Whether to use a canonical tag or a 301 redirect while managing duplicate content? Let’s understand these 2 concepts and distinguish them to better understand the options. Your question “When should I use a canonical vs. a 301 redirect?” is very common on most of the private SEO groups as well as SEO Forums. So, let’s dive deep into the topic and discuss them one by one.
Using a 301 redirect, you can permanently move a URL to another. From the user point of view, when they type in a URL, they get redirected to a different URL. In this method, the original URL doesn’t load any content but just redirects to the new URL.
When you implement 301 redirect, there might occur a small delay in load time. However, you can overcome this issue by effective use of CDNs, caching and other modern technologies. Also, there are a lot of methods in practice to implement a 301 redirect. If you’re using Apache, you can implement it in .htaccess file. It differs when it comes to Windows hosting.
Though it is recommended to do the redirect at the .htaccess level if possible, you can also use scripting languages to enable the redirect. Since there are a number of ways through which you can enable redirection, you can find your sweet spot for yourself and continue using it.
SEO experts have been using the canonical tag for a long time, and it is not a new concept. It’s been in practice for more than a decade and still there are struggles in finding the right situation to use it at the right place. The underlying principle behind the introduction of canonical tag is to let the webmaster specify the original URL of a page with duplicate content.
A canonical tag lives in the <head> section of the website.
You can include a canonical tag in the <head> section of your HTML webpage. Also, you must remember that, canonical tag included under the <body> tag of a webpage will not be taken into account.
Here’s a simple canonical tag example:
<link href=”https://example.com” rel=”canonical”>
Sometimes, we can see some webmasters using the canonical attribute inside meta tags or other tags, which is not a best practice. So, it is good to go with the above format.
Canonicals vs. Redirects
Let’s discuss only the redirects in this section so that we can cover the 302 and 307 redirects.
A redirect is a directive, i.e., it directs you to another webpage, but a canonical tag is only a hint to search engines such as Google, Bing, etc. This is what decides when to use canonical vs. redirects.
You must also remember that at times canonical tags may go unnoticed by search engines. For instance, let’s consider a scenario where you have a URL of example.html with a canonical tag pointing to example.htm. Except for the extension, both these URLs are very similar.
Suppose, all the links on your webpage points to example.html and example.html is listed in your sitemap, then there’s a high chance that the canonical tag pointing to example.htm. It is so because all of the other signals are pointing to the .html version and not the .htm version. Though Google understands the intention behind the usage of canonical tags, it chooses to go with other stronger signals.
When to Use a Redirect
Simply put, when you have two pages with similar content, and you don’t want one of the pages for some business reasons, you can use redirect.
Here are some scenarios where you can use redirects
- Products you no longer sell.
- Outdated pages you do not wish to update.
- A page that has been moved to a different URL.
- Pages removed from your website.
- When you bought an expired domain to transfer its domain authority to your site.
However, for temporary purposes, you should not use a 301 redirect as CDNs and certain browsers can cache this and reversing it becomes troublesome. Also, remember that using a redirect may also affect the crawling frequency of search engines. It is not a problem if you’ve planned to move it to a new URL, but reversing it will cause problems.
When to Use a Canonical
There are lots of great uses for canonical tags.
Canonical tags have a lot of significance in SEO. But, you must remember that they help a lot when there is a poor URL structure and the canonical tags act as band-aids and not permanent solutions.
When you can’t prevent a specific URL from being crawled by search engines and it is very similar to another URL in your website, your only choice is to go with a canonical tag.
Here are some examples:
A “print version” of a page.
Unwanted parameters – perhaps from a paid search campaign or something else. Using a canonical can stop those pesky marketing URL strings from showing up in search results.
Facets and sorting of pages
Products that live in multiple categories. When you have a product listed on various categories, you can canonicalize all and use only one version of the product page (if the product page is the same for every category).
Another such situation can be a parameter is added to a URL but the content is not changed.
Also, it can be used when a user alters something on the layout or presentation of the content but the original content remains unaltered.
What If you Have Products with Similar Content & Descriptions?
Many SEO professionals recommend using canonical tags for similar products. In reality, certain products might be known for their iconic color. In this situation, you might want a different page for the product with that color.
Mostly, canonical tags are used as a band-aid for the URL structure for the time being. Simply put, if the content on one of your pages is similar to another page and you don’t want to display both the pages on SERP.
We have expert digital marketers who have hands-on experience in using canonical and redirects for a wide variety of websites. For effective management of your website, you can shoot your requirement to email@example.com or schedule a meeting with our team.