Canonical Link Element vs. 301 Redirect

An Account Manager’s Guide to Best Practices for Implementing on Your Clients’ Sites

If you’re in the digital marketing industry, odds are that you’ve heard of both canonical link elements and 301 redirects. 301 redirects are easy enough to understand; they direct users from one URL (usually an old page or a page that no longer exists) to the new, preferred page you wish to take them to. For most purposes – and especially for SEO purposes – it is a best practice to use 301 redirects rather than 302 redirects.

  • 301 redirects are known as permanent redirects. They tell the search engine that one page is being permanently moved to another, so they pass their PageRank and authority to the new page.
  • 302s, on the other hand, are seen as only a temporary movement, so they don’t pass any PageRank to the new URL.
  • Canonical link elements, on the other hand, are initially more difficult to wrap your head around if you’re not on the technical side of things. A canonical link element tells the search engine that two or more pages are the same, and that one of the pages (or “the original page”) should be indexed and given all of the credit, while the other page(s) only remain on the site for the user’s benefit.

While a 301 redirect and a canonical link element seem to be used for similar things, they are beneficial for different reasons and different occasions. So, how do you know when to recommend a 301 redirect vs. a canonical link element tag?

 

Canonical Link Elements

Canonical link elements are most often used on blogs, articles, or in e-commerce. We will use the Rocket55 blog as our example. Imagine you have a post relating to SEO myths and you have it categorized in the blog’s “SEO” category. It would typically have two (or more) URLs that could take you to that page because they include the /categories/ in their URLs. Both of the URLs improve user experience and make it easier find the content the user is looking for. Search engines understand this, and this is one of the main reasons they support this element.

To fix this, you would add a canonical element by placing a

“link rel=canonical”

before the URL in the section of the code on the non-designated page to specify which url should be credited as the “main page”. This will tell the search engines that the specified page should be the only page showing up in search results. How to implement this is easy, you can add a simple

<link rel=”canonical” href="http://www.rocket55.com/rocket55s-seo-mythbusters-special/" />

in the

<head>

section of your site on the duplicate page. This tells search engines to only show the “pretty URL” listed above. This kind of element is usually implemented on URLs like this:

http://www.rocket55.com/categories/seo/rocket55s-seo-mythbusters-special/

The canonical tag tells the search engine not to list this page in the search results, warding off any potential duplicate content penalties.

Another benefit of the canonical link element is the merging of both pages’ previous authorities. Basically, by adding a canonical link element to the duplicate page (or the non-specified page), it tells search engines to take into consideration the links to each of the pages in terms of PageRank, instead of only the original one. This is especially helpful if there are many links to both of the pages. There can still be some loss in terms of PageRank through this process. However, Google claims that any loss you would see would be minimal.

When to Use Canonical Link Element

A canonical link element is used when there are multiple pages with similar/identical content, or in e-commerce when you can get to a single product through multiple filters, resulting in different URLs but nearly identical content on each page. Using a canonical link element here would notify search engines that you will keep all pages live on your site so users can access them however easiest, but without any redirects in place. This will also tell search engines that only one of those pages should appear in the search results. You could also use canonical link elements if you have multiple domains and want to keep similar (or the exact same) content for pricing, travel times, etc. on each site. This would ensure that Google only uses one of those pages as the authority and displays it in the search results.

 

301 Redirects

On the other hand, 301 redirects are extremely valuable for search engine optimization purposes when you have expired content or domains that are being moved. Again, using 301 redirects will help you keep a majority of your authority. According to Search Engine Watch, it is estimated that you will keep between 90%-99% of the link value from the URL you are redirecting because it signifies a permanent redirect instead of a temporary redirect (a 302). A 302 redirect passes on almost no link value from the previous URL. So, if you are about to set up a redirect plan, you will want to mostly – if not only – use 301 redirects in order to get the most link juice passed to your new pages.

When to Use 301 Redirect

If your purpose is to actually take the user from an old/removed page to a newer/live page, you are going to want to use a 301 redirect. This would be the best strategy if you were changing domains, launching a new site with new folders and URL paths, or trying to remedy 404 errors.

 

In Conclusion

While it can be easy to confuse the uses of a 301 redirect or a canonical link element, the bottom line is that you need to decide which audience you are catering to – search engine bots or site users. When it comes to duplicate content, you’re better off using a 301 redirect if you can completely – and confidently – remove the duplicate page. However, if you need to keep the duplicate page for an improved user experience, then a canonical link element will be the best practice in terms of SEO purposes. I hope this article clears things up for you! Happy canonicalizing!