Canonical tags were designed to prevent duplicate content amongst web pages. The canonical (read: preferred) version of the page should be the original, therefore; the URL included inside the canonical tag, should also be the original content source.
Here are several canonical tag strategies we use:
1. Self-referencing canonical tags:
When I first started at SHE Media, I remember being super confused as to why each piece of content that went up on SheKnows.com had a canonical tag pointing to itself. I was used to only using them in terms of content syndication. But for publisher sites, it’s a good idea to implement default self-referencing canonical tags. I find versions of lifted articles from our properties all the time, sites that don’t have permission to republish our originals but have. Google can technically tell by crawl date who published the content first, but having this tag helps prevent confusion.
2. Duplicate content across your own properties:
Often times under a media company umbrella, there are multiple publications. Some of those publications can have overlap in the content verticals they cover. When it comes to publishing one piece of content across two of your own sites, there are several different strategies. Choose the strategy based on your end goal.
Scenario One: Whatever publication puts up the original piece, all other sites use the canonical tag properly pointing to said original. Google will more than likely honor the canonical and send organic traffic to just the one piece. If editorial doesn’t have the bandwidth to make at least a few on-page changes, this is the safest route. In many cases, if Google feels the content is high quality (i.e. the best result for the search query), both pages will get organic traffic.
Scenario Two: Budgets are tight and higher-ups are pressuring the editorial team to get the most traffic as possible from every piece of content. But we can’t just post the exact same piece of content, verbatim and not use a canonical tag, right? Won’t we be penalized from Google? I’ll admit my first instinct is to use the canonical tag as much as possible, but think about. The web is mostly made up of duplicate content in one way or another. Google has even said that duplicate content will only be penalized if the sites are doing this maliciously to manipulate the search engines. If you have a piece of content that happens to be a recipe or maybe a product list, listing it in two places isn’t really a malicious attempt to manipulate search engines. Just to be safe, I recommend updating the headline to speak to each unique audience and making some changes to the intro graph. So in this case, the strategy would be to skip the canonical tag altogether.
3. Syndicated content:
Along with SEO, I manage our syndication partnerships for the brands. With partners, I always require that the partner use the canonical tag to point to our original. And we do the same for them. In addition to this, I also make sure that our content has been indexed by Google before they are allowed to syndicate.
4. Duplicated topics across the same domain:
This one has been a struggle for me to police since the very beginning. I work closely with our editorial team to build new content. Between turnover and the sheer amount of content published, often an editor isn’t aware that back in 2012, the same topic was written about. So the content itself is different, but the angle is the same. So for example, I’ve run into situations where there are literally 10 articles on the same topic (examples: baby shower ideas, breastfeeding essentials, Easter crafts, best books for summer etc etc etc). I typically lean towards cleaning this issue up through 301 redirecting all sub-par pieces to the strongest piece, but canonicals are an option here too. Google says not to worry about this too much, that they are able to select the best version for the rankings, but IMO, this is sloppy and confusing and none of these duplicate topic pieces will perform as well as they would if there was one single post per content angle.
As with tons of other tags, think of these as suggestions to Google, who will ultimately rank the page they feel is best. I try to keep things as clean as possible, but with over 140K indexed articles on one site alone, it can get hard to keep track of at times. Get familiar with the canonical tag, it comes in handy when you’re trying to tell Google which piece of content is the preferred version.