Should You Use Noindex or Rel Canonical for Duplicate Content Issues?
A person recently asked Google's John Mueller in a Google SEO office-hours hangout for advice on their SEO content strategy. Specifically, they wanted to know if they should use the noindex or rel canonical tag to handle thin or duplicate content on their e-commerce site. Mueller discussed the difference between the two methods before proposing an alternative way to deal with such SEO content.
The Noindex Meta Tag is a Directive
Noindex is a directive, meaning that Google must follow it. The noindex tag prevents the page and its content from appearing in Google's search engine results pages (SERPs) altogether.
According to Google's official documentation, a site owner may stop their content from appearing in Google's search results by adding a noindex meta tag or header to the HTTP response. When Googlebot finds the tag or header during the crawling process, it will remove the page entirely from the search results, regardless of whether or not other sites link to it.
What is a Rel Canonical?
In contrast to the noindex tag, the rel=canonical tag is a hint and not a directive. It offers webmasters the chance to suggest to Google the URL that they want to show in the SERPs.
This is particularly useful when a site has many similar pages. An example is when a shopping CMS creates many different pages for the same product with the sole exception of something minor, like the colour.
According to Google's official rel canonical documentation, a canonical URL is the URL that Google believes is most representative of a set of duplicate web pages on a website. Suppose a site owner has URLs for the same page, such as example.com/skirts/1234 and example.com?skirts=1234. Google will then only pick one as canonical.
The rel canonical is an excellent way to solve duplicate and thin content because it collects all of the relevance and link signals back to the main web page that a site owner wants to show in the search results. But since Google treats the rel canonical tag as a hint, there is no assurance that Google will follow it, and its algorithm might show another web page in the SERPs.
Noindex vs. Rel Canonical
The person who asked the question wanted to know if it was advisable to use canonicalisation or noindex. Since both methods may be used for thin and duplicate content, it's not surprising that some SEOs are confused.
The person shared that they have an e-commerce store with numerous product variants that either had thin or duplicate content. They made a list of all the URLs they wanted Google to index or keep, and created a list of all the URLs they didn't want Google to index. As they were working on the task, they asked themselves whether to use noindexing or canonicalisation, admitting that they did not know which was better.
Mueller responded, saying that there isn't always an easy answer for whether to use noindex or rel canonical for a page; it's something offhand. Almost all SEO experts have trouble deciding which one to use, which usually means that both methods are fine.
So, in most cases, the first thing one should look at is what they are truly passionate about. And if they prefer to hide a specific piece of SEO content from Google's search results, then using the noindex tag is the best way to go. On the other hand, if the publisher wishes to have everything combined into a single web page, then using a rel canonical is better.
The page likely won't be included in the search results with a rel canonical. With noindex, it definitely will not appear in the SERPs.
An Alternative Way to Solve Thin and Duplicate Pages
Next, Mueller said that one could combine the rel canonical and noindex tags to reap the advantages of both. For instance, if external links are directed to a particular page, using both methods helps Google understand that the publisher does not want the page to be indexed and specified another one. So, Google could perhaps forward some of the signals along.
Combining Rel Canonical and Noindex isn't a popular technique. However, according to Mueller, it's a viable way to deal with duplicate and thin content.
In the end, it's up to the site owner whether they want to consolidate relevance and link signals or ensure that the page does not appear in the search results, depending on their desired outcome.
Reasons for a Website to Contain Similar or Duplicate Pages
Although duplicate or thin content issues should usually be addressed, there are several valid reasons why a website may contain multiple URLs that redirect to the same web page, duplicates, or very similar pages with different URLs. Below are some of the most common reasons:
- to support a variety of device types
- to allow dynamic URLs for session IDs or search parameters
- the blog system automatically saves several URLs as the same posts are positioned under multiple sections
- the server is configured to serve the same page for non-www/www https/http variants
- the content the site owner published on a blog for syndication to other websites is replicated in full or in part of those domains
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