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Understanding Canonical Tags: What They Are & When to Use Them

Written by Viral Solutions

As a business owner, you can probably confirm that your website has grown larger and more complex over the years. With new pages being added all the time, it’s easy to lose track of what’s on your site, which puts you at greater risk of duplicate content issues. Fortunately, canonicalization can help prevent this from confusing crawlers and affecting your rankings. That’s why it’s worth learning what canonical tags are, when to use them, and how to apply them correctly.

If you’re not especially tech-savvy, don’t worry! Our goal is to simplify this concept so that you walk away with a good grasp of how canonical tags can benefit you and your site.

So, let’s start by explaining the basics of canonicalization…

What Is Canonicalization?

Canonicalization is the process of identifying the best or primary version of a page among multiple versions of that page. It comes into play when there are pages with duplicate—or virtually identical—content. In such cases, the search engine considers various factors to determine the canonical version. That page is then indexed and shown in the search results when users type in a relevant query. Additionally, link equity that might otherwise be spread across various page versions is consolidated and directed toward the canonical page.

Why do search engines do this?

  • It cuts down on duplicate content, reducing the number of pages bots have to crawl.
  • It improves the user experience by not serving up identical pages in search results.

Keep in mind that it’s search engines like Google that actually implement canonicalization. That said, website owners can take part by specifying which version they would like to be canonicalized. And one way to do that is by using canonical tags. 

What Are Canonical Tags?

Canonical tags—also known as rel=“canonical”—are short pieces of HTML code that tell search engines which version of a page among duplicates should be canonicalized. Using these tags is a means of identifying your preferred canonical URL (i.e., the one you want to be indexed). You can apply them to the back end of all duplicate pages so that they point to the appropriate URL. 

Here’s an example of what the code looks like when added to the <head> section of a page: 

<link rel=“canonical” href=“” />

The first part (link rel=“canonical”) indicates that the page on which the tag is placed is a duplicate, and a canonical version of the page has been specified. The second part (href=“”) identifies the preferred canonical URL. 

These tags are generally placed on duplicate pages. However, you can also add them to the pages you want to be indexed. Self-referencing canonicals, which point to the same page on which they’re placed, are strongly recommended by Google. 

Here’s the thing…

These tags function as a signal (a suggestion that search engines may or may not use), not a directive (an instruction that search engines follow). And it’s one of many signals that search engines like Google take into consideration. Some other examples include the following:

  • Page quality
  • Presence of URL in a sitemap
  • HTTPS vs. HTTP

This means that although applying rel=“canonical” labeling is worth doing, it doesn’t guarantee that your preferred URL will be the one search engines end up indexing. 

When Should You Use Canonical Tags?

Canonicalization can help resolve SEO problems resulting from duplicate content (e.g., diluted link equity and poor rankings). So, you should use canonical tags when you have similar or nearly identical pages (e.g., mobile and non-mobile, AMP and non-AMP, www and non-www, HTTP and HTTPS). That way, you can let search engines know you’re aware of the issue and highlight which version you want to index.

But what about specific use cases?

There’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding surrounding canonicalization. Further, many experts have their own thoughts on the subject. As a result, it can be difficult to determine when you should apply tags to pages—and when you shouldn’t. 

Here are some examples of when to use these tags: 

  • If you cross-post your content on different platforms 
  • If you have product pages listed under multiple category pages
  • If you have pages on your site that use pagination
  • If you use URL parameters for tracking purposes

Here are some examples of when NOT to use these tags:

  • When doing a 301 redirect would offer a better user experience
  • To group pages that are not identical but topically similar

Deciding when to canonicalize pages can be especially tricky on e-commerce sites. For instance, you may have child product pages that vary slightly from the parent product page. They could be unique enough to stand on their own and rank for long-tail keywords. But if they’re ranking higher than the parent product page, you may want to apply a canonical tag. That’s why you should take it on a case-by-case basis. 

Tip: Experts like Yoast also recommend adding self-referencing canonicals to URLs across your site as a good defensive move. 

What Are the Benefits of Applying These Tags?

There are several SEO benefits to placing canonical tags on appropriate pages. Some of these have been touched on in previous sections. However, it’s worth taking a closer look at what they can do for your site.  

  • They can increase the chances that your preferred page version is indexed.
  • They can help consolidate link equity to one page for better results.
  • They can help you make the most of your crawl budget. 

Ultimately, canonicalization is a practice that should fit into your SEO strategy. Noting what pages to prioritize can improve your site’s organization, rankings, and overall performance. 

How to Add Canonical Tags Correctly

Before you do anything, it’s important to audit your site. That way, you can see what pages should be addressed. Once you have your list, you can proceed to add canonical tags to your pages. Fortunately, the process is easier than you may think. 

If you or another team member is comfortable editing the back end of your site, you can add the tags manually. Just go to the duplicate page and place the HTML code in the <head> section. Make sure the link listed in the second part of the code is your preferred canonical URL. 

Don’t forget to add self-referencing canonicals to your main pages as well. 

If you use HubSpot or have the Yoast SEO plugin for your WordPress or Shopify site, the process is even simpler than that. Both allow you to set canonical URLs in just a few clicks.


It’s not uncommon to run into duplicate content, but the best way to prevent it from negatively affecting your site is to apply canonicalization. Adding canonical tags to pages can be incredibly beneficial, and the process doesn’t require in-depth knowledge of coding. It’s well worth the effort to keep your site in check. 

If you need help with SEO or marketing in general, don’t be afraid to reach out to Viral Solutions. We’re happy to talk about the challenges you’re facing and the goals you want to reach. Just request a free consultation with us today!

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Viral Solutions

Viral Solutions is a full-service marketing agency committed to helping every client meet their company’s goals and objectives. The agency takes a strategy-first approach to deliver long-term results, executing each customized strategy effectively while ultimately growing the client’s business.

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