TopRank Marketing Editor

Search Engines Bringing Back Variables In URLs – At Your Expense

Duplicate ContentDid you realize that search engines have gone full circle on URLs in variables? It used to be considered something to avoid, now search engines are saying variables in URLs are good, as long as you use the canonical meta tag. Google is pushing them with FeedBurner and if webmasters aren’t careful, they could fall victim to a new onslaught of duplicate content issues.

One of the biggest issues with SEO is duplicate content. If search engines can’t tell which version of a document is the original or canonical version, then there can be consequences involving less than ideal search visibility. For example, the following URLs might all point to the same web page, creating the illusion that they are copies of the same thing. But in reality, it’s just one web page.

Content management systems, e-commerce stores, and dynamic sites in general, used to be big on adding variables to URLs as a way to construct search queries on content or to track visitors. Then along came advice from the search engines that said they see each URL as a unique if it has different variables. That little improvement caused a duplicate content mess.

So over the past few years, web site owners and marketers have been hard at work cleaning up their URLs, removing variables and trying to make duplicate content a thing of the past.

Then Google came out with a canonical meta tag that could be used to help fix duplicate content issues. The advice was to simply add a canonical meta tag to any page and every version of that page will be considered one. No longer will there be duplicate versions and no longer will variables be a problem in creating the illusion of different copies of the same page.

The good news here is that Yahoo, Bing, and Ask also jumped on board to support the canonical meta tag.

What we didn’t realize was Google had a hidden agenda. (In my opinion) For a few months after the canonical meta tag came out, Google FeedBurner started populating every feed that runs though their service with additional variables in the URL. These variables are then used to better track FeedBurner clicks in Google Analytics.

So now, Google is pushing out URLs with multiple variables creating duplicate content issues for anyone who isn’t using the canonical meta tag. Additionally, if you use TwitterFeed to auto post content from FeedBurner to Twitter, or even copy the URL from a feed and share it, you’re also spreading the problem.

Google then came out with a URL builder tool that allowed you to track custom campaigns in Google Analytics by customizing your URLs with additional tracking variables. This extends the potential duplicate content issue even further.

So what doess this all mean for web site owners and marketers? It means that if you’re not paying attention, duplicate content could be causing you problems with increasing frequency. Do you know if your site has canonical meta tags? It should. Do you know if your FeedBurner feed is going out with additional tracking variables? It probably is.

A Solution: What needs to happen is the canonical meta tag should become a standard meta tag in web development. It should be added to all web pages as a safety measure. It doesn’t harm anything, unless implemented improperly, so ask your developers to code it into all pages.

As for variables in the URL, they’re still not good when it comes to SEO and avoiding duplicate content issues. Short and sweet is the best way to create URLs, but on that off chance that you need to track affiliates, want to track visits to a page from a specific online or offline campaign, or for whatever reason can’t avoid variables in the URL, then they are OK as long as you use the canonical meta tag.

Like it or not, the canonical meta tag is the only way to ensure that your site doesn’t fall victim to duplicate content issues. If you stop and think about it, it is an easy solution to a big problem. And once a site has canonical meta tags on their site, using the URL builder or variables in general to track URLs can be pretty handy. Webmasters just need to remember that a variable or two may be ok for some campaigns, but we don’t want to go back to long and ugly URLs because the longer the URL, the more difficult they’ll be for search engines, and users, to interact with.

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  1. Avatar incrediblehelp says

    As far as I can tell the only engine that actually adheres to the canonical tag is Google. So saying “Search Engines Bringing Back Variables In URLs – At Your Expense” is misleading when you should only be talking Google here.

  2. Interesting that these Google meta-tags are involved in deciphering between duplicate content sources for similar sites. Meta-tags are becoming less and less important in SEO strategy so its nice to see they have another use! Thanks!

    • WebitMD, you're mis-reading the post. Meta tags are very useful to bots to communicate certain pieces of information like what the canonical root link is for a page. Meta keyword tags are not useful, but meta description tags are very often used to describe links in the search results and can motivate clickthroughs. More popular sites may benefit from a boost in search visibility just like more popular PPC ads receive a boost in AdWords placement.

