Sometimes search engine optimization gets tricky. Which is why I guess people hire a company like SEO Inc. Recently, SEO Inc. was asked: are outbound links followed on pages using rel=”canonical”? The main distinction here is that we are trying to address whether outbound links are followed on both pages or just the specified page. We also will touch on what determines whether a link is followed or not.
Matt Cutts, head of the WebSpam team at Google, briefly addresses these questions in a video below. But before you jump down and press play. Please allow us to fully flush out the topic.
What Happens when you Add rel=”canonical” to a Page?
First, let’s consider what happens when you add rel=”canonical” to the header of a page. It’s really quite simple actually. The specification tells the search engine that the page that resides on the URL holding the rel=”canonical” is really the page that should be ranked, and authority should be transferred to that page. This tells the search engine: please rank the page that is being pointed to for the optimization, do not rank the page that is doing the pointing. You can see an info graphic on this below.
Things to Consider About rel=canonical
With most all things in search engine optimization it is not as cut and dry as we would like. For example, when Google was asked is rel=”canonical” a suggestion or a directive this is what they had to say.
“This new option lets site owners suggest the version of a page that Google should treat as canonical. Google will take this into account, in conjunction with other signals, when determining which URL sets contain identical content, and calculating the most relevant of these pages to display in search results.”
In other documentation, Google has gone on to say that rel=”canonical” is seen by Google as being a strong hint. So what doe this mean? Well, this means that a page with the rel=”canonical” specification could potentially end up being ranked for a keyword and may have page rank. When this is the case, there is a much greater chance that the links will be followed on that page and the specified page. It should be noted though that this is rare. We will comment on this further in the section below.
First, if you are implementing rel=”canonical” you are telling the search engine that you have two identical (or near identical pages) and that the page being pointed to should be ranked. If this is case, those pages should both have the same outgoing and internal links. In almost all scenarios, the page being pointed to with rel=”canonical” will end up being the page that ranks for keywords and gains pagerank. The links on that page, whether they are outbound or inbound links, will be followed by Google if the page is seen as carrying enough authority and is easily accessible by the crawler. In some rare situations, a page pointing to another page with rel=”canonical” may maintain some pagerank. If this is the case, it is feasible that the links on the page may be followed as well. However, this type of situation is becoming less and less frequent, as Google is getting much better at determining duplicate content. This would be much more likely to occur if the content were different, to an extent, on page A and page B. Another factor that could make this possible would be a large amount of inbound links pointing at the incorrect page.
To simplify, in most all cases links will be followed on the URL being specified with the rel=”canonical” link attribute, especially if the page containing the links is seen as being authoritative by Google.