Web content, and search engines, and plagiarism

An ad for a web content writer on Craig’s List in Seattle includes the following:

“You may rewrite existing articles you find online, but I want to avoid duplicate content penalties from search engines so no plagiarism.”

How about “We want to avoid losing a huge lawsuit, so no plagiarism?”

Apparently some company is willing to put its business on the line by hiring writers who usually plagiarize, but need to be told they should refrain from it on this project because it hurts search rankings. The mind boggles and the stomach turns.

This confirms for me what had merely been a suspicion — that plagiarism is rampant in commercial online web content. My suspicions came from my own experience with a high-end client (who will remain nameless). The client had a staff of very inexperienced content producers who blithely plagiarized from other websites. When I was called in to edit on the project, I had no idea this stuff was going live on a daily basis. I finally spotted the plagiarization when one of the writers grabbed whole paragraphs, verbatim, from a by-lined article in a national magazine. The borrowed text stood out from the usual marketing copy because it was balanced and articulate rather than one-sided and hyperbolic. I ran a few of the sentences through Google and my jaw dropped, as the publication they’d ripped off is notoriously litigious.

After that revelation, I scrutinized their writing closely and found myself flagging plagiarized copy at least once a week and insisting it be removed. This resulted in much eye-rolling from the producers, who clearly considered me to be an ancient fogey with all sorts of outdated ethical hangups. I’m sure when I left the project they went right back to borrowing other people’s work and publishing it on their employer’s site.

For more on the thriving business of online plagiarism, see Plagiarism Today. And, to protect your own commercial website, make your position on plagiarism clear to any writers you are considering hiring. Putting a phrase like “original content” into the description of deliverables in the contract might not be a bad idea, either.

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