  3. The blog is quite excellent thanks for posting.

  4. Avatar bestwebsitetemplates says

    Thanks buddy Great post & I like it.

  5. I think Search Engines are putting there burden of filtering content on the shoulders on us, “already busy webmasters”. Any webmaster is already busy handling a dozen of responsibilities that it is getting difficult to handle new changes, rolling out everyday. Although I agree that we should care about Canonical Tag and Duplicate content issues. But various CMS and Feed burning utilities are too technical to be edited by an average webmaster and hence more and more sites will be facing problems, jsut because search engines have to crawl a zillion pages!

  6. Search engines like to keep people guessing.

  7. Thanks for the great post and useful information.

  8. I actually created an advanced version of the URL builder tool for Google Analytics at
    You have the option to select # as the parameter separator so that your campaign variables don't show up in any search engine index.

  9. Good post. However, I beg to differ with this statement:
    “Like it or not, the canonical meta tag is the only way to ensure that your site doesn’t fall victim to duplicate content issues.”

    I would say that a 301 redirect is the only way to ensure this, and is in fact far more reliable than rel=canonical. I'm not saying don't use the canonical tag, but also ensure you're using permanent redirects wherever possible to avoid duplicate content issues and preserve link equity. This is true, too, because different search engines do not handle rel=canonical in the same manner, or equally as well.

    I know, I know – campaign, affiliate and other systems tend to rely upon parameters to track traffic, conversions and revenue/revenue sharing, and removing the parameters from the string means these data are lost. But there are almost always fairly elegant technical solutions by which information in parameters can be recorded before the URL is redirected to the canonical form. The proviso here is Google Analytics, but even then you can allow ?utm parameters for campaign tracking (as Google “gets” utm).

    • 301s would be a good idea, but that requires the technical know how as the 301s would need to be dynamic in nature. You'd either need to know all the possible URL instances or make dynamic 301s that could strip off those variables.

      I agree, 301s are better than canonical meta tags, but they also require more work to setup and keep up.

  10. Avatar exploremyblog says

    i agree with thomas that major search engines including Google, Yahoo, Bing and Ask are all on board with the canonical meta tag.

  11. Great advice, its so important to be aware of
    duplicate content, i agree the “the canonical
    meta tag should become a standard meta tag
    in web development”

  12. Whatever happened to creating a good site with good content and good navigation. How is the average webmaster supposed to keep up with all this nonsense?

    • The average webmaster just needs to add the canonical meta tag. A good side with good content and navigation is important, but keeping up with the ever changing web is also important.

  13. Okay, I'm going to argue that variables are a good thing. From a user and search engine perspective they remain a bad idea on so many levels. I will agree however that they often have a good use to me as a webmaster.

    Search engines have long been able to make sense out of pages that are made up of variables in the url, this is not new news, however from an SEO perspective this is less than ideal. The canonical tag is a band aid at best, but possibly the best solution to pages that are hit by feeds, marketing campaigns or a poor CMS.

    Search engines aren't saying bring back variables but rather that it's no longer as detrimental as it has been in the past.

    • I agree that variables can be good at times, but also see the usability & SEO issues. This 'band aid' is a good start and hopefully things just get better as search engines, and webmasters, get smarter.

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  15. I've been using the rel=canonical tag for at least 6 months on most of my client's sites and I haven't seen much of any improvement in which pages get indexed on Bing or Yahoo. Google's index for the sites is pretty close to what I've got in the xml sitemap, save for a few pdfs, etc. I've been using the url builder at ROI revolution way before I ever heard about Google's URL builder and never had any problems.

    The thing I'd be most cautious of is if you have infinitely crawlable variables that never return a 404, or 301 redirects that direct any non-existent URLs to a working page on your site, instead of a 404.

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  17. I think variables in url are good

  18. This could create a lot of major headaches for website owners!

    It is not too bad if you have a new website built using these methods but if your website is old it could be a major factor which could lose rankings!

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