We run a Bible site where users can request arbitrary passages (e.g. John 3:16). We would like to start showing passages highlighted within their context (e.g. John 3:16 would show all of John 3 to users, with the requested verse visually distinguished from the context, as this is more useful for Bible study. However, we still want to only display the requested passage to search spiders, as this is more useful to search engine users (and reduces our already-significant potential problems with duplicate content).

As a concrete example of why it's important to display only the exact text of a verse in question to Google: it's common for searchers to search for a familiar phrasing in order to find the actual passage reference. If you search Google for esv for god so loved the world you'll get results for John 3:16, with the snippet providing the text of the verse in question. If we canonicalized John 3:16 to all of John 3, we would lose this. However, when a user visits the page, it's most useful to see the verse highlighted in its larger context. Hence, switching the content from John 3:16 to John 3 upon page load.

While I recognize that this is not a duplicitous technique but in fact a better UX, will Googlebot recognize this? Will I get penalized for doing this?


Tags, Categories, Search Pages are technically duplicates

I would consider this a duplicate content issue since /John+3.16/ contains copy snippets of /John+3/, while this offers value to actual people on the site it doesn't add much value to people searching on search engines since its unlikely to return the 'thin-content' page.

Canonical to the Rescue

This isn't a major issue and rather simple to resolve, you want to use rel canonical on your pages o that you inform Google what is the master page. on /John+3/ simply use: <link rel="canonical" href="http://www.esvbible.org/John+3/" /> and this will inform Google and other search engines that the content on this page is master and should any of this content be found anywhere else then not to process it, You should read more about Canonical URLS.

But does the site have a penalty?

Its impossible to know if Google has or has not given a penalty, I'd say no because not everyone knows about Canonical URLS and WordPress is known for similar pages like your own such as Tags pages, and Categories Snippets, So I wouldn't be surprised if Google has its own way of telling what are canonicals with you informing Google, but with this said even Matt Cutts head of SEO and Spam Team strongly recommends the tag. What I can tell you is that using canonical will not harm your site if done correctly :)

Example of Canonical on Pro Webmasters

If you take a look at https://webmasters.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/seo and view the source of the page your notice that no canonical tag is within the header... But if you click a thread such as this one Will Google penalize my site for switching content upon page load? and view source your notice it has <link rel="canonical" href="https://webmasters.stackexchange.com/questions/47040/will-google-penalize-my-site-for-switching-content"> and this is because Pro Webmasters is telling Google that the tag pages are just snippets of master pages.... This is done back to front by not including the canonical tag.

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  • Well, I didn't mention it since I wasn't asking about duplicate content exactly, but we are already using canonical tags, since we accept many different forms of passage reference (e.g. /Jn3.16/, /Jo3.16/, etc. all point to a canonical /John+3:16/). I'm more precisely concerned with switching up the content from what we display to Google. – David Eyk Apr 8 '13 at 17:35
  • As a concrete example, it's common for searchers to search for a familiar phrasing in order to find the actual passage reference. If you search for "esv for god so loved the world" you'll get results for John 3:16, with the snippet providing the text of the verse. If we canonicalized John 3:16 to John 3, we would lose this. – David Eyk Apr 8 '13 at 17:41

I found a duplicate question at Will google penalize my pages if I will hide by default the main page content? and the link to Google's documentation seems to confirm that I'll be OK: http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=66353

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