Multi categories website structure. Who needs the canonical tag?

Last February mayor search engines announced the support of the new canonical tag and everybody went mad.
<link rel="canonical" href="http://www.web.com/original-content.html" />

Ok, Ok. I recognise it can help in many cases to deal with the infamous duplicated content issue but as I love to do things right from the very beginning, best way to achieve perfect results, the conclusion is crystal clear for me: if you have to do profuse use of canonical tag you have a web structure problem.

101% the origin of this problem is having pages under several different categories what produces duplicated content. Example of same item under different criteria:

mammal
   cetaceans
       dolphin
carnivores
    marine
       dolphin


Indexing a site is not collecting all its words to put them chaotically in a bag, search engines try to understand, also through site structure, how they are organised, which is the main subject according to this structure, subcategories related and so. Keep it in mind, it is important.

Multi category structures problem

Now imagine you have to SEO an online store selling mobiles. We have the same device under three or more different categories and the possible URLs. Let's call our mobile device 'C-3Pphone' and may the Force be with you.

Mobiles
    C-3Pphone
    …
By type
    Smartphones
       C-3Pphone
       …
By OS
   Open source
      C-3Pphone
      …


Note we have a 'file list > file' model or
'category - items list > item' or
'mobiles list > mobile' model, an example:
phone.com/moviles/ (items list linking to item content pages)
phone.com/moviles/c-3pphone.html (item content page)

Duplicated pages, canonical solution

This could be the first idea lighting a bulb in your head, having the same page c-3pphone.html at the end of the different categories or subcategories that equals to three different URLs for the same content, the mobile description.

phone.com/mobiles/c-3pphone.html (content page)
phone.com/mobile-type/smartphones/c-3pphone.html (content page)
phone.com/operative-system/open-source/c-3pphone.html (content page)

Then use canonical tag for all of then but the one we decide is the most important.

Web structure canonical solution

Why I don't like the canonical tag solution

  • Add an extra headache for programmer
  • Structure seems a bit fuzzy to search engines finding same content under different categories
  • Canonical should help to fade the relevance of all the copies but it is a patch
  • Link strength coming from previous pages in structure is not concentrating on the main content page

Single page, simple linking solution

Second approach: no content page duplicates. What? Yes, just a single brave and bold one under the main category. From any other secondary category pages a direct link to that page. Siloing idea comes to play here.

phone.com/mobiles/c-3pphone.html (content page)
phone.com/mobile-type/smartphones/ (list page linking to c-3pphone.html)
phone.com/mobile-operative-system/open-source/ (list page linking to c-3pphone.html)

Web structure, single page simple linking

Benefits of single page simple linking solution

  • Less pages to maintain, from SEO and technical point of view
  • Content concentration what makes main subject more relevant
  • Link love concentrated in the content page what helps it rank better

Going further: subpages

But the online store selling mobiles example can not be so simple, sure you want to relate the page describing the mobile device C-3Pphone with its accessories, a product subpage for any of its characteristics, it is also a smartphone and its operative system is open source. Where to place these sub pages? Where the links to them should come from?

The idea here is to get the links to all the mobile page subpages (Type, SO, related accessories…) from their correspondent secondary categories, something like:
phone.com/mobiles/c-3pphone/ (main content page)
phone.com/mobiles/c-3pphone/open-source-so.html (content sub page)
phone.com/mobiles/c-3pphone/smartphone.html (content sub page)

Web structure, subpages linking

More benefits with subpages linking solution

  • Themes congruence
  • Consistency in internal link structure
  • Search engines perfectly understanding what is all about the way we want it
  • Link juice flowing up and down like delicious manna in a closed circle

Definitely if there is a simple solution, easier to implement and paying more benefits, who needs canonical tag? I love to follow the classical Mies van der Rohe motto Less is more or as a friend of mine use to say: things can always be more simple.

Opinions about the 'single page simple linking' idea are welcome.
Any information architecture expert in the room?.

