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Canonical URLs can be confusing for a layperson, but learning what it is and how it affects search engine results for your business can save you headaches later on. — Getty Images/Os Tartarouchos

If you're trying to improve your site's visibility in search engines, using canonical URLs is a good strategy to use. Canonical URLs affect how your website's content is displayed in search results. Let's look at how canonical URLs work and some common mistakes to avoid as you get started.

[Read more: How to Ensure Your Business Website Is SEO-Optimized]

What is a canonical URL?

A canonical URL is the version of a webpage automatically chosen by search engines to avoid showing repetitive content in search results. When multiple URLs point to the same piece of content, Google selects a canonical URL as the master version.

Specifying a canonical URL is therefore important for search engine optimization (SEO) since Google only indexes canonical URLs. Plus, it can be harder for website owners to track page metrics for content that has multiple URLs attached to it.

If you specify a canonical URL for duplicate web pages, Google Search usually recognizes your preferences. But if you haven't chosen a canonical URL, Google will pick one for you, and it may not be the URL you want.

For example, the following URLs have the same content, but most website owners prefer the first URL:


[Read more: 6 Things You Should Always Include on Your Business's Website]

Specifying a canonical URL is therefore important for search engine optimization (SEO) since Google only indexes canonical URLs.

Ways to set a canonical URL

Many people specify canonical URLs by using canonical tags, which is an element you'll add to your website's HTML. But according to Google, there are several different ways you can specify a canonical URL for duplicate content, including the following:

  • Implement redirects: Redirects tell web browsers and search engine crawlers to forward one URL to another, ensuring that users are directed to the correct URL.
  • Use canonical tags: The rel="canonical" link annotation is an HTML element used to specify a canonical version of a webpage. You'll add this tag to the <head> section of the page.
  • Integrate sitemap inclusion: Sitemap inclusion is the process of adding URLs to a sitemap file, which is submitted to search engines' indexing web pages.

Each of the above methods is effective by itself, but stacking them helps you achieve the best results. If you don't want to add canonical tags directly to the HTML on your site, you can also use a plug-in like Yoast SEO. Yoast automatically adds a self-referencing canonical URL.

[Read more: 4 Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Practices Every Small Businesses Must Know]

Common mistakes to avoid

If you're not a website developer, canonical URLs can be confusing. Using canonical URLs incorrectly can actually be worse than choosing not to use them at all. Below are some common mistakes to avoid when using canonical URLs:

  • Using incorrect tags: Setting a canonical tag to a nonexistent URL makes it hard for search engines to know which page to index. Always verify that the chosen URL is correct and is the preferred version of the content.
  • Choosing a nonindexed URL: If your desired URL is blocked from indexing due to noindex tags, search engines won't be able to follow the redirect. Ensure that all canonical URLs are crawlable and indexable.
  • Forgetting to update canonical tags: If you redesign your website and move pages around, you must also update your canonical tags. Outdated tags can lead to broken links or incorrect page indexing, which hurts your site's SEO.
  • Overusing tags: Canonical tags are mainly designed to fix issues with duplicate content and aren't necessary on most unique content pages.
  • Not self-canonicalizing: Every page should have a self-referencing canonical tag pointing to itself. Doing this reinforces to search engines the preferred URL for each page.

[Read more: How to Ensure Your Business Website Is SEO-Optimized]

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