What is a Canonical URL? A Beginner’s Guide to SEO

Staff Writer
Last Updated
May 21, 2024
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When you have a website for your business, the goal is to reach as many users as you can, but there might be some issues along the way, especially if you’re looking to cater to a global audience. You start realizing that different geographical locations use different languages, or at least different versions of a language, that your website might not accommodate. Rather than creating several duplicates of your website, it’s much better to use canonical URLs and tags.

What is a Canonical URL?

A canonical URL is the version of your website that Google believes is the most representative out of a group of duplicate or identical pages. Here are some examples where duplicate pages on your website may occur:

  • Filters on Product Pages: Product pages allow users to apply filters to narrow down the search results, but this may result in duplicate pages. This happens because the filters specified append longer parameters at the end of the canonical URL of the product page.
  • Different Website Languages: Websites that cater to a more global audience will naturally have to accommodate multiple languages, with each one being accessible through a different URL. While the languages may vary, users will still be brought to the same pages and content.
  • Directory Pages with Multiple Pages: Websites like blogs or news sites often organize their content with different pages, and each page will have a unique URL that allows users to navigate content easily. Duplicate content may occur when the same content appears on multiple pages within the same directory.

This canonical version chosen by Google will be the one that’s indexed and shown to users when they search for a relevant query. Here’s an example of URLs that lead to the same page:

  • https://website-link.com/product/shirt
  • https://website-link.com/fr/product/shirt

In this example, Google will choose one of these links to become the canonical link. The same can be said for a group of pages that are almost identical, such as those that only differ from each other due to the sorting or filtering of the content, regardless of whether they’re in the same domain or not.

However, it’s worth noting that the choice of which URL will be considered canonical can also be influenced by the help of canonical tags added to your website’s source code. Here’s an example of a canonical tag and what it looks like as a piece of code:

  • Canonical URL: https://website-link.com/product/shirt
  • Canonical Tag: <link rel=”canonical” href=”https://website-link.com/product/shirt”>

Why are Canonical URLs Important?

Prevents Duplicate Content

The main benefit of canonical URLs is to prevent similar or identical pages from competing for the same keywords, also known as keyword cannibalization. Having duplicate content can incur penalties, impacting your rankings and website performance, so setting up canonical tags will help with this. It’s also worth noting that your website may incur penalties from search engines for duplicate content while also suffering in terms of ranking and performance.

More Control on What Users See

With canonical tags, you have the power to show the best version of any of your pages on the search engine results pages, leading to higher click rates, boosted engagement, and positive user experience.

Improved Site Structure and Indexing

When used properly, canonical URLs can help search engines understand your site structure better. And when they have an easier time comprehending your site, they can index your pages more easily and efficiently, while preventing any indexation of similar content.

How to Set Canonical URLs?

While Google is capable of choosing the canonical URL for you, sometimes it does not choose the best version of the page. This is why setting up a canonical URL is beneficial for this. There are several methods you can use to set your canonical URLs:

Adding Canonical Tags to Your Source Code

A canonical tag is a piece of HTML code that’s added to the <head> section of your website’s source code, allowing you to declare a canonical URL on a page level. This code will send a signal to Google that the specified website should be considered the canonical version, which will be the one that’s indexed and shown in search results. You can refer to the example above if you want to get a better idea of what it looks like.

Canonical tags work by starting at a non-canonical version and pointing or redirecting towards the canonical version. However, it’s also important to add a self-referencing canonical tag—a canonical tag that leads back to the canonical URL—to the canonical version of the page. This will reinforce its status as the preferred version of your page.

Using Website Plugins

While the previous method is the most straightforward way to declare a canonical URL, executing on certain website platforms may be difficult. For these situations, you can instead look towards SEO plugins that allow you to specify a canonical version of your page more easily. There are a few that you can take a look at:

  • Yoast SEO Plugin: Yoast is an all-around SEO plugin available on WordPress, which provides you with a wide range of SEO functionalities that you can use to drive the traffic and engagement of your website. Find your way to the Yoast SEO options on any of your website’s pages before clicking on the Advanced option. There, you’ll be able to specify your page’s canonical URL by simply pasting it on the appropriate field.
  • Rank Math SEO Plugin: Rank Math is another WordPress SEO plugin option that you can use. After selecting any post or page on your website, make your way to the Rank Math SEO box before opening up the Advanced tab. There will be an entry box where you can paste the canonical version of your page easily.
  • All in One SEO Plugin: You can also use the WordPress plugin All in One to help you set a canonical URL. Once you’ve entered the editing interface of a page on your website, just scroll down to the All in One SEO Settings section before clicking on the Advanced tab. There, you’ll be able to enter the full URL that you want to set as the canonical URL of your page.

The Takeaway

Canonical tags allow you to choose which version of your webpage you want to show up on search engine results pages. From an SEO perspective, canonical tags can actually help you rank higher for certain keywords and queries, deliver a much more positive user experience, and ensure that Google’s crawlers and bots are indexing your website accurately and efficiently. 

All of these work together to boost your overall performance on results pages and help your website’s visibility and reach.

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