When it comes to web page redirection, deciding which method of redirection to use can be as stressful as Harrison Ford in Air Force One deciding which wires to cut to defuse the bomb. Of course, President Marshall makes the correct decision, defusing the bomb by leaving the patriotic red, white and blue wires uncut.
Man was that movie… insanely predictable.
Unfortunately, for us digital marketers, deciding whether to use a canonical tag or a 301 redirect tag for page redirection is not always as obvious. Knowing the when and why of proper usage of either method will positively impact SEO and the overall user experience on your site.
Defining The 301 Redirect
Ah, the 301 redirect. Standard for permanently redirecting page A to page B. It helps search engines and site visitors find content that has migrated to a new URL. We hit URLs that have 301 redirects on them and never notice! Notice in the example below that the URL changes automatically? It should only be used when the page has been permanently moved.
Essentially, this redirect helps search engines and site visitors find content that has migrated to a new URL.
We actually click URLs that have 301 redirects on them and never realize! Notice in the example below that the URL changes automatically? This should only be used when the page has been permanently moved.
Once the search engine crawls the page the 301 Redirect was placed on, it will remove that page from the index and replace it with the new one – this should only take a few weeks to complete. This option will eventually pass most of the pages link authority, relevance and ranking power to the page you are redirecting too.
When to Use 301 Redirect
Expired Content: One of the most common uses of a 301 Redirect is on expired content. No site visitor wants to land on an event or sales page that is expired, a product page that is no longer carried or a page that returns a 404 error.
Let’s say that your business sells shoes. You have a product page for the Nike Air Pegasus 89 Swan and Medium Grey shoes, which are currently sold out and are never going to be coming back in stock. Visitors coming to this page will see the stock is out and may bounce off your site to go to Sneaky Pete Sneakers site instead. The URL for the page may look like this, www.example.com/nike/air-pegasus/89-swan-grey.
In this case, you would want to place a 301 Redirect on that page pointing to the most relevant page on site. In this example, the 301 Redirect would best utilized by sending search engines and visitors to www.example.com/nike/air-pegasus, as it is most relevant to the expired product the customer was originally searching for.
Multiple Versions of Homepage: A homepage is the face of your business’s website (I personally like to think of it as the Chuck Norris of a site) – it holds more value than the Wendy’s Super Value Menu and lands more visits than JFK Airport.
However, many times we come across duplicate versions of a business’s homepage, which unfortunately can reduce its overall value. The most common homepage versions are listed below:
For most cases, a 301 Redirect should be placed on the duplicate versions of the homepage, directing search engines to index the strongest version, and that version only, as the homepage. In time, the duplicate versions of the page will fall from Google’s index, pass most SEO value to the main homepage and disappear from the interwebs like a ship in the Bermuda Triangle.
Moving Sites: Is your site switching platforms or going through a complete redesign? Maybe you’re switching from a .net domain to a .com or vice versa? Or maybe you’re changing those ugly, long unfriendly URLs you’re sick of seeing to friendlier ones.
To pass the most value to the new site or pages in these situations, the best method to use is the 301 Redirect.
This redirect method tells Google that page A is the preferred version of the page for indexing, and page B, C and D should pass value to page A, but remain accessible to site visitors.
A common mistake made with the rel=”canonical” method, is using it as a substitute for the 310 Redirect. Unlike the 301 redirect, the Canonical Tag will not send users to a recent or relevant page on your site. The tag speaks to the search engine alone – its main purpose is to clean up duplicate content across your domain.
When to use rel=”canonical”
Same Content, Different URLs: Let’s say your business sells both men’s and women’s clothing. You have categories dedicated to each gender, as well as a category for sales and brands. In the men’s category, you have a subcategory for men’s sales, and in the sales category you have a subcategory for men’s sales. Ideally, these two pages’ sub-category pages would direct traffic to the same URL.
However, that is not always the case. In instances where the URLs are different based on the path you followed to get to the page, a canonical tag is suggested. The tag tells search engines that you understand the content on the two pages is very similar or even identical, and that version A is more important to your site’s visitors than version B.
It is important to use a canonical tag in these situations, because it keeps the URL format identical to the way the user navigated to the page, as well as the same as their navigational breadcrumb.
You will also want to use the canonical tag if your site has a dynamic search feature. In this situation, users are presented with multiple options to filter their product results, thus changing the dynamic URL as they do.
Pagination: Pagination is created in several ways. One way is on news and publishing sites when a long article is broken down to pages; a second way is when category pages, such as Men’s Shoes, are broken down to several pages.
However, when this occurrence happens (which is very common, especially on large retail sites), duplicate content is created. Although Google is aware of this issue and does a decent job of presenting searchers with the most relevant results, I suggest the use of canonical tags to clean pagination. However, I must stress the importance of properly doing this.
Let’s say your site sells men’s tennis shoes and your site is set up to display 20 product results at a time. If there are 80 pairs of tennis shoes in your inventory, then you’ll create 4 individual product result pages, as well as a view all page for the men’s tennis shoes subcategory.
Most likely, you have copy on the product result pages explaining the brands and the different tennis shoes the users will find. These 5 pages of products all display the same copy, creating duplicate content and prioritization issues. To fix this, add a canonical tag on the men’s tennis shoes product result pages 1, 2, 3 and 4, and point the tag to the "view all" page.
Why the "view all" page?
By adding the canonical tag on pages 1, 2, 3 and 4 that point to the view all page, you’re telling search engines that the view all page is the version you want to appear in the search results. Pointing to page 1 has potential to eliminate the men’s tennis shoes on pages 2-4 from appearing in the search engine result pages.
While both redirect options transfer similar amounts of SEO value, it’s critical to know which method to use in which situations to create the best experience for your website visitors.
On a final note, don’t forget to track and analyze! Make sure you annotate in Google Analytics when you’ve added 301 redirects or canonical tags to your site, in order to evaluate its performance overtime.
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All the best,
James is an SEO Consultant at Stream Companies, Philadelphia area advertising agency.