What is a canonical tag and how can it help your SEO?

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Also, the best place to make your site geographically undiscoverable on the Internet.

Since Google wore the crown for the most used search engine on the web (167 billion searches per month), and SEO made its debut in 1997 (according to Search Engine Journal), every website ever has wanted to grab a place on the coveted first page using SEO best practices.

And why not? Your presence on the first page of Google can spell an entirely new era for your business and brand on the Internet. The first page takes away 71.33% of the organic clicks. Out of these, 67.60% of the clicks are made on the first 5 results, and those from 6-10 get only 3.73% of them. And how many do page 2 and 3 get? A (very) disheartening 5.59%.

Apart from all the quantitative benefits reflected in the number of clicks, there is the qualitative benefit of earning trust even before a user visits your website. Is this website on the first page of Google? It’s bound to be trustworthy and give me what I need. And if you do happen to provide users what they need, it’s more than likely that you have scored a potentially loyal customer.

No pressure but we thought we’d let you know that ranking up on Google through SEO is very important.

Now, you would have studied all of the on-page and off-page SEO tactics that would make you climb the ranking ladder faster and faster. You might not have implemented all of those tactics, however, and our bet is- you missed one essential practice: canonicalization.

Where canonicalization comes in the picture

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Canonicalization, which is implemented using the canonical tag (explained further  below) helps to improve your website’s chances of ranking high in the Google search results by:

  • Indicating to the crawling spiders that the page it is on derives/ originates from another ‘master’ page. This ensures that crawlers don’t miss out on unique content even though the pages might have very similar content.
  • Telling Google which URL you would like to be picked as the original URL for displaying in search results.

A quick recap: Google sends out its army of bots/ spiders all over the Internet to ‘crawl’ web pages. These spiders ‘index’ these web pages meaning they try to understand what the web page is about. This information is stored in a massive database called the Google index.

When a user types in a query, the mysterious and oft-updated Google algorithm sifts through this database to find the most relevant and authoritative web pages to display to the user.

And if you forget to implement canonicalization, you might rank lower in the search results even though you might have the most relevant and authoritative information in Internetville related to the user’s query. The crawlers won’t be able to decide which of the ‘duplicate’ pages to index resulting in your website being penalized.

The Curious Case of Uniform Resource Locators (URLs)

People arrive at your site through loads of different channels.

Social media, referral links, internal site search, and inbound references can all generate a unique URL for the same page. Some content management systems like WordPress or Drupal allow multiple URL paths to access the same content. When Google crawls these paths, they could be recognized as separate pages having duplicate content.

For example, all of the following URLs finally end up on your homepage:

However, the crawlers don’t categorize these pages with almost similar addresses as being the homepage. For them, they are all unique pages which are leading to the same content. Big no no. Your site might be teeming with hundreds of duplicate URLs and turning off Google without you even realizing it.

(Finally) using the canonical tag

We’ll use the above URLs to demonstrate in 2 steps how to use the canonical tag.

  • The first thing to do is to pick the ‘master’ URL that will be the canonical link. This could be the link you think is more important in terms of hits and visitors. All non-canonical URLs will point to this link.
  • Use the syntax for adding the canonical link. If we make https://www.example.com as the master link, then in the HTML code of all the other pages, we indicate this as follows:

<link rel= “canonical” href=”https://www.example.com” />

From Google’s perspective, you have just merged multiple pages into a single one and made its life easier.

But where exactly to use the canonical tag? Keep an eye out for one of the following conditions:

  • Sharing syndicated content
  • When your website has a www and non-www version.
  • URLs having both http and https versions with the same content.
  • Different URL for the same content.
  • Different tags and categories leading to the same content.
  • Various ports
  • Mobile website displaying the same content on different URLs.

But wait… what about 301 redirects?

With 301 redirects, your user goes from Page A to Page B without ever knowing what Page A was like. With Page B’s link acting as the canonical link, users will be able to visit both the pages and the crawlers will know who the real boss is.

Always choose to do a redirect until and unless it harms or takes away from the user experience. In those cases, use a canonical tag.

Canonicalization Best Practices

As you set out to canonicalize your entire website, keep these pointers in mind for maximum positive results:

  • Meticulously canonicalize your home page

Duplicates for the home page are numerous and are the most common as visitors land on it through different pathways. Put a canonical tag on your home page template to avoid this problem.

  • Clarity, clarity, clarity

Don’t play around. If you aren’t clear with your canonical tags, search engines might avoid them or misapprehend them. This means not to canonicalize Page A->Page B and then canonicalize Page B->Page A. Don’t create chains (A->B, B->C, C->D), and don’t canonicalize Page A->Page B only to redirect Page B-> Page A.

  • Canonicalize across cross-domains

If other websites publish your content, you can add a canonical link to point back to the original article on your site. Conversely, if you have multiple websites where you publish the same content, you can use the canonical tag for the website that you want to boost up in the search results.

  • Self-reference

Self-referencing all pages in the canonical tag is recommended. Sometimes, URLs with parameters in them which are used for tracking or advertising get indexed. These are not the versions which you want to be displayed in the search results. So go ahead and set rel=canonical for each page to itself, pointing to the cleanest link of that page.

  • Careful with similar (but not duplicate) content

If you are an e-commerce website with products that differ by location, currency, or some small parameter, you can use the canonical tag with caution. The non-canonical versions would not be eligible for ranking, and if the crawlers decide that the content is different, they might ignore the tag.

  • Careful with rel=canonical and social media

Facebook and Twitter have their ways of relating to the canonical tag, and you need to be aware of them.

If you share a URL on Facebook that has a canonical link to another page, Facebook will pick up material from the canonical link. If you add a ‘like’ button to a page having a canonical link, Facebook will again give preference to the linked page and show its ‘like’ count. Twitter operates the same way.

By now, the importance of rel=canonical and the best ways to implement it would be crystal clear to you. Use it wisely, use it to drive traffic and attention that your website deserves.

We’ll see you on the first spot of Google’s result page.

Reach out to us and get a free 30-minute SEO consultation. Email to us at contact@contentninja.in.

Mayank Gulati

Unhappy with the concept of 5 working days a week, Mayank Gulati started his own Marketing Communications firm. He now works 7 days a week, where he wears many, many hats (and a neck brace). An unfortunate engineer, he founded a med-tech startup that was inducted into Nasscom 10k. He’s now decided to stop asking people to invest in his company, and get them to invest in their own.