Apr 25, 2009
Written by:
Filed under: Content






16 comments
Apr 27, 2009
Posted by:
Dictina #1

Congrats! Saw it on Sphinn (and sphunn!). There's only a little thing I would like to be discussed: pagination

Apr 27, 2009

Single pages are the way to go if you can convince the client that they don't need to have a dynamic breadcrumb for the

Apr 27, 2009
Posted by:
Ani López #3

Thanks you all for come and comment.

Dictina: paginations is fine for me if what you show in those pages is different from content at linked pages, a short part of the articles or a special short text for the occasion.

Andrew: sorry, seems something went wrong while you where commenting but I think I guess what you mean.

Yes, several secondary categories can lead you to have, when you land on the final content page, a bread crumb completely different to the path you followed to reach it.

Umm, no bread crumb would be my first option and dynamical nofollow navigation elements (writing about it actually for a next post) to siloing a bit and reinforce the structure. Something to investigate further anyway. Thanks for the idea.

Apr 28, 2009
Posted by:
Isaac Sunyer #4

Duplicate content can also be for old structures. For example, I'd a customer with a lot of urls with same content. About 16000 trash urls. Canonical meta was the cheapest and easiest solution!

Apr 28, 2009
Posted by:
Ani López #5

Right Isaac, canonical can help under certain circunstances but trying to do it right from scratch.

BTW: did it work fine with those 16000 trash urls? nice subject for an article to your blog :)

May 07, 2009
Posted by:
Hunter #6

Interesting article, I've never heard of this method of removing duplicated content on a site tilll now, my main focus was keeping it out of the index all togeather with robots.txt.

May 07, 2009
Posted by:
Ani López #7

Hi Hunter, it is not only keep dupe out of the content, it is about letting the search engine understand better what is your site about so rank it better.

thanks for come and comment.

Jun 10, 2009
Posted by:
Faten #8

Great articles. The question is whether it is do-able with the hosting system we use (which presently automatically allocate a url based on the category it is in) and easy to manage as we deal with thousands of products that need to be updated yearly.

Jun 11, 2009
Posted by:
Ani López #9

Hi Faten, sorry but your question is not so clear to me so I'm afraid what I can say could be irrelevant.

The system you use actually allocates a product page just under one category, is that right?
If answer is 'yes' and you can forget about canonical and duplicated content.
If not you have certain problem and a deeper review should be done.

Jul 11, 2009
Posted by:
biz #10

I do occasionally publish my articles on isnare.com and ezine articles? Should I stop doing this?

Jul 12, 2009
Posted by:
Ani López #11

Hi Biz:
Publish articles in other sites is fine specially if you place some links to your web with nice anchor texts, it can be part of a link building strategy so not bad if done right.

Dec 18, 2009
Posted by:
Marc #12

Hi Anil,
This solution is so simple, it's great! Too often we let out-of-the-box CMS behaviors dictate the structure of a website.

For those with dev resources, they should try to fix the structure from the start and not apply band-aid solutions. With the canonical tag, we're hoping that Google understands the patches we're trying to apply. (putting our eggs in one basket).

Feb 17, 2010
Posted by:
Shubham #13

Its really a refreshing new way of interacting with visitors.
And good for the developers also.
I hate jumping from one page to other all the time, its better if its all dynamic in a single page.
And indexing is also very neat.
What more could one want.

Jul 24, 2011

I've gotta say, I don't like using them, but they are almost essential now a days. I would like a little more adoption across platforms, but it's great to direct 404's, and to contain link juice.


Nice anti-spam text lol!

Feb 07, 2012
Posted by:
John Slocum #15

Hi Ani, thanks again for the tips on this topic. I'm in the process of upgrading the CSS on my site so, I can work in the better navigation options and eliminate duplicates in several places.

Feb 07, 2012
Posted by:
Ani Lopez #16

@Dough, probably the worst anti-spam ever :)

@John, welcome

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