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Search Engines Bringing Back Variables In URLs – At Your Expense

Posted on Jan 21st, 2010
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  • Search Engines Bringing Back Variables In URLs – At Your Expense
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    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.