originality of my content and more for my ability to create content that improves his or her search engine rankings, no matter what.
He or she is not bothered with originality. He or she is bothered with search engine rankings.
If I copy the content from somewhere else, if Google does not penalize the website and if Google improves the website’s search engine rankings, who the hell is the client to complain?
No matter how bad it sounds, I can understand this point of view. Nonetheless, I am a writer first, and then I am a content writer. As a writer, I take pride in my writing. If I copy content from another website, even if someone doesn’t detect that, I know that it reeks of my inability to write effectively. It shows that the other writer whose content I’m copying is better than me as a writer. He or she was able to write that beautiful piece of content that I’m shamelessly copying. He or she is a better writer. I’m just a pretender. I’m just an impostor.
No, I don’t expect clients to understand this.