When should you use a 301 redirect vs a canonical tag?

This blog shows a few examples of when you should use 301 redirects versus canonical tags.

Duplicate content issues is something which almost all SEOs have come across on their websites. This issue happens when you have more than one page targeting the same content talking about the same topic, with the same meta tags, header tags etc.

Not all duplicate content is bad. As in, if you have a sequence of 100 pages in a paginated series, then it's ok for all of these 100 pages to have the same meta description tags, or page titles, or H1 headers tags. You will get duplicate content warnings from most SEO tools including Google Search Console, but it's safe to ignore these warnings for paginated pages as for paginated series, it's normal for all pages to have same meta tags.

But if you get a duplicate content warning because of identical content posted on two unrelated pages, you have to fix it immediately.

There are two main ways to fix duplicate content issues:

1. Canonical Tags.

Canonical tags basically tell Google which of the two (or more) pages is the original one. You simply add the canonical tag on all the duplicate pages and point it to the original page. 

Example - Let's imagine we have two pages www.original.com/shoes and www.copy.com/shoes which talks about the same thing. 

We could solve this by placing the below canonical tag on the copy.com page. 

<link rel="canonical" href="https://original.com/shoes" />
You would place the same code on the original.com page also, making it self referential.

2. 301 Redirects

301 Redirects is a permanent redirect from the duplicate page to the original page. So when users go to the duplicate page (e.g. www.copy.com/shoes) they would be redirect to the original page (e.g. www. original.com/shoes). The advantage of 301 redirects are that they pass all the link strength of the duplicate page to the original page.

When should you use 301 redirects vs Canonical tags?

Let's look at a few example scenarios to differentiate when you should be using either of these.

1. You are migrating your website to a new domain.

If you are changing your main URL to a new one, it makes sense to use the 301 redirects. You want all your content to be placed only on the new domain, and at the same time you want to use all the link strength of the older domain. Therefore you use the 301 redirects in this case.

2. You are publishing your blog article on Medium.

If you are re-posting your blog on Medium or any other domain, it makes sense to add a canonical tag on the blogs you are reposting to. This way you are telling Google that the Medium article is the duplicate one.

3. Similar product pages selling the same thing

If you have multiple product pages selling identical things (with identical meta tags) - then you should use the canonical tags to tell Google which of these product pages is the original one.

4. Updating a new blog.

If you are writing a new blog that has identical meta tags to an older blog on your domain - it makes sense to 301 redirect the older blog to the new one. Why would you want to have two blogs talking about the same topic with the same meta tags? Both from a user's point of view and from the search engine perspective (link strength) - it's better to 301 redirect the older blog to the new one.

5. Product is removed from stock

If you have e-commerce store and you have product pages that have no stock, it makes sense to 301 redirect the product pages to the parent category page, or to a coming soon page. 

These are just a few examples of when you should use 301 redirects versus canonical tags. 

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