How to Properly Implement Canonical Tags for SEO Enhancements
by Ron Dod
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For many website owners – particularly those in the eCommerce arena –duplicate content is a fact of life. However, this reality is a rather unfortunate one given that duplicate and thin content can damage a brand’s SEO performance in significant and far-reaching ways.
Potent performance in the SERPs is, in many ways, the lifeblood of online businesses. Therefore, if elements such as duplicate content creep into the mix, brands could lose rankings, revenue and overall reputation. After all, it’s no big secret that SEO blunders can have tremendously negative consequences. When speaking to duplicate content, in particular, issues that can arise from this oversight include drops in visibility for all pages involved and losses in link equity.
However, there are always solutions for avoiding such digital perils.
One such remedy is the use of canonical tags. Canonical tags aim to address issues associated with duplicate content showing up in the results pages of search engines. In practical terms, these tags tell search engines which specific URL a site wishes to surface in response to a relevant search.
To help merchants avoid the follies associated with duplicate content and canonical tag implementation, we will be going over what these little bits of code are, along with when and how to use them.
Let’s begin with a brief overview defining canonical tags.
What Are Canonical Tags and Why Use Them?
Canonical tags (written as “rel=canonical”) are a part of a web page’s HTML header. This is the same place where title tags, meta description tags and similar elements can be found.
Canonical tags enable site owners to specify which particular pages search engines should prioritize in response to a given query. This essentially indicates which page is the “master copy.” These tags also help to facilitate the consolidation of duplicate content, ensuring that the best, most relevant copy is served up to search users.
Canonical tags also make it easier for websites to manage and gain credit for syndicated content. This is especially useful when syndicating materials for publication on other domains.
These are important considerations given that canonical tags can help ensure that the correct pages are ranking and receiving traffic. Additionally, when search engines understand which page the canonical version is, it can then begin counting the links pointing to the other renditions and attribute them to the canonicalized page.
Moreover, the use of canonical tags can prevent sites from burning through their crawl budgets on irrelevant pages. Given that Google’s search spiders will only crawl a certain number of pages in a period, it is essential to get the most critical pages crawled and indexed. If a site has a plethora of duplicate content, there is a chance that vital pages will get skipped, thereby ignoring destinations with unique content.
Canonical tags are often found in abundance on a variety of website types. When it comes to eCommerce destinations, this is especially true. Retail sites that offer products in various sizes and colors are naturally going to have a wide array of pages that feature the same content. As a result, canonical tags should be implemented on the mutations of the original page so to preserve rankings and as much link equity as possible.
However, this is not the only circumstance in which merchants might want to apply a canonical tag. Outside of duplicate or similar content, webmasters should also implement canonical tags when URL parameters are in use.
Homepages are more likely to be duplicated than any other page on your website. They are also more likely to be linked to by other pages. Therefore, it is a good idea to include a canonical tag on a site’s homepage to ensure that it is identified as the primary page.
At this point, many merchants may feel as if canonical tags are something of a panacea for issues pertaining to duplicate and similar content and related matters.
This assumption, however, is false.
These tags should primarily be reserved for times when duplicate content is present, yet it is not sensical to remove a version of the material or initiate a 301 redirect. Some of these scenarios might include:
Duplicate content appearing in different site categories (i.e., content that surfaces through filtering or sorting options).
A merchant owns more than one site and features the same content on both.
A site syndicates content or syndicates its content on other sites.
With this in mind, let’s explore when to avoid canonical usage.
Canonical Alternatives: 301 Redirects and Noindex Tags
The most commonly used canonical tag alternative is the 301 redirect.
301 redirects serve a similar function to canonical tags, but with a few notable differences. Firstly, a canonical tag can only be seen by search engines. As a result, users can still access the destination.
On the other hand, using a 301 redirect will make pages inaccessible to users and search bots. Therefore, if merchants want a page to remain accessible, then canonical tags are the way to go. If they don’t want a page to be accessed, then a 301 redirect should be used.
But What If It’s Not Clear Which One to Use?
Unless technical reasons such as a diminished user experience would prevent it, the answer would be to utilize a 301 redirect.
The reason for this is that the rerouting function only takes a hit in link equity loss a single time. Once the 301 redirect has been implemented, users are disabled from landing on the duplicate page, effectively rerouted to the new, canonical page. Moreover, if a site links to the page, it will effectively provide the link to the correct page.
However, when a canonical tag is used, both URLs are accessible, which can perpetuate the loss of link equity.
What About Noindex Tags?
The only time a noindex tag should be used is if merchants do not want a page to be indexed or ever appear on or rank through search engines. Noindex tags can be an effective method for dealing with duplicate content; however, canonical tags pass link juice whereas noindex tags do not.
Take this into consideration when deciding whether to use canonical or noindex tags or to implement a 301 redirect.
For better or worse, duplicate content is a reality that most website owners will have to face. While Google has explicitly stated that there is no penalty for duplicate content, that does not mean that it isn’t harmful to a website’s performance in the SERPs.
Duplicate content drags down a page’s relevancy and results and could lead to catastrophic consequences for eCommerce merchants who boast pages upon pages of carbon copies.
Ronald Dod is the Chief Marketing Officer and Co-founder of Visiture, an end-to-end eCommerce marketing agency focused on helping online merchants acquire more customers through the use of search engines, social media platforms, marketplaces, and their online storefronts. His passion is helping leading brands use data to make more effective decisions in order to drive new traffic and conversions.
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