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Canonical Links

Today I want to address the issue of proper web usage when using a 301 redirect and when you should and shouldn't be using this method. Sadly the practice of using 301 redirects has become one of the most misused elements on the internet today. The problem is in times passed Google recommended using the 301 redirect to set up what is known as a canonical link. Basically what this means is you redirect to just or to redirect to your The purpose in this was to help search engines - specifically Google, understand that both with and without the www, the url in question was the same. This helped them not list the same url multiple times as well as helped to stop them from improperly labeling a site as having duplicate content.

canonical links canonical links

This post is actually a responce to a question I received today from +Aaron Graves asking me about url forwarding, or was is canonical links he was asking about? I’ll let you decide.

Hey Bruce, quick question for you on your site.

Is there a reason why you don’t forward www requests to the root domain, or vice-verse? I can’t find where it specifically states this but I remember Google recommending you decide on one or the other, and do a redirect for the other.

If I visit, it doesn’t redirect to www… or if I visit, it doesn’t redirect to the root domain.

Just a thought.

The problem with this is that is not what a 301 redirect is intended for. A 301 redirect is meant to be a means to tell a web browser or a search engine that a website has moved. So if you decided you don’t like the domain name and instead change the url to a 301 redirect makes it so if someone types in they are automatically forwarded to the new domain name

Hopefully this is all making sense so far. A 301 redirect was not ever intended to be used to forward one live site to another live site. See the problem is that when you set up a domain name, generally both and point to the same location. This means you are not forwarding one url to another, but rather you are forwarding one url to itself. Its a redundant loop that Google found beneficial.

Does this method work? Absolutely. So why shouldn’t you use it? Because that was never what its purpose was intended for.

In my mind its like asking why should you use <p style="text-align: center;"> instead of <center> – after all they both achieve the same thing. But the truth is one is proper usage and the other is not. In this instance, using sheet styles for text formatting is proper whereas using html for text formatting is not proper.

So we have established that using 301 redirect to tell google that and are the same is an improper usage, the question then becomes is there any other solution to this problem? Most people don’t realize this, but the answer is yes. In February of 2009 google announced the addition of a relationship tag. The tag is the canonical tag.

By using the canonical tag, you can tell search engines that one url is the same as another url without telling webbrowser to redirect. This can be used for a number of reasons including things like multiple landing pages. You can tell google that 10 different version of the same page, are all the same page, then you can serve up each page conditionally. So you could for example have,, and and you can serve them based on the web browser being used by the visitor.

This means google will index your site as without penalizing you for multiple landing pages.

There is a complete explanation of the uses for the canonical relationship tag listed on the google webmaster blog –

To use the canonical tag is very basic. I have copied the exact tag you need to modify and add to the header section of your webpages.

<link rel="canonical" href="" />

When you add this code to your pages you no longer need to redirect. This means if someone visits your site with a www. they see your site with a www. and if the visit yoursite without a www. the see the site without the www. However in either event search engines such as google, bing, and yahoo know that both url’s link to the same pages.

This is a VERY complex topic, so please feel free to ask questions if this stuff doesn’t make sense.

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