What are Canonical Tags?

It is quite possible that you are hearing the term “canonical tags” for the first time right here, right now.  Or perhaps you’ve heard the term, but it didn’t quite make sense, so you nodded pleasantly and went on with your own business.  It turns out, canonical tags can make a huge difference in how your business’s website ranks on Google.

There’s no time like the present to explore what these things do, where they come from, and how to make sure your business’s website isn’t losing out on ranking!

What Is a Canonical Tag, Anyway?

Canonical Tags were born as the brainchild of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, and they’ve been around since 2009.  In its most basic form, a canonical tag is a portion of HTML code that tells search engines which version of a duplicate, near-duplicate, or very similar page is the main version– that is, the one that should be crawled and ranked.

At this point, you might be wondering where duplicate pages come from.  Before you hurry off to check for mistakes on your website, it’s not quite what you think.  This doesn’t mean that someone is making copies of your website, but more that there might be more than one version of many pages on your website.

For example, let’s say you sell t-shirts.  Someone looking at the gallery of t-shirts on your website might see a URL such as “www.successfulbusinesswebsite.com/tshirts”.  But if they click on a specific t-shirt, they might see “www.successfulbusinesswebsite.com/tshirts?color=orange”.

While to you, that’s an entirely different piece of information, Google will have no idea that this isn’t the same URL. Furthermore, if you don’t specify which page is the canonical URL, the crawl might just try to decide on its own.

By specifying which page is the main page, you’ll be able to tell Google exactly which page to index.

Links from other sources

Additionally, when customers visit your site from social media, when they perform an internal site search, when they receive a referral link, or when they link to your website from another site, such as an affiliate, these actions can generate yet another URL that looks nearly identical to your established URL… at least, according to the crawl bots.

That means Google might consider this duplicate content, which is bad news when you’re trying to prove you have a unique and front-page worthy website.

How Can I Add Canonical Designations?

Thankfully, many content management systems help mitigate this issue by allowing you to add these tags very easily, if they’re not already added.

If you use WordPress, for example, the process can be as simple as installing Yoast SEO.  This program automatically adds self-referencing canonical tags, but allows you to set your own custom tags with the “Advanced” option on each post or page.

If Shopify is part of your website, rest assured that this service adds self-referencing canonical URLs to all products and blog posts by default.  You can set custom URLs, but you’ll need to edit the files, rather than having a swoop solution for updating them all.

The actual process is not too terribly difficult, but it may take plenty of time and lots of careful attention to the task at hand.  The HTML code on each page that you want to be considered the main version will need to be updated with a little tag within the <head> section.

For example:

<link rel=”canonical” href=”https://www.successfulbusinesswebsite.com/tshirts/” />

If you are completely lost at this point, it might be best to leave the actual coding part to the professionals.  However, you want to be able to identify where and when you should enter these tags, so keep reading!

What Makes a Good Canonical (Tag) Choice?

The goal here is not to make each single possible click of your website a canonical URL, but to give Google an idea of where to look if they want to know who you are and what you do best.  Here are a few rules to follow when determining what will get the tag:

  • One canonical tag per page.  When revisiting the tags on your page, make sure that there aren’t also multiple tags pointing to one page.  Google might take this as a duplicate and ignore them all.
  • Don’t always point at the homepage.  As a follow up to the last point, make sure your canonical tags point to different pages of your website.  
  • Think of where you want people to go.  If you want them to look at your t-shirts, no matter where they find the link to your t-shirts, then the canonical URL should be www.successfulbusinesswebsite.com/tshirts
  • Choose the link that is most popularly used.  Especially once you’ve set up a canonical URL or tag, don’t deviate from that particular link when linking internally across your site.  So if you link to the canonical version of www.successfulbusinesswebsite.com/tshirts from one page, don’t suddenly change that to the non-canonical www.successfulbusinesswebsite.com/tshirts?color=orange

Additionally, if you’re looking at the article “Why My Website Isn’t Showing Up on Google” and wondering if the robots.txt option might be a great loophole around this, the answer is “no.”  Don’t try to reprogram the web just to point the Google crawl bot in the right direction!

Some more elements to keep in mind

If HTML and URLs and tags aren’t your particular area of expertise, it’s possible that you’re still as mystified about canonical tags as you were before.  In this case, it’s best to consult with a professional web developer to make sure you’ve got your bases covered.

When you sit down to discuss the canonical tags and URLs, consider where you want Google to look for the information customers might search for.  For example, even if hundreds of people find the orange t-shirt link via a social media influencer, perhaps you don’t want that link to confuse search engines.

That’s why having the basic www.successfulbusinesswebsite.com/tshirts URL as canon can help avoid Google clutter.  Take the time to pare any duplicates from their source, and decide which version you want to be the main version that represents your business on that coveted Google front page.

From there, it’s just a bit of coding, and you’ll be set… until your next site revision, of course!


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