One of the most common mistakes in SEO is having a flawed meta content strategy by either misusing or neglecting the canonical tag. As a result, duplicate content for example on your website might hinder your organic growth.
There are many free SEO guides and lore to be found, but they don’t always mention the canonical tag, so it can be easily missed by people just getting into the field or trying to promote their own websites.
This article is all about using this small yet very important function correctly, while making sure to track your search engine ranks the RIGHT way.
What is the rel=canonical element?
To those of you that are new to SEO and rank tracking, this is what the canonical tag looks like:
<link rel=”canonical” href=”https://yourwebsite.com/originpage” />
This tag tells search engines which page is the preferred ‘origin’ of the content, and as a result, which page should be ranked as the most relevant for a certain search term. It’s a healthy SEO practice because it tells search engines which single URL to rank based on all incoming ranking signals, instead of scattering it across several URLs.
The canonical tag came about in 2009 and has been one of the factors that determine how search engines crawl and index websites.
The canonical tag comes into play when you have duplicate or similar content in several webpages on your website.
The most common case is two blog posts or more targeting the same keyword clusters and discussing more or less the same topic. This is a natural progression in content building and is bound to happen eventually if you run a blog with fresh content.
For example, at the end of each year you might write about the best indie designer sneakers currently on the market. Eventually this will amount to several ‘duplicate’ posts that target more or less the same topic and keywords. Clearly to a human reader these will be topic different enough since the items featured in each article will be different and fresh. Google however will consider each post as a sole competitor for that cluster of sneaker-relevant keywords. In this case you might set up the best single post that discusses sneakers as the canonical and the ranking signals from all ensuing posts will be pointed towards that ‘source’. For example, it can be a post about sneakers that has the best conversion potential if it includes affiliated links, and this is the prime result that will show up on the SERP when people search for sneakers.
Another common case where a canonical tag is required is in eCommerce, where you might not only have blog posts that target the same search terms, but also products that compete for the same search.
Also, there might be a case of cross-domain duplicate content. This can be either because you chose to have duplicate content over several domains, or another website is using your content. In this case it’s still better to have a single canonical version. If another website is using your content, either ask them to set up a canonical tag pointing to your original content (which is ideal, and everyone wins) or have them remove the duplicate.
If the duplicate content is on a PDF, you can set up a canonical HTTP header. Here’s how.
Google might start ranking several URLs within your website for the same keyword and cannibalization will occur. We made a little guide about cannibalization, which we recommend you read if you haven’t already!
Google as a whole doesn’t object to naturally occurring duplicate content, but its algorithm still lacks a human finesse in understanding context. While the penalty for duplicate content is harder to invoke than many think, Google still might decide to consolidate ranking signals to what they consider the source page (which won’t necessarily align with the webmaster’s intent). Unless of course you set up the canonical tag correctly and tell Google which is the prime source of content right from the beginning.
The rule of thumb to go by is that choosing a canonical version is better in the long run than having several pages compete for the same keyword clusters, which lets Google decide whether to consolidate or let cannibalization happen.
It’s highly recommended, as a solid SEO practice, that every URL should have a canonical tag, including the source page itself with a self-referential canonical tag!
The 301 redirect
Unlike the canonical tag which lets you have all versions of the content accessible to users, a 301 will skip the page entirely and redirect both users and search engines to the target page. In SEO terms if the redirected page had any ranking influence, that ranking power will be transferred to the target page.
The use cases of a 301 are mostly technical and most commonly used when making sure there is only one prime URL for all visitors, human and crawlers alike:
- Migrating to a new domain – if you switched to a new domain and the old one was already ranked, you need to 301 redirect to the new domain, so that you will keep your organic gains.
- Changing the destination URL – for example moving a blog from blog.website.com to website.com/blog
- Redirecting non-www to www and vice versa
- Redirecting from HTTP to HTTPS – back in 2014 Google recommended using HTTPS over HTTS, and even added a ranking advantage to HTTPS websites. If you are just now getting on the https wagon, you need to install an SSL certificate and 301 redirect to your new https URL.
- Redirecting from related domain names – securing similar domain names has always been a solid defensive SEO and branding strategy. For example, your main URL might be sandals.com, and you might want to redirect sandals.net and .co.au etc. to the main one using a 301. Any future domain names that you secure with ranking potential to your brand and niche can also be redirected to your main URL, while preserving any previously gained ranking powers.
Google once confirmed that they will follow up to 5 redirects in one chain, so use it wisely and don’t abuse this function.
Note that if we’re talking about duplicate content as a result of international versions of pages and translated pages, then the hreflang rel tag is also important to know about and implement properly. Luckily, we have a little guide for that as well!
How to track the canonical version plus see if cannibalization happens
After settling on a canonical version, you will need to determine the proper ranking conditions to track:
- Relevant geo-targeted locations – if the website is for a local business that services a certain area, then it will be only relevant to know how well the URL ranks in that area. For example, let’s say this is a transportation service so let’s choose London’s Luton airport as the targeted location to track.
- Device types – both mobile and desktop ranks must be tracked.
- Mobile OS type – Android and iOS users see slightly different search results, so it’s recommended you track by mobile OS as well.
- Mobile device type – smartphone users and tablet users might see different search results as well. To cover all bases and get the most accurate picture make sure to track those as well.
- Google UI language – Users will see different search results based on what is their default UI language.
Once you have tracking set up properly, you can head to our FULL SERPs tool and monitor the entire top100 search results for those ranking conditions. You will accomplish two goals here – you will be able to see ALL of your prominent competitors in a single chart and make sure your own canonically directed URLs are not competing with their main version:
Having a solid SEO infrastructure requires that you set up proper canonical pages right from the start. This will help prevent future issues and will improve your chances to rank.
The important part here is to set up a strong origin page for every keyword or keyword bunch. The most solid approach is a preemptive one instead of a reactive one. And if you are in the field of having several domains for the same brand, then don’t forget those 301 redirects.
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