How Canonicals Can Make (Or Break) Your Rankings and SEO

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Using Canonicals on a Website

Using Canonicals on a Website

If there are similar or exact copies of your content on other pages on your site or elsewhere on the web, you’re dealing with duplicate content. If there are large amounts of duplicate content on your site, it can have a seriously negative effect on your search result rankings.

Google has stated that they “[try] hard to index and show pages with distinct information,” which means that pages on your site that don’t have distinct information can harm your SEO.

When you have duplicate content on your site, it can mean you earn less organic traffic and have fewer indexed pages on your site. In extremely rare cases, Google will actually penalize or even completely deindex a website with tons of duplicate content.

When you google what to do about duplicate content, you’ll receive two primary pieces of advice: canonical tags and 301 redirects. However, many of these articles won’t go into the fact that canonicals can both make or break your rankings and SEO. Using canonical tags correctly can give you a big boost, but if you make the wrong choices, it can lead to a significant traffic loss.

What Are Canonicals?

A canonical tag is a tiny piece of HTML code that helps Google and other search engines understand which page is the primary version of a page out of a number of similar or identical pages.

You can use canonical tags to inform search engines which page version you want to show up in search results. This can also help improve the crawling and indexing of your site and consolidate link equity from pages that are duplicates.

A Canonical Tag

It’s worth understanding that the canonical tag isn’t actually instructional to Google but rather more of a suggestion. You can think of it like you’re giving Google a hint as to which pages should be showing up in search results versus other similar or duplicate pages. At the end of the day, though, Google ultimately has the final say in how it crawls, indexes, and ranks pages.

How Can Canonicals Make Your Rankings?

The main reason for using the rel=”canonical” tag is to help search engines distinguish between the original, main page from similar or duplicate versions.

Canonicals Increasing Rankings

It’s common for most websites to have duplicate pages– pages with different URLs that show the same content.

When this happens, search engines must choose between these pages when indexing and ranking pages. When pages look very similar or are identical, Google won’t display all of them in the search results.

There are several reasons why canonical tags can have a huge impact on your SEO and rankings beyond the primary purpose of the tags.

They Help Manage Republished Content

It’s common for site users to publish their content on other websites, which can be incredibly useful for promotional purposes. This causes a conundrum for Google, who is left to determine which site is the original source and should therefore be shown as a search result for relevant keywords.

Republishing Online Content

Setting up the right canonical tags can ensure that you promote the original page on your own site rather than the syndicated versions on other sites.

Are you trying to boost your rankings and make sure your site is performing optimally? If so, you’ll want to check out our recent posts about tools for testing page speed, targeting languages and regions with the hreflang tag, and orphaned pages.

The Consolidate Link Equity

Link equity– sometimes referred to as “link juice”– is a level of value or authority that a linking page passes to another page that it links to. There are a number of different factors that influence how much value a link creates, including the authority of the site that the linking page is on, the authority of the linking page itself, and more.

It isn’t uncommon for duplicate pages to end up receiving backlinks from other sites. While backlinks are great, you don’t want your duplicate or similar pages to take over the link juice from the primary, original content you want to rank as highly as possible.

Consolidated Link Equity

You can transfer your link equity to a single URL by using canonical tags properly. By doing so, you can help to improve the ranking of your main page in Google search results.

They Improve Crawling

When Google crawls and indexes pages that are duplicates, they are essentially wasting time and resources.

A Website Crawler

Using canonical tags properly, you are helping search engines crawl and index the right pages, ensuring that your crawl budget isn’t wasted on duplicate pages that you don’t want to be crawled.

How Can Canonical Tags Break Your Rankings?

While using canonical tags properly can give you a big SEO boost, using them incorrectly can wreak havoc on your rankings.

A Decrease in Rankings

Giving Google the wrong rel= “canonical” URL on web pages can send mixed messages. You might find that they abide by your suggestion and don’t index your “main” pages, which will undoubtedly be harmful to performance. On the other hand, they might choose not to honor the confusing tags and simply rank the page they believe best suits the job.

What’s the Problem With Duplicate Content?

When your content appears online in more than one place, you’re dealing with duplicate content. What does “one place” mean, exactly?

If the same content appears at more than one unique URL, it’s considered duplicate content. Though you won’t technically be penalized for having duplicate content, that doesn’t mean it can’t have a negative impact on your search rankings.

Essentially, it can be hard for search engines to understand the most relevant version of a page when “appreciably similar” content can be found in more than one spot.

Duplicate content is something to be concerned with for a number of different reasons. For search engines, it can mean that they don’t know whether to keep link metrics separated between multiple versions of a page or to direct them to one page. Beyond that, they don’t know which versions should be included in or kept out of their indices. Finally, search engines can’t know for sure which versions should end up in search results for relevant queries.

