Plagiarism: What It Is and How You Can Avoid It

Plagiarism. It’s a dirty word that has made headlines in the music industry. It also hits me where I live: in the world of content writing. I got involved in a lively discussion yesterday when a colleague in one of my writing groups lost a lucrative gig because she was accused—and unjustly so, we all believed—of plagiarism.

The Definition of Plagiarism

Essentially, plagiarism is when you copy someone else’s work or ideas and pass them off as your own. In writing, whether it’s a term paper or a blog post, if you want to use someone else’s words, it’s important to cite the original work.

There are four types of plagiarism that most widely recognize:

  1. Direct plagiarism—when content has been copied word-for-word. In one of my gigs as a dental content marketing writer, we saw this frequently. Dentists came to us for website updates, and to save money, they wanted to use their existing content. Often we discovered that hundreds of other dentists had the exact same content on their websites. This is a no-no. It’s not only ethically wrong, but Google will penalize you (more on that later).
  2. Self-plagiarism—when you use previous work written for a new project. In school, this could mean using parts of papers previously written or turning in the same paper to two different classes without those involved—the professors, in particular—knowing about it. In online content, this could mean a tech writer inadvertently using the same words used for one article in another. This is often done unintentionally by a writer who uses similar terms and phrases over and over.
  3. Mosaic plagiarism—when a writer uses a mix of phrases from another writer without attributing the source.
  4. Accidental plagiarism—when content is unintentionally paraphrased or quoted without source citation. Accidental or not, this is unacceptable, and it still constitutes plagiarism.

What Constitutes Plagiarism—and What Doesn’t?

In the discussion I mentioned above, the writer in question was accused of plagiarism because of listing a conference and copying some of the educational tracks used in the conference materials. I have been accused of plagiarism while writing for a specific industry where there is an inevitability of certain words and phrases being repeated. But this client had a 0 percent duplicate content copy, so it often meant quite a bit of time spent to get to this point.

There has to be a happy medium, doesn’t there?

Where Does Google Come In?

When websites have duplicate content, search engine ranking is problematic because Google doesn’t know which website is the authoritative one. Duplicate content will wreak havoc on your website’s ranking. It often happens to businesses who pay for discounted websites that essentially lift copy off other websites. While the price tag of a low-cost website is appealing, the price businesses will pay for plagiarism is not.

Avoiding Plagiarism

One of the easiest ways to ensure all content you are writing is original is to run it through a plagiarism checker such as Copyscape. Grammar plug-in Grammarly also has a plagiarism checker. (And it’s not a bad idea to run your work through both, just to be safe.) Getting a ding or two (or even a few more, depending on the length of your content), is generally considered acceptable and not an offense that comes with a Google penalty. Examples might include common phrases such as “homes for sale” or “real estate agents” in a blog about real estate.

Be aware that your website is also at risk of being plagiarized. It’s a good idea to check it occasionally using a checker such as Copyscape. Now might just be a good time to do that.

Cashing in on Good Quality Content for Your Business

create good contentYou need content for your business. You need to keep your website fresh and you know content is one way to boost your SEO. Maybe you just don’t have the time or talent to write it yourself, and a colleague told you about a website where you can get bids on your writing project.

There are a number of these “content mills,” including Upwork, Fiverr, and People Per Hour. You post an ad offering what you think is a fair deal: one cent per word, or $10 for a 1000-word article. In your ad, you specify that people only apply if they have previous experience about your subject matter. You get a ton of proposals for your project, and some applicants bid even less than the $10 you requested. You decide on one writer who sends you the finished article, and you are only out $10. You are thinking, this is great!

But in the end, have you actually made a good investment? Sure, you need to spend less and make more, but is hiring a content mill writer going to help you with that? Or is hiring a content mill writer only going to cost you more in the end?

Let’s take a look at some of the pitfalls of paying peanuts for content and articles.

Low Quality Means Low Value

Gone are the days of the immature Internet, where content was content, regardless of what it said. Google—and your potential customers—can tell a spammy site when they see one. Customers will leave your site in a flat second—and where will they go? To your competitors’ sites where they will likely find well-researched, thoughtful content that is easily readable, directed toward your specific market, and has a solid message.

With content mill writers, you will not get these benefits. You will not. Google will probably punish your low-quality, spammy-sounding posts—but even worse, so will your potential customers. Not a very good return on investment, is it?

Poor English Means Bad Content

Okay, here’s the thing. There isn’t a writer in the United States who can pay the bills on 10 bucks for a 1000-word article. So when you advertise your project on a content mill, you are more than likely going to end up hiring a writer from a foreign country where that $10 stretches a whole lot further. The problem? That person is likely not a native English speaker. What they write will be non-native English. And it will sound like a non-native English speaker wrote it.

You have a couple of choices here: Try to edit the article to make it more clear and readable. Of course, that is going to take time—time that is precious and time that you don’t have or you wouldn’t have sought out a writer to do the writing in the first place. Or you can upload the article as is. Have fun trying to rank with Google with content like that. You are also not going to impress your readers with content that isn’t clear or valuable. Again, they’ll move on to a site that provides value. Does you get what you pay for sound familiar?

Duplicate Content Means Penalties From Google

The Internet frowns on copying someone else’s content. This is called plagiarism, and Google will penalize you for it. And do you really think that when you are paying someone such a small amount of money to write a 1000-word article, they are going to research the subject and come up with a fresh view of it? Doubtful. What is more likely is that they will pull content from another website and sell it to you as their own. Or they will write one article and sell it to multiple customers. Best case? Penalties from Google. Worst case? A letter from a copyright lawyer for infringement.

Something else to keep in mind: The portfolio a writer shows you might look great, but the samples in it too could be plagiarized. This is why many people who hire writers through a content mill are shocked to discover that the article they commissioned looks nothing like the articles the writer presented as his or her own.

Spinning Does Not Mean Fresh Content

If your content mill writer doesn’t plagiarize an article, he or she will probably use a spinner instead. “Spinning” an article is when you copy and paste one into a spinner site and a new article is rewritten using synonyms. Sounds like a good idea, right? The bad news is that the content won’t be fully unique, and the worse news is that it probably won’t make sense. Here you go; try it yourself.

Keyword Stuffing Does Not Mean Improved Search Engine Rankings

Back when the Internet was a little bit newer, you could pepper any content with as many keywords as possible, and you would rank higher on search engines. But Google has gotten smart, and keyword stuffing—which is what many content mill writers will do—is a red flag. Pages that stuff keywords are looked upon unfavorably by the likes of Google updates Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird. Your readers aren’t going to care much for them either.

Engaging Content Means More Money in Your Pocket

When your website has good quality content, readers are engaged. They come back to your site over and over because they know what they read there will be entertaining, useful, and informative. They share your content with others. They subscribe to your feed. They sign up for your newsletter. Every time a person visits your website—and stays—means there is an opportunity for you to make money.

Working With a Pro Means Building a Relationship

You don’t just want to build your business’ brand with good content, but you want to build a relationship with a good content writer. The more you work with the same professional writer to build your brand, the easier it will be for that writer to come up with meaningful content that represents your business and strikes a chord with your audience. You will not only have a consistent message, but you will be able to have less of a hands-on approach with each project. This will ultimately save you time—and the good quality content will mean more money.

The bottom line: Your online presence needs a high-quality digital content strategy. You will not get that with a content mill writer. The average small business purportedly spends about 25 or 30 percent of its budget on content creation; some spend as much as 50 percent. There is a reason for this. They see a return on their investment—and they make money. So the real question you need to ask yourself is this: Can your business afford to pay peanuts for content?