Don't 'Print This'

Printer-friendly pages can lead to duplicate content that negatively impacts a site's search engine optimization, Stephan Spencer argues.

Stephan Spencer
Search engine optimization expert Stephan Spencer shares late-breaking SEO tools, tips, trends, resources, news and insights. Stephan is the founder and president of Netconcepts, a web agency specializing in search engine optimized ecommerce. Clients include Discovery Channel, AOL, Home Shopping Network, Verizon SuperPages.com, and REI, to name a few. Stephan is a frequent speaker at Internet conferences around the globe. He is also a Senior Contributor to MarketingProfs.com, a monthly columnist for Practical Ecommerce, and he's been a contributor to DM News, Multichannel Merchant, Catalog Success, Catalog Age, and others.
Stephan Spencer
3 min read

Printing Web pages can often be an exercise in frustration. It's amazing how the most important information often gets cut off along the right side of the page.

Web designers and makers of content management systems (CMS) have tried to ease that pain by creating printer-friendly versions of pages to make sure that site visitors get the goods.

Unfortunately, printer-friendly doesn't always equate to search engine-friendly. These printer-friendly pages often result in creating duplicate content, possibly even a complete duplication of the entire Web site. Web site owners have been relieved to learn that duplicate content isn't seen as a penalty by search engines; rather, it results in a filter to help them identify which page they feel is most correct to return in search results. But that doesn't mean that this content duplication doesn't carry a negative impact.

And this is one of those subtle areas, in which good design and SEO best practices intersect. If these printer pages are created through entirely separate pages or appended URLs, they can dilute a site's PageRank as well as diminish crawl equity from the spiders crawling duplicate pages. You can often spot these by looking for a link on the page that says something like "printer friendly" or "print this."

For example, let's say that you have a Web site that has 1,000 pages, a small to moderate-size site, depending on your perspective. Now, because you've taken advantage of your CMS' ability to automatically create a "print this" link on each page to a printer-friendly version, for all practical purposes, your site just doubled to 2,000 pages. But what if your PageRank isn't high enough to warrant very rapid spidering? It could take a lot longer for all your pages to get indexed.

Some of your "good" pages may not get indexed, where they would have otherwise, or they may end up in Google's supplemental index instead of the main index. Not to mention the wasted bandwidth of crawling these duplicate pages. What if your site instead has 10,000 or 100,000 pages? As you can see, there is more at stake here than just duplicate content being filtered out.

Printer-friendly pages present less of an issue on dynamic Web sites, where the pages are created from a database using the same content as the regular pages, but this can be an even bigger issue on sites where these are actually two separate pages that each need to be maintained. It doesn't take long for these pages to get out of sync.

By no means should you run out and remove the printer-friendly functionality on your site, because this is arguably a valuable feature for your visitors. There are, however, alternatives that can be explored.

One method is to use JavaScript-based links to these pages, which search engine spiders aren't able to follow. However, this may present issues to anyone who has chosen to turn off JavaScript in their browser, though this will probably be a small number of users, anyway.

A better method is to utilize CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) to create a separate printer style sheet. The added benefit to this is that you get to remove the extra link from your pages. When visitors choose to print one of your pages, the browser builds that page based on the printer style sheet rather than the one used for onscreen viewing. Visitors can even preview a page to see how it will look printed.

While there are still challenges to printer style sheets, designers with CSS experience should be able to create one for most sites. Implementing this method will mean that you don't have to worry about duplicate content issues, appended URLs, or any other issues created by having separate URLs or pages for your printer-friendly pages. Your regular pages are also your printer-friendly pages; it's no longer about URLs or pages, but rather presentation.