Why Use Canonical Tags: Part 2 - Canonical Tags vs. 301 Redirects

What is a 301 Redirect?

A 301 Redirect is set in the .htaccess file and forces one URL to forward all traffic to a different URL.  It also tells Google that the PageRank score for the URL in question should also be moved to the renamed URL.

What is a Canonical tag?

A Canonical Tag is a metatag that tells search engines which version of "duplicate" content is the original source.  One could argue that it is a "hint" or "suggestion" for the Search Engines to recognize a specific URL for that page content.

Visit part 1 of my article What Are Canonical Tags and Why Use Them? for more detailed information about Canonical tags themselves if you missed it.

How are they different?

They are certainly similar in how they work, but there are important differences to keep in mind when deciding which to use.

  • 301 Redirects can redirect traffic over different domains where as canonical tags can only include the root domain for the website.
  • 301 Redirects always have to be absolute domains but canonical tags can be relative URLs, using only the part of the URL after the domain suffix (including the "/" following the suffix).
  • The real benefit for the canonical tags lay in the fact that it is much easier to implement the canonical tag than to set the 301 Redirect.

The Canonical Tag as a time saver

Implementing the canonical tag is something even a mildly experienced developer can handle.  The canonical tag may save someone the trouble from having to outsource the forwarding efforts to their developer if they aren't familiar with how the .htaccess file works or if accessing the .htaccess file isn't an option.

With the canonical tag you don't have to worry about specifying every URL inside the website, something that can become quite cumbersome with dynamic websites. All you need to do with the canonical tag is specify which URL you want to point to a specific piece of content.

Again, canonical tags do not force search engines to recognize it, if they think the URL in the tag isn't a good match for the page, they may opt to not use the URL in the tag. But most search engines will recognize and honor the tag if it is being used properly.   If it is critical that search engines recognize the renamed URL, I suggest using the 301 Redirects method.

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