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James Brockbank

James Brockbank

2 months ago

Canonical URLs for Beginners

Canonicalization and canonical URLs are essential for SEO, and improper implementation can negatively impact your site's performance.

Canonical tags were introduced in 2009 to help webmasters with duplicate or similar content on multiple URLs.

To use canonical tags properly, you must understand their purpose, operation, and implementation.

Canonical URLs and Tags

Canonical tags tell search engines that a certain URL is a page's master copy. They specify a page's canonical URL. Webmasters can avoid duplicate content by linking to the "canonical" or "preferred" version of a page.

How are canonical tags and URLs different? Can these be specified differently?

Tags

Canonical tags are found in an HTML page's head></head> section.

<link rel="canonical" href="https://www.website.com/page/" />

These can be self-referencing or reference another page's URL to consolidate signals.

Canonical tags and URLs are often used interchangeably, which is incorrect.

The rel="canonical" tag is the most common way to set canonical URLs, but it's not the only way.

Canonical URLs

What's a canonical link? Canonical link is the'master' URL for duplicate pages.

In Google's own words:

A canonical URL is the page Google thinks is most representative of duplicate pages on your site.

— Google Search Console Help

You can indicate your preferred canonical URL. For various reasons, Google may choose a different page than you.

When set correctly, the canonical URL is usually your specified URL.

Canonical URLs determine which page will be shown in search results (unless a duplicate is explicitly better for a user, like a mobile version).

Canonical URLs can be on different domains.

Other ways to specify canonical URLs

Canonical tags are the most common way to specify a canonical URL.

You can also set canonicals by:

  • Setting the HTTP header rel=canonical.

  • All pages listed in a sitemap are suggested as canonicals, but Google decides which pages are duplicates.

  • Redirects 301.

Google recommends these methods, but they aren't all appropriate for every situation, as we'll see below. Each has its own recommended uses.

Setting canonical URLs isn't required; if you don't, Google will use other signals to determine the best page version.

To control how your site appears in search engines and to avoid duplicate content issues, you should use canonicalization effectively.

Why Duplicate Content Exists

Before we discuss why you should use canonical URLs and how to specify them in popular CMSs, we must first explain why duplicate content exists. Nobody intentionally duplicates website content.

Content management systems create multiple URLs when you launch a page, have indexable versions of your site, or use dynamic URLs.

Assume the following URLs display the same content to a user:

  1. https://www.website.com/category/product-a/

  2. https://www.website.com/product-a/

  3. https://website.com/product-a/

  4. http://www.website.com/product-a/

  5. http://website.com/product-a/

  6. https://m.website.com/product-a/

  7. https://www.website.com/product-a

  8. https://www.website.com/product-A/

A search engine sees eight duplicate pages, not one.

  • URLs #1 and #2: the CMS saves product URLs with and without the category name.

  • #3, #4, and #5 result from the site being accessible via HTTP, HTTPS, www, and non-www.

  • #6 is a subdomain mobile-friendly URL.

  • URL #7 lacks URL #2's trailing slash.

  • URL #8 uses a capital "A" instead of a lowercase one.

Duplicate content may also exist in URLs like:

https://www.website.com
https://www.website.com/index.php

Duplicate content is easy to create.

Canonical URLs help search engines identify different page variations as a single URL on many sites.

SEO Canonical URLs

Canonical URLs help you manage duplicate content that could affect site performance.

Canonical URLs are a technical SEO focus area for many reasons.

Specify URL for search results

When you set a canonical URL, you tell Google which page version to display.

Which would you click?

https://www.domain.com/page-1/

https://www.domain.com/index.php?id=2

First, probably.

Canonicals tell search engines which URL to rank.

Consolidate link signals on similar pages

When you have duplicate or nearly identical pages on your site, the URLs may get external links.

Canonical URLs consolidate multiple pages' link signals into a single URL.

This helps your site rank because signals from multiple URLs are consolidated into one.

Syndication management

Content is often syndicated to reach new audiences.

Canonical URLs consolidate ranking signals to prevent duplicate pages from ranking and ensure the original content ranks.

Avoid Googlebot duplicate page crawling

Canonical URLs ensure that Googlebot crawls your new pages rather than duplicated versions of the same one across mobile and desktop versions, for example.

Crawl budgets aren't an issue for most sites unless they have 100,000+ pages.

