When the exact same or near-identical content appears on two or more pages, it is called duplicate content. The biggest problem with duplicate content is that search engines don’t know which versions of content to index or show in search results. It’s also hard to figure out where to directly link metrics like authority and trust. And when other sites need to choose between duplicate content versions to link back to, any of the many links may be chosen, diluting link fairness.

This is where Canonical URLs come in. They are used to weed out problems caused by duplicate content, thereby improving your search engine rankings.

The Ultimate Guide to Canonical URLs

What is a canonical URL?

The canonical URL referenced because of the HTML tag rel=”canonical” is what search engines use to find the major version of content when there are multiple versions of a page on the same site or on different sites.

For example, let’s say you publish a blog post on your website. Then, you also want to publish that blog post on your LinkedIn and Medium accounts. Using canonical tags, you let search engines know that even if the same blog post appears on multiple sites, the article on your site is the master version and should appear in search results.

Remember, a canonical URL isn’t technically a real URL — it’s more of a tag attached to the URL to convey its meaning to search engines.

You can’t access that canonical URL like you would the main URL. Instead, the canonical version is placed in the HTML code of the page (or specified for the page via a plugin).

Why you should use canonical URLs

The canonicalization of the URL tells search engines which is the master version of the page, which is the page that should appear in search results, not other copies of the page. When people are looking for content to link back to, the canonical page comes up, and they choose the one that establishes link equity. Additionally, metrics for a piece of content are consolidated into one page, making your metrics reporting more reliable.

Canonical URL and copied content

Copied content can be a problem. Canonical URLs let anyone copying content know which tag to use in their page title. However, it is the responsibility of the copyer to tell search engines that they copied the content by putting rel=”canonical” in the title of their site and pointing to your content.

Other times, you might want to be a copier. This is common in press releases, for example. You can publish a press release on the company website first, but attribute the original source of the content to the syndicated network. This will make you a co-organizer rather than an original publisher – at least according to search engines.

However, we should note that it is not always necessary to include the canonical URL in the copied content. Or sometimes ignored. Search engines do a great job of finding the true original source of content. So if you’re going to use a canonical URL to point to a non-original URL, like in the press release example above, just know that search engines may ignore it. Use this strategy at your own discretion. For SEO, it’s in an annoying gray area, if not a full-blown black hat strategy.

How can canonical URLs affect SEO?

Now, while we definitely recommend using canonical URLs to weed out duplicate content issues, it’s important to note that Google doesn’t technically penalize sites for posting duplicate content. However, it can hurt your search engine rankings – it’s kind of like being penalized. When it is difficult for search engines to determine which is the main version of the content, no one version will rank highly.

The Ultimate Guide to Canonical URLs

Search engines may also choose the wrong version and link to untrustworthy sites, which means that if users don’t like the look of a URL, it may not be clicked and read at all. Also, when you have duplicate content on your site, your crawl budget is eaten up. Search engines crawl and re-crawl websites to find new content, and if you have duplicate content on your website, it will take longer to crawl them all. This means that search engines will take longer to index these new pages and rank them in search results.

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