Duplicate Website Content

As a site owner, duplicate content can lead to traffic loss and a drop in your rankings. This occurs for two primary reasons:

  • Having duplicate content means that search engines will have to choose which version of the content to display in results as they rarely show multiple versions of content that is “appreciably similar.” This means that for each of the pages, visibility is diluted.
  • Your link equity can also be diluted because sites that want to link to your pages will also have to choose between duplicate content. This means that your backlinks will likely be geared toward multiple pages, impacting your search visibility because inbound links are a known ranking factor.

You can end up with duplicate content for a number of reasons, and it often happens somewhat accidentally. The primary causes of duplicate content are URL variations, scraped or copied content, or variations in terms of HTTP/HTTPs/WWW/non-WWW prefixes.

You solve duplicate content problems by making it clear which version is your “main” version of the content. We’ll discuss the best way to deal with this in the next section, but the short answer is that a combination of canonicalizing the page and using 301 redirects is often the best option.

The Best Ways to Tell Google Which Pages to Index

There are a number of ways that you can firmly communicate to Google which pages should be indexed and which should not be indexed.

Ways to Tell Google Which Pages to Index

These include:

  • Canonical tags
  • 301 redirects
  • Blocking in robots.txt
  • Removal requests on Search Console

We’ve already touched upon what canonical tags are, but let’s quickly look at these other ways you can tell Google which pages should be indexed and appear in rankings.

A 301 redirect is an HTTP status code that signals a permanent redirect from one URL to another. This means that when a user requests one URL, they will automatically be sent to a different URL that you have selected.

All of the ranking power is passed from the old URL to the new one. 301 redirects can be a workable solution in a number of cases, but it’s most commonly used when a site owner is permanently moving or removing a page for their site.

Robots.txt files communicate to search engine crawlers which sites can be accessed and which can’t be. In order to ensure with certainty that a webpage stays out of Google, you have to block indexing with noindex or password-protect the page. However, blocking crawlers in robots.txt can be used to avoid overloading your site and, in many cases, keep files off Google.

Finally, in the Search Console, you can use the Removals and SafeSearch reports Tool to temporarily block Google search results on your own sites. This isn’t a way to remove a page from search permanently, nor is it a way to completely remove the content from the internet. Instead, it helps you take your URL off Google Search quickly and temporarily.

Usually, the best choice is a combination of 301 redirects and canonical tags. When people visit a duplicate or wrong page, they will be redirected to the version of that page you want them to go to, complete with the canonical URL.

When you’re deciding which pages to make your main page, it’s important that you look at the backlink profiles for all of the variations in addition to their ranking performance. It’s easy to have an idea of which page is the “main” page before beginning this process, but it’s important to stay flexible to ensure that you choose the page that makes the most sense.

It’s all too common for sites to choose the wrong canonical pages, which, in turn, has a terribly negative effect on their rankings. Only after they see this major drop do they realize that one of the page versions they viewed as secondary was actually the better-performing version.

Is It Time to Boost Your Site Rankings?

Managing your own SEO can be a major time sink– all of a sudden, you’ve got a second full-time job on your hands. While some aspects of SEO are fairly user-friendly, for others, there can be an enormous learning curve. This is particularly true when you’re talking about something like canonical tags– it can be complicated to understand when, where, and how to use them, and the consequences can be dire for your rankings and traffic if you make the wrong decision.

If you’re motivated to make sure your valuable time is going toward the things that you do best, you might be considering hiring an experienced SEO agency to help your pages climb up in the rankings and drive more traffic to your site.

An Experienced SEO Agency

At Blue Pig Media, we specialize in helping business and site owners grow their operations through the power of SEO and digital marketing. One of the things that really sets us apart from other digital marketing agencies is that we take a long-term approach to achieving sustainable success for our clients. We know that you are invested in your site for the long haul, so we want to make sure that you aren’t just making short-term, superficial gains.

As a one-stop shop for all of your digital marketing needs, we can help you with every aspect of SEO and online advertising. Whether you want to redesign your site, launch a PPC campaign, audit your site for duplicate content, increase your search rankings, or start marketing on social media, we have the knowledge and experience to elevate your site to new heights.

No matter your business goals and what you hope to accomplish using the power of digital marketing, we are here to help. Consistently on the cutting edge of organic as well as paid-search and social media advertising, we can help ensure that your site receives the traffic and rankings it deserves.

Does that sound good to you? If so, be sure to contact us today to get started.

David Curtis
David Curtis
David Curtis is the founder and CEO of Blue Pig Media. With twenty years of successful execution in sales, marketing and operations, for both clients and vendors, he has a bottom line ROI driven mentality rooted in metrics driven performance across highly competitive global corporate initiatives.

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