How to Correctly Implement the rel=canonical Tag

Using the header tag rel="canonical" is the most common way to specify canonical URLs.

Adding tags and HTML code may seem daunting if you're not a developer, but most CMS platforms allow canonicals out-of-the-box.

These URLs each have one product.

How to Correctly Implement a rel="canonical" HTTP Header

A rel="canonical" HTTP header can replace canonical tags.

This is how to implement a canonical URL for PDFs or non-HTML documents.

You can specify a canonical URL in your site's.htaccess file using the code below.

<Files "file-to-canonicalize.pdf"> Header add Link "< http://www.website.com/canonical-page/>; rel=\"canonical\"" </Files>

301 redirects for canonical URLs

Google says 301 redirects can specify canonical URLs.

Only the canonical URL will exist if you use 301 redirects. This will redirect duplicates.

This is the best way to fix duplicate content across:

  • HTTPS and HTTP

  • Non-WWW and WWW

  • Trailing-Slash and Non-Trailing Slash URLs

On a single page, you should use canonical tags unless you can confidently delete and redirect the page.

Sitemaps' canonical URLs

Google assumes sitemap URLs are canonical, so don't include non-canonical URLs.

This does not guarantee canonical URLs, but is a best practice for sitemaps.

Best-practice Canonical Tag

Once you understand a few simple best practices for canonical tags, spotting and cleaning up duplicate content becomes much easier.

Always include:

One canonical URL per page

If you specify multiple canonical URLs per page, they will likely be ignored.

Correct Domain Protocol

If your site uses HTTPS, use this as the canonical URL. It's easy to reference the wrong protocol, so check for it to catch it early.

Trailing slash or non-trailing slash URLs

Be sure to include trailing slashes in your canonical URL if your site uses them.

Specify URLs other than WWW

Search engines see non-WWW and WWW URLs as duplicate pages, so use the correct one.

Absolute URLs

To ensure proper interpretation, canonical tags should use absolute URLs.

So use:

<link rel="canonical" href="https://www.website.com/page-a/" />

And not:

<link rel="canonical" href="/page-a/" />

If not canonicalizing, use self-referential canonical URLs.

When a page isn't canonicalizing to another URL, use self-referencing canonical URLs.

Canonical tags refer to themselves here.

Common Canonical Tags Mistakes

Here are some common canonical tag mistakes.

301 Canonicalization

Set the canonical URL as the redirect target, not a redirected URL.

Incorrect Domain Canonicalization

If your site uses HTTPS, don't set canonical URLs to HTTP.

Irrelevant Canonicalization

Canonicalize URLs to duplicate or near-identical content only.

SEOs sometimes try to pass link signals via canonical tags from unrelated content to increase rank. This isn't how canonicalization should be used and should be avoided.

Multiple Canonical URLs

Only use one canonical tag or URL per page; otherwise, they may all be ignored.

When overriding defaults in some CMSs, you may accidentally include two canonical tags in your page's <head>.

Pagination vs. Canonicalization

Incorrect pagination can cause duplicate content. Canonicalizing URLs to the first page isn't always the best solution.

Canonicalize to a 'view all' page.

How to Audit Canonical Tags (and Fix Issues)

Audit your site's canonical tags to find canonicalization issues.

SEMrush Site Audit can help. You'll find canonical tag checks in your website's site audit report.

Let's examine these issues and their solutions.

No Canonical Tag on AMP

Site Audit will flag AMP pages without canonical tags.

Canonicalization between AMP and non-AMP pages is important.

Add a rel="canonical" tag to each AMP page's head>.

No HTTPS redirect or canonical from HTTP homepage

Duplicate content issues will be flagged in the Site Audit if your site is accessible via HTTPS and HTTP.

You can fix this by 301 redirecting or adding a canonical tag to HTTP pages that references HTTPS.

Broken canonical links

Broken canonical links won't be considered canonical URLs.

This error could mean your canonical links point to non-existent pages, complicating crawling and indexing.

Update broken canonical links to the correct URLs.

Multiple canonical URLs

This error occurs when a page has multiple canonical URLs.

Remove duplicate tags and leave one.

Canonicalization is a key SEO concept, and using it incorrectly can hurt your site's performance.

Once you understand how it works, what it does, and how to find and fix issues, you can use it effectively to remove duplicate content from your site.


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