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How and When to Use a Canonical Tag?

Dec 30, 2019
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When it comes to technical SEO, many of the terms can make the task seem overwhelming. This is true of today's topic, rel canonical. In this video, I'll share how and when to use a canonical tag as well as give you some short cuts to make this technical SEO strategy easier to implement. 

 

Tools I used in the video

Here is the Moz article I referenced as well.  

Video Transcript

Hey, thanks for checking out this video. If this is your first time watching or maybe you've been watching a while and you have not yet hit subscribe, please do so now. We create new content each and every week to help you get the most out of your marketing needs online, so let's talk about the canonical tag and what does it mean and why it matters to SEO.

A canonical tag is aka rel canonical. It's a way of telling the search engines that a specific URL on your site is the main copy or the master copy of a page, so, for instance, you might have a number of pieces of content that talk about a specific topic, but which one is the page that you want to be the authoritative piece, the one that you want to rank for that targeted keyword?

This is where the canonical tag comes in, and it's extremely important, so the reasons it matters are, really, there's three main reasons. The first and probably the most important is that crawlers can miss your unique content because they'll leave if they find too much duplicate content on your site. There's something called a crawl budget, and this is how much a crawler will spend time reading through your content, and each site has an expected amount that the crawler is going to give it. If he keeps hitting duplicate content or content that's very similar, a crawler will most likely stop crawling your site and move on because he says, "I think I know everything and know about this site," and that can hurt you because you may have good, unique content that you actually want to rank, but, because it's not structured properly, the crawler will stop and then may not index that piece of content.

The number two reason is that duplicate content can weaken your ranking ability. You can start to cannibalize yourself, where you're trying to compete for a specific term and you have multiple pages that are all very similar. They can start to really knock your pages down because you have too much content trying to rank for a specific term and Google starts to push you down and ignore you because it's not unique content, it's not pointing to the right page, and this leads into three is that, if you do rank, the wrong URL might be ranking as the original piece, so maybe you created a supportive piece, but that's not the piece that you wanted to drive traffic.

It's not that money page that's going to lead to conversions, and, now, because of that, you have the wrong page ranking, and this can happen a lot especially when it comes to a pillar strategy where someone creates a pillar page and he creates content around there. If they haven't set it up properly or built the pages properly and are not using canonicalization, then they might have one of those side pieces ranking instead of that pillar page, which is the most important part of the strategy.

Here are some best practices that you want to look at, and you can find these on moz.com. They have tons of good information all the time. I highly recommend you checking out all their SEO courses, everything else that they do, the Whiteboard Fridays, all the old stuff from Rand, and all the new stuff they've been bringing out is great, but they give us these best practices, and these are great. There was no reason for me to create new ones because why reinvent the wheel if they've already done it for us?

The first one is canonicalizing your homepage or even what we would call a self-referral, so one and two are very similar. This means putting a canonical tag on the page that you are deeming as the right page. You want to actually rel canonicalize that page itself. Instead of confusing you any more by using this term another time, I'm going to show you what that looks like.

We have our main website right here for our agency. If we would right click on here and we view the inspection of this page, we can see that this is the site, and then we can also go down and we will find a rel canonical tag to the exact same page, so not only is this taking care of the homepage like we talked about, but it's also saying that, hey, any other page that has smamarketing.net with or without the WWW, with or without HTTPS, when it comes to this page being authoritative, even this page itself, we're looking at this page, we're actually putting what would be known as a self-referral in here, and so we're telling Google, hey, you're on this page, but this is also the canonical page, so, on the HTTP, HTTPS, no-WWW version, we would also, if we had one, we don't have one, we're not duplicating our content like that, but if we did, we would say, hey, the canonical is the main page.

You would use this also on pieces of content. Let's say, we want to do our SEO page and we're just looking at SEO and we view the page source, we would want to make sure that we have our rel canonical saying, hey, this is the page that is the SEO page. Now, if there's any other pages that are in the theme or the topic of SEO, but aren't necessarily the canonical tag that we don't want them to specifically be known on our page as that SEO page, we would put this rel canonical tag in that page as well.

I hope this isn't really super confusing. I know that it can be, but it's adding these simple things in your site that can make a huge difference. It can impact your crawl budget. It can impact what page gets ranked and helps the search engines better understand your content. I know this can seem a little hard to understand at times, but if you slow down and you start to think about which pages need to have these tags in them and which pages are possibly competing for the terms that you're also trying to rank your money pages for, it can really help make sure that your right pages are ranking and that the right content is being seen as the authoritative piece.

