301 Redirects vs. Canonical Attribute: When to Use Each Approach

There are many different reasons that a small business may want to redirect a page or a few pages of their website: A complete redesign, when testing is occurring, a domain is moving, etc. Because of this very fact, there has always been quite a bit of confusion around whether to use a 301 redirect or a canonical option. These are the two most popular options for redirecting pages, but again, it can be tough to know which approach to use at which time.

How you redirect your page can have a big affect on Google and how Google sees your site, which can affect your PageRank and even rankings, not to mention your users who are being redirected. In other words, it’s important to understand the differences between the two as well as when to use each approach in order to keep your business moving.

The Difference Between a 301 Redirect and the Canonical Attribute

If you’re new to the redirect game, don’t sweat it. Understanding what a 301 redirect is and how a canonical attribute works is the first step in determining when to use each. Below are general definitions for the two terms:

  • 301 Redirect. This options tells Google that your page (or even entire website) is no longer in one place, but has been permanently moved to a new page or domain. You want your PageRank, rankings, etc. that was associated with that old page to be transferred to the new page, and you now want Google to index your new page instead of your old page.
  • Canonical. This attribute lets Google know that although you have multiple pages with the same content or even duplicate pages entirely, you only want this one specific page to be indexed. You might have multiple identical pages for readers for a particular reason, but you only want one page indexed to avoid any duplicate content penalties.

Of course, there are some problems that you have to consider with each of these options (explained below), which will help you determine what will work best for your particular situation. Remember, the goal is to keep your rankings and user experience intact throughout this process.

When to Use a 301 Redirect and When to Use a Canonical Attribute

Below explains what each of these terms means in more detail as well as some of the problems associated with these approaches and when they’re best used:

301 Redirects

This is the most popular option for permanent redirects. You might lose a little bit of the PageRank and other ranking factors that you had on your old page, but for the most part everything should stay close to the same. It does take a little while to see everything transfer, so that is something to keep in mind if you are hoping for a quick turnaround for a campaign. 301 redirects are best used in the following situations:

–       Pages that are going to be permanently removed and therefore replaced.

–       If a domain is going to be moved permanently.

–       Use for 404 pages as well as content that may be expired.

Canonical Attribute

The canonical attribute, also known as the rel=”canonical” attribute, is not to be used in place of a 301 redirect. This option is all about duplicate content and making sure Google doesn’t penalize you. PageRank and other ranking factors will still transfer, you’re just letting Google know which page you think should be indexed. This option is best used in the following situations:

–       When you have duplicate content/pages and want them both to stay live.

–       When you have two different domains that are similar but you want them both live.

–       When you have a page with multiple URLs (tracking, sorting, filtering, etc.).

Once you decide which route is best for you, it’s time to actually put it into place. You can learn more about setting up a 301 redirect here and getting started with a canonical tag in this article from Google Webmaster Tools.

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