What is the Canonical URL?

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What is the Canonical URL?
Canonical URL is a term used to describe the 'preferred' version of a website's URL. In the vast world of the internet, there are several ways to reach the same destination or content. However, to the indexing bots of search engines, these different URLs may appear as duplicate content, which isn't beneficial for a site's SEO rankings. Hence, webmasters use Canonical URLs to tell these bots which version to consider as the main or 'authority' version.
The use of canonical URLs isn't limited to just when pages have identical content. Even when pages have similar, though not identical, content the canonical link tag can be used to prevent the negative SEO impact of duplicate content.
Google introduced the concept of Canonical URLs in 2009 and since then, they've become an essential part of SEO best practices.
Canonical URL's role in digital marketing
From the digital marketing perspective, Canonical URLs play several pivotal roles. Firstly, they help in the correct indexing of the website. Your SEO efforts can be affected negatively if search engines misinterpret the 'preferred' version of a URL - the canonical link tag helps mitigate this risk.
Another benefit is mitigating the risk of 'Keyword Cannibalization.' This happens when you create multiple, similar pages targeting the same keyword - instead of bolstering your site’s relevance, it does the opposite, as the search engine doesn’t know which page to prioritize. This is where a Canonical URL can come in handy.
Lastly, the use of Canonical URLs can streamline your site's analytics data. It reduces inconsistencies in reporting caused by identical or very similar content appearing across multiple URLs. Thus, giving you a more accurate insight into the user behavior on your site.
Canonical URL examples
Suppose you have two URLs like 'www.example.com/product-123' and 'www.example.com/category-abc/product-123'. Both the URLs are showing the same product details, hence they can be treated as duplicate content by the search engine. By identifying 'www.example.com/product-123' as the canonical URL, you tell search engines to consider this URL when crawling and indexing.
If you have a mobile and desktop version of your website, you'll have different URLs for the same page. To avoid these Pages being viewed as duplicates, you would identify the desktop version of the URL as the Canonical URL. The mobile version of the site would then include a link to the ‘canonical’ desktop version.
Finally, for websites that operate in multiple regions and have location-specific pages, the Canonical URL can help guide search engines in delivering the right page to the right audience.