An important concept for eCommerce websites that really want to nail their SEO is the difference between 301 Redirects and Canonical URLs.
When to use 301 Redirects and Canonical URLs
Both 301 Redirects and Canonical Tags are solutions for problems that crop up regularly with eCommerce stores.
You may have even wondered things like; Out of all the variations of this product, which one will Google Index and then show in the search results?
The answer (if you don’t tell Google otherwise) is: ALL OF THEM!
This leads to a concept called “Keyword Cannibalisation” and is also referred to as a “Duplicate Content Issue”.
With product pages for variations being VERY similar, maybe only varying the name of the colour, you have in essence got a number of individual website pages that are competing with each other for rankings in Google Search. This simply dilutes your on-page and off-page SEO efforts.
This is where Canonical URLs come in.
Using Canonical URL Tags
They’re not visible to the website user, but they are a surefire signal to the Search Engine Crawlers that you want to rank a particular URL.
For example, you have variations A, B and C of the same product available on your site on the following 3 URLs:
Each contain pretty much the SAME content.
So by telling Google that the Canonical URL of Product B and Product C is actually the URL for Product A, Google will index and rank Product A (and not the other 2 variations).
As I mentioned, the website users DON’T see or even know there’s a canonical URL involved, it’s just a piece of code to communicate with the search engines.
A 301 redirect on the other hand is different.
This is a relocation of the web page altogether.
Using a 301 redirect in the above example would make Product B and Product C invisible to website users. They’d simply be redirected to Product A over and over again.
So why use a 301 redirect at all?
301 Redirects are great for updating content from completely old and outdated content to new versions. In an eCommerce business, this could be the release of a new product that justifies the creation of a new product ID or SKU. If this new product replaces an existing product, making it a suitable substitute or upgrade, it would be advisable to use a 301 Redirect to pass on any “Authority” that the original product pages had gained.
The old product(s) would no longer be visible, whilst anyone attempting to visit the URLs of the old product pages would be redirected to the new “replacement” product.
This is particularly important if you’ve picked up links from other websites pointing at the old product page. If you simply delete the product from your online catalogue, those links are now broken.
Worse still – your competition are monitoring the websites that link to you, just in case any of the links break.
Why would they want to know if any of the links pointing at YOUR site break?
Simple – they can reach out to the webmaster of the website with the broken link and suggest they replace the link to your website product page with a link to THEIR website product page offering an alternative.
Not only do you lose backlinks and “Authority”, but you GIFT that backlink additional SEO juice to your competitors.
If you don’t believe me, check out this article from Neil Patel, specifically teaching people how to do “broken backlink building” as described above.
Do 301 Redirects and Canonical URLs pass on backlink authority?
This is a question that’s in debate and difficult to test even for advanced SEOs, and we want to avoid SEO myths for Amazon Sellers.
There’s little question that 301’s pass on their link authority. Canonical URLs on the other hand are more debatable.
This has more of an implication on the way you go about actively building links, or if you already have some naturally generated links it might even help you choose which product variation to select as the Canonical URL to point all other variations at.
Either way, this is something to be aware of. It’s highly likely however that the decision on whether to use a 301 or a Canonical won’t be driven by this factor.
Other Uses For 301 Redirects and Canonical Tags
Search Engine Journal covered this pretty well, so I won’t repeat their good work.
Their original article actually covers off 5 scenarios under which you would either use a 301 Redirect vs Using a Rel=Canonical tag.
Not all scenarios are typical to eCommerce stores, but gives a good overview for websites in general.
This is all well and good, but before you can start worrying about whether to use a Canonical URL or a 301 Redirect, you need a traffic generating website. If you’re in the process of planning, or even getting started, I’d suggest you check out my article on the 9 steps to building your own WordPress Website to generate traffic.