stealing web content

When Your Content Gets Stolen

A client recently told me to hold off on writing his blog posts for a while. “You write too well,” he said, “people keep stealing the content.” He plans to deal with that and then get back to me.

It is the first time I’ve ever received this particular complaint, but not the first time I’ve encountered content theft. Sometimes when I’m writing blog posts for clients, I’ll do a News search on a topic, and it often happens that what comes up is something I’ve written for that client — on someone else’s site.

How much of a problem is that, and what can you do about it?

For many people, there’s an emotional element. Look around online and you will find bloggers moaning that they feel violated and can no longer write because of the trauma. I don’t deal with this kind of artistic temperament stuff, myself, and I recommend that if your web content is for your business, you too should get over it. If you write anything that’s at all useful, someone will probably steal from you at some point. The more commercially viable, competitive, and profit-oriented your material, the more likely that it’ll end up on someone else’s site. (This is why I see stuff I’ve written for clients being scraped more often than my own.)

If you’ve come to terms with that, we can move on to the really serious question: does it do your website any harm to have your stuff published by someone else? The big issue here is duplicate content. If the search engines can tell that you’re the original and the thieves are not, you’re fine. Your stuff will be indexed and the miscreants’ stuff won’t. The concern is that the search engines might not recognize the original. This has never happened to me, but I’ve seen claims here and there that a thief reposted so fast that it confused the search engines. Unsubstantiated claims, admittedly, but claims.

If you encounter a theft and you want to do something about it, the first step is to contact the thief. I once wrote a review of a local restaurant and they took the whole thing and used it for the content at their new website. It was sort of clever how they cut and pasted it to work as web content, but I wrote to them and pointed it out. After all, I write web content for a living. They should have hired me rather than just using my words. They redid their site, quoting the review (not crediting it, but maybe they never took Freshman Comp). That was good enough for me, and I continue to eat at the restaurant, too.

If the thieves don’t remove your content, you can send them a “cease and desist” request to follow up your friendly request. If they still don’t take down your content, you can report them to Google and ask that they be unindexed. You can report them to their hosting company as well. If they keep at it, and especially if you can show that it’s harming your business in some way, you can get your lawyer to pursue them.

Often, though, the thieves are intentionally throwing up splogs — automatically populated spam blogs — to make what they can from affiliate and PPC links. They may have hundreds of automatic sites and constantly be making more as their sites are unindexed or removed. They may not care at all what you do, and they may hide their information so that you can’t catch them. In these cases, it’s probably not worth your while.

So far, we’ve been looking at what to do when you encounter material lifted from your site. Chances are, you won’t run into it. You can use Copyscape to search for thieves if you have just a few pages. You can also hide secret words in your code and set up a Google alert for them. Once you find stolen content, you can go through the steps listed above to deal with it.

By the way , if you’ve been reading this in astonishment because you thought that anything published on the web was public property, you should quit being a content thief right now. Copyright applies to web content as much as to print, and plagiarism is illegal. Mend your ways and write your own stuff. If you can’t write your own stuff, hire someone like me to write for you.







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