You also want to spot=check for dynamic canonical tags in URLs, and this happens a lot on E-commerce sites maybe where you have products that are similar, maybe where you have other pages that are coming out from your CMS where you maybe got a category page or a tag page. Those pages in and of themselves aren't bad, but if they're outranking your main page, then it's not really helping you. It actually can end up hurting you in the long run, so slowing down and making sure that you've got a tag in your blog page or your topics page and that is a topic of SEO, and you want to make sure that it has a rel canonical back to the main page of your site so you're not having that weird dynamically generated tag.

You also want to avoid mixed signals. Now, this happens in what we call redirect chains where you have a page redirect to a page that's actually redirecting to another page. The same thing could happen in... with rel canonicals, so, for instance, you'd have page A, and page A is redirecting to page B. It's saying that B is actually the main page here, but then you actually have a rel canonical tag on B that's saying, actually, it's C that's the right page, so you want to avoid this chain here. What you would want to do is have the rel canonical there from B to C, and then you would also have a separate one that would actually be from A to C as well, and now you're just being very clear with what page is the most important page when it comes to ranking instead of confusing the search engines.

Think about how they're going to read your content. Be careful of near duplicates. This is something Moz talks about, and I think it's really important to think about. You can do it for similar pages, but if there's enough difference between them and it's not conflicting, you might be pushing a page that's already ranking for some related terms away from the search engines, so think about how different the pages are and how duplicate they are and see if it's of any value, leaving that page, it's the same, maybe adjusting the content a little bit, but not necessarily putting in that tag because, let's say, you're doing a piece of content on SEO, but then you do a piece of content on SEO best practices, and the term you're focusing on here is best practices and not necessarily the core term, and even though you have some similar content, you might want that other page to still be its own page and be treated as such.

Also, if it's not related enough, the search engines can ignore the rel canonical tag. These tags, these meta-informations a lot of times aren't necessarily rules. They're more along the lines of suggestions, and that's an important thing to understand and distinguish that, just because you have that in there, it doesn't mean it's always going to be read the way that you think it's going to be read.

The other thing you want to make sure to do is also to canonicalize across domains, so let's say you have a blog and then your www. and maybe an info., so you're using sub-domains. Make sure that you add those canonical tags across there because that still can have duplicates. Also, if you're publishing your content on your blog and you're also doing it on the Medium blog, make sure that you have that rel canonical back to your main page, the one that you want to rank. This is very important because this is going to make sure again that your main content ranks and not the content that's been maybe used across the Web or maybe syndicated. Maybe you're doing some syndication. Make sure that all the syndicate pieces have a rel clinical tag back to your main piece of content which lays on your website.

How do you check for this? How do you make sure that your pages have canonical tags? How do you make sure it's going to the right page, and how do you make sure these pages are actually crawl-able and index-able? You just saw what I did over here already. I used the Web tools available to us here by page source on Chrome. You can do this on almost every browser. Look at the page source, and then you can either search for it or know that it's going to be up here in the header tag. Make sure that it is pointing to the page that you want it to go to.

The other option is to use the Moz toolbar. What this does is it gives you some free data from Moz. You just sign in with your free account. All you want to do here is click page analysis and then general attributes, and it will tell you where this page has a rel canonical tag and make sure that it's pointing to the page that you want it to.

There's also another great tool, and it is called Screaming Frog. If you're not using Screaming Frog, it's a great tool for crawling your site and understanding how search engines to your site. Up here at the top, it will show you all the canonical tags. It'll also let you know if they're index-able or not. The reason you want to make sure that they're index-able, this will tell you whether or not this page is being read and in the index from Google. Is this able to be indexed? This is important. I like using Screaming Frog because it's going to pull out a list of them for you, and then you can see where the link element is going to. It's going to tell you if it's index-able or not, a lot of information.

Again, Screaming Frog is free. There are paid versions of it as well if you have a much larger site and need more data, but this is a great use of the tool. You can export this and then work with it inside of Excel or Google Docs, something along that line. That's going to allow you to manipulate it and see what you need to see, so, as you can see from this video, rel canonical is a simple thing that you can leverage and help make sure that your site is more crawl-friendly and make sure that your on-page and your technical SEO is working for you.

If you have any questions, please comment below, and until next time, Happy Marketing.

 

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Ryan Shelley, CPBI

By Ryan Shelley, CPBI

Ryan is passionate about helping companies make a more personal connection online with their customers and prospects. He is a regular contributor to Search Engine Land, the largest and most popular SEO news site on the web. His works have also been featured on the HubSpot Blog, Business2Community and by LinkedIn Marketing Solutions.

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