Webpage re-directs, meta tags within HTML code, 404 error pages, and just the word “canonical” can seem daunting to SEO newbies and veterans alike. Let’s cut to the chase – what ARE these things – in layman’s terms, and when is it best to use each tactic?
404 (Not Found) Error Page
This page tells the visitor that although the client communicated with the server, it couldn’t find anything that the visitor requested! Nothing is there – the content is dead. A 404/Not Found page is displayed by the server hosting the website and the unspoken implication is that although that URL you requested may be available once again in the future, the content will no longer be there. It happens when a user tries to follow a dead or broken link.
In the real world, when you move, your address changes. Unless you’re a rather sketchy person, you’d naturally like to have your mail follow you to your new location. Similarly, on the web, the same thing happens. Content can move to a new address (aka URL), and you want visitors who try to access the old URL to be redirected to the new one (unless you don’t want that, in which case we won’t judge you). Thankfully, there are a few ways of sending users requesting a URL that has been moved to the new location. A “301 redirect” is considered to be the most SEO friendly, and it signals that the content has been permanently moved to a new URL. It tells search engines this is a permanent move, and that any future reference to this resource should return the new, re-directed URL. That URL will get the old one’s search engine credit.
The No Index Meta Tag
This HTML tweak tells the search engines to drop the tagged page off of the SERPs – even if others link to it. The key to a successful no index meta tag is that it shouldn’t be blocked by a robots.txt file – otherwise the search engine crawler will never be aware of the new no index tag.
The Rel = Canonical URL Tag
Using the rel “Canonical” URL tag tells the search engines (who are willing to listen…) “Hey. We have a couple of versions of this page or content on this page. Do me a favor and only index this version. Also, pass that link juice to my preferred page, please!
Now that we know what each of these concepts mean in a colloquial sense, let’s look at how these tactics should be used in an SEO context and when.
Dead Man Walking! When to Use a 404/Not Found Page
404 pages are for content or pages that you don’t want on your site and don’t plan on fixing. Although 404 error pages might show up as errors on your Google Webmaster’s account, this is OK – a 404 is supposed to show up this way. 404 pages happen – you don’t have to worry about penalization if you have only a handful.
Moved, But Still With Us – The 301 Redirect
A 301 redirect is a good choice for a web page if it has a suitable replacement. It’s the most SEO friendly way of redirecting a URL – you should retain 90 – 99% of your old page’s link juice on your redirected page. Bear in mind, with 301 redirects, you are requesting that the search engine spiders remove the old page from its index and pass credit to the new page.
A few caveats about 301 redirects:
-It can take time for your new URL to collect its link juice, especially if your web site doesn’t get crawled often.
-Don’t use 301 redirects incorrectly! Many marketers will use 301 redirects for a domain change (which is fine), pointing all the pages of an original site to the new site’s home page (it’s better to individually point them over to their respective replacement pages). A responsible SEO understands that this will hurt her efforts. These incorrect redirects won’t be relevant to a user’s search, and may result in a high bounce rate.
Men At Work – When to Use A Meta No Index Tag
Use the meta no index tag on pages that are low quality or might be hurting your SEO efforts. If there are suitable pages you can redirect your low quality pages to with a 30, do so, but if you can rewrite pages and fix them, go ahead and use that “no index” meta tag. Keep those URLs in your site map file. You want Google to recrawl this so the no index meta tag is observed, and again, ensure that these pages aren’t disallow4ed by those robot.txt files.
When Things Get Canonical
If you can merge a 301 redirect from alternate versions of a web page, do so. If it isn’t in your power to do it, or if a 301 doesn’t apply, use the “rel-canonical” tag.
Use the tag when you feel as though 301’s might take too much time, or if you have duplicate content but need both versions live. (This applies particularly to e-commerce sites).
Use the canonical tag when dealing with site – inclusive considerations – like domain/page/index.html versus domain/page.
Ad when you need to shoot content across an entire domain but both sites need to remain live, get canonical.
Wrapping it Up:
Hey, we all run into issues when we need to clean up low quality sites, content or harmful links. Follow these guidelines, and you should be in the clear. And remember, the better a site’s URL structure is, the faster you will recover or collect that link juice. So keep that duplicate content to a minimum, and structure your site so it’s easy to crawl. This makes it easier for our friends, the search engine spiders to assess the situation and update accordingly.