SEO Takeaways for Fall ’09

It’s hard enough to keep up with SEO (define) news when it comes at a normal pace. Occasionally, however, several announcements come simultaneously, making it even tougher to keep up. This column discusses several recent search engine announcements and what they mean for your site.

Canonical Tag Goes Off Road

Since its birth, one of the biggest limitations to the canonical link tag is that it worked only for pages within the same domain or subdomain. For example, a page on could have a tag referring to another page on the same domain or a subdomain such as And that was good. But last week, Google announced that the canonical tag will be able to be used for multiple domains by the end of 2009.

What does this mean? If you have a slew of domains that publish the same content, you can add canonical tags to each of them that point to the correct URL on the main site.

For example, if content on and is the same, you can place tags on the pages and point them to their counterparts on According to Google, this will produce the same (more or less) effect as 301 redirects, but depending on your content management system (CMS) and server access, it might be easier to implement. (This applies to Google only, at least for now. Yahoo and Bing have not signed on for cross-domain applicability.)

This is especially relevant in light of news that is shutting down. As a result, the threat of URL-shortening services not being around forever is no longer hypothetical. So if you own a short domain yourself, consider building your own URL shortener for your social media endeavors. You can use your short domain to build a short-URL version of your entire site, as long as the canonical tag points from the short-URL version to the long URL version.

To use another example with, suppose you also own and you build it out so that URLs such as and map to URLs such as,, and so on. That way, you have a ready-to-use supply of shortened URLs whenever you need them.

Again, this isn’t supposed to happen until later this year. If you build it out now, exclude it until you get the official word that it’s live.

Handling Parameters Through Google Webmaster Tools

The Google Webmaster Tools team has added features to the toolset. Last week, it announced a new technique to deal with duplicate content. The “Parameter handling” section (found in the settings area of the site configuration section) enables you to tell Google which parameters within your dynamic URLs are important and which it can ignore.

For example, suppose you have a page with the following URL:

In addition, this article has a printer-friendly version and a version that you’re tracking through Twitter:

The “id” parameter tells your CMS which article to pull, so it’s important. The “printer” and “source” parameters, however, don’t add anything to the page. The first produces a printer-friendly version, and the second denotes that the click likely came from Twitter.

With the Parameter handling tool, you can convey to Google which parameters are important, and which can be ignored.

This is a terrific tool not because of how it treats duplicate content. (According to the Google Webmaster team, it treats these URLs — and links to them — as it would if you’d used the canonical link tag.) You can use this tool quickly and without having direct access to your server. Bigger companies typically mean bigger bureaucracy and a larger amount of red tape between SEO recommendations and actual implementation. In certain environments, this tool can really cut down on the time it takes to make improvements.

Remember, this is a Google-only feature, not a “Big Three” promise like XML sitemaps. But also remember that Yahoo has a similar feature called the Dynamic URL Tool, which I wrote about here nearly two years ago.

To Key or Not to Key

Meanwhile, news during an SMX panel revealed that Yahoo officially no longer “uses” the meta keywords tag and hasn’t for several months.

Of course it isn’t so simple.Jill Whalen and others showed compelling evidence that Yahoo continues to use contents of the keywords tag to rank pages within Yahoo SERPs (define).

It’s difficult to determine whether these tests really mimic the way a tag’s contents are used in regular circumstances. To prove Yahoo is using contents from the keywords tag, you need to place a term inside that is not used anywhere else on your site (or, ideally, any site) and then perform a Yahoo search for it. Regardless, until Yahoo clarifies its position, you’ll have to decide whether a strong meta keywords strategy should take very little of your time or none at all.

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