The topic of canonical tags has caught a lot of attention in recent years. Every SEO expert puts pressure on how using canonical tags is healthy for the SEO of your website. Canonical tags are generally considered very hard-to-use and one of the expert tools of SEO experts, but that's not the case at all. To understand the full functionality of canonical tags and their usage, we need to understand them. We will cover everything related to canonical tags and their use in the upcoming section.
What are Canonical Tags?
A canonical tag is a chunk of HTML code (like meta tags) that informs the search engine which page of your website is the main page in case of duplicate content or webpages. To put it simply, if you have duplicate or the same content uploaded under different URLs owned by you, you can use canonical tags to ensure that users always reach the main one.
A canonical tag (rel=”canonical") tells search engines which page should be displayed. Let's say you have two or more web pages with duplicate or identical content under different URLs. If both web pages are displayed in a search engine, users may click on the secondary page when users search for it. This will duly affect your website ranking and poor results. That's why canonical tags can be used to ensure that the search engine identifies which one the main page is. Adding a canonical tag to your main page URL will accomplish better traffic on that page.
Are Canonical Tags Important for SEO?
Even if you’re not familiar with on-page (interlinking, HTTP status codes for your website, etc) and off-page SEO, you should know that misdirected traffic to your website can duly affect your website's rankings and overall performance. A canonical tag is an integral part of modern SEO techniques. One thing is clear that Google doesn’t appreciate duplicate content at all.
If you have two or more web pages with similar content, it'll be difficult for Google to choose which one to index. Google will also find it challenging to determine which carrier to rank for relevant queries. That's why google terms it as "manipulation," and it damages the overall performance of your website.
Canonical tags are so important in cases like these. Duplicate content is critical to your website rankings and SEO performance. Too much duplicate content will also affect your "crawl budget."
Crawl budget means every website gets a certain amount of attention from Google. If Google finds similar content each time it crawls on your website, it will affect your website rankings. That's why using canonical tags keeps your website clean and organized in the eyes of Google and also helps in the overall SEO performance of your website.
In the eyes of Google, every unique URL is a specific page. So, a courier may appear the same to humans, but it'll be a whole new engine to a search engine. Let's say you have five URLs, all leading to the home section of your website. To humans, that's not a problem at all. Just click on any URLs, and it'll lead to the home, but that's not the case for a search engine.
To a search engine, it'll be confusing which page to show in case of relevant searches. That's why you can use canonical tags to make sure that Google knows which one of the URLs is the main one to be shown when users search for it.
When to Use Canonical Tags
No one can be sure when and when not to use canonical tags or any other SEO technique. SEO tactics are a sensitive topic because every SEO expert has unique methods and ways of doing things. Google specifies nothing in this case. So, no one can say which strategy is a hundred percent valid one.
However, here are the most common scenarios where using canonical tags proves beneficial for your website’s SEO and overall performance. Please note that hundred percent results are not guaranteed after using canonical tags in the following cases.
1. If You Have Duplicate Content
Uploading duplicate content on your website is not healthy, and everyone knows it. But, in some cases, duplicate content is necessary. For instance, if you want to add an answer to the question asked a week ago on a separate webpage, you'll need to write the question again. So, are you using duplicate content in this case? Yes, but you can avoid this usage affecting your website by using a canonical tag on the main question page and showing google which one is the main page containing the question on your website.
2. If You Have Similar Content
This case is especially seen in eCommerce websites. Such websites usually have similar products list or descriptions on multiple pages. Using proper canonical tags can ensure that search engines don’t get confused with the web pages and the main web page containing the product list. SEO experts always encourage using canonical tags in eCommerce websites. Such tags usage straightens your website's traffic and directs it to its main page, thus improving sales chances.
3. URL Parameters
URL parameters are one of the overlooked entities in SEO techniques. URL parameters are created to track your campaign performance and attribute URLs to specific missions. URL parameters are beneficial but can prove lethal for your SEO if not used correctly. The main problem is every parameter you create for the URL, SEO takes it as duplicate versions of the same page. It tells search engines that many identical web pages are currently being uploaded on your website, damaging your website's SEO reputation.
4. Self-referential Canonicals
Google recently announced that you should use the self-referential canonical tag on every one of your, web pages even if it has identical twins or not. That's why canonical tags usage has caught heat these days. Majorly, it helps in such cases where there are different ways to reach your URL. Let's say you have a webpage that goes by the name "www.xyz.com," but users can also access it by "https://xyz.com," so adding canonical tags in such cases will help the search engine identify that both of these addresses lead to a single page with identical content thus improving the overall SEO of your website.
How To Use Canonical Tags
Canonical tags are no rocket science at all. Here are several different tips for the implementation of basic canonical tags.
1. Use Absolute URLs
A webmaster trend analyst at Google, John Mueller, confirmed on Twitter that using absolute URLs is recommended. Using absolute URLs means you should not use relative paths with the rel=”canonical” element. Instead, you can use the following absolute URL structure
<link rel=”canonical” href=https://example.com/sample-page/ />
2. Use Self-referencing Canonicals
As mentioned earlier, Google has recently announced that using self-referential canonical tags is healthy for your website’s SEO reputation. So, it’s a healthy practice to use self-referencing canonicals on every webpage of your website. To clear it out, a self-referencing canonical is when a page has a canonical tag linking back to itself. Here’s an example to clearly define the usage of self-referencing canonical tags.
The link https://www.example.com/page1 will have the canonical tag:
<link rel=”canonical” href=”https://www.example.com/page1”>
3. Use Lower Case URLs
Google or other search engines may treat upper-case and lower-case letter differences as separate URLs. So, it is always recommended to use lower case letters when forcing URLs on your server. Also, use lower case letters for canonical tags.
4. Use Canonical Tags Across Domains
If you own two websites of the same context but only want to rank one, you can use canonical tags across domains to direct the traffic onto a single website. This is especially helpful for media website owners who own multiple websites with the same news pieces but want to boost a single website.
5. Never Try to Create Chain Canonicals
Creating chain canonical tags means linking page A to page B, page B to page C, etc. If you have a webpage with canonical chain signals, google will ignore your canonicals altogether since it will send an ambiguous call to google. So, It is best never to create a chain of canonical tags.
What you can do in this case is decide on which page you want to direct the most traffic. Then if you wish to all of the traffic on webpage C, you can put canonical tags linking to page C on pages A and B.
6. Don’t Overuse Canonical Tags
If you keep using canonical tags without any reason, google or other search engines may stop trusting your website altogether. That's why using canonical tags is a sensitive yet essential part of modern SEO. Even if two pages are similar, you need to use canonical tags to link them. It may be the case that two web pages with similar content serve a very different purpose.
There may be a product list or sales list on more than two web pages of an eCommerce website. So, you don't have to include canonical links between these two web pages. This part of using canonical tags comes with experience over time. However, it's not wise to overuse canonical tags as google may stop trusting your website if you do so.
Canonical tags are an integral part of modern age SEO. It plays a vital role in improving the overall performance of your website's SEO if it has multiple web pages with similar content or URLs that lead to a single page. Misleading your website traffic is the last thing you wish to do if you keep using canonical tags with proper practices and exceptions; you can expect to see exceptional results in no time.