In my article on duplicate content, I talked about why "duplicate content isn't really a penalty but it can cause a split of ranking signals that can harm your search traffic potential." In this new post, let's talk about what you can do to ameliorate the effects of these splits of ranking signals.
This is going to be part two of a series on duplicating content…so if you haven't read over the first one yet, go do that. Then come back here for this one. It'll make more sense. ;)
I'm going to make a few assumptions as we get started: 1) You have two URLs that serve very similar content from time to time (or all the time), 2) there's no real reason to maintain the duplicate (i.e., they're not serving different audiences), 3) you'd like them to maintain some version of your site's authority, 4) you don't want to cause problems with search engine rankings by creating too much duplicate content on different URLs.
If that's the case, then there are two options I can suggest: 1) use a 301 redirect for one of the URLs (if it doesn't make sense to keep both copies), or 2) set up a rel=canonical tag (between two of the pages).
Let me give some quick background on what each thing is and why you might want to use either option before getting into specifics. You can skip this part if you already know how those things work.
301 Redirects: An HTTP 301 redirect is a permanent type of redirect, which tells the search engines to permanently show the users the new location of your content instead of where it used to be. With a 301 redirect, there's no need to tell the engines that they should "STOP" following links and not pass ranking credit on links that they followed before…they just automatically know that everyone should follow the new address and ignore the old one (and keep 100% of their ranking signals).
Rel=Canonical: A rel=canonical tag is simply an HTML element you place between two pages…the general format looks something like this:
The engines treat the canonical page like any other page…they follow any outbound links, pass along PageRank (when appropriate), and all that good stuff. However, they also stop following internal links on that particular page (and if there are no more pages to link to within your site, then it tells them to stop following external links as well). The engine treats the canonicalized page like it has a 301 redirect attached to it (without the performance hit of actually doing a HTTP 301 redirect which is why you'd prefer not to do things with actual 301s inside your site)…so you really only need rel=canonical when CERTAIN circumstances match: 1) You have two (or more) pages that serve the same content and you'd like to 1) maintain some version of your site's authority and not split its signals, but also 2) avoid creating too much duplicate content on different URLs.
That being said, what are some common scenarios where people might want to use either a 301 redirect or set up a rel=canonical tag?
Scenario #1: You have two versions of an article with slight variations in title/description…and they're essentially duplicates. For example, maybe you wrote one called "What Color is Your Underwear?" but it turns out "What Color Will Your Underwear Be When You Die?" is a better title for SEO purposes…so now you have two pages that are slightly different but serve the exact same content.
In this scenario, I'd recommend just using a 301 redirect to point "What Color Will Your Underwear Be When You Die?" back to "What Color is Your Underwear?" This prevents you from having two URLs with duplicate content…and if Google decides that these are too similar for them NOT to index both of them (which can happen at times), then they'll overwrite PageRank anyway.
Scenario #2: You have one article with multiple options for the main image…and they're essentially duplicates. For example, maybe you wrote an article about how to use PicMonkey and there's a big space at the top where you can upload whatever image you want.
In this case, I'd recommend just using a rel=canonical tag between two of the images or pages that are serving very similar content (like this). That keeps your site architecture nice and clean without causing too many problems with internal links depending on what page is receiving more PageRank. Plus, it tells Google not to index two versions of the same page at once…thereby avoiding duplicate content issues involving images/pages are slightly different but serve the same purpose.
Scenario #3: You've got two versions of the same article…but they're NOT duplicates, and you'd like to maintain slightly different versions for some visitors (e.g. a printer-friendly page).
In this case, I'd recommend using a rel=canonical link because there's nothing wrong with having multiple URLs for essentially the same content (so long as they're giving the users what they want). If Google starts seeing too many similar pages on your site at once, though, then it may be time to start thinking about consolidating that into one main 'canonical' version. We like to play things safe in terms of not having too much duplicate content on our site so we treat
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