Technical SEO topics such as pagination are near and dear to my heart. This article will build upon and update my previous treatment of pagination and SEO.
I’ve written and presented often on pagination for SEO. Why so much attention on this subject?
The reason is simple: it can be a big, hairy deal for sites. It’s right up there with faceted navigation as one of the most problematic crawling and indexing issues for large-scale SEO. It’s a tactic (actually a set of tactics) that our teams are continually evolving, testing, and refining.
3 Overall Tactics For SEO Pagination
There are three primary tactics that we use for SEO pagination:
- Classic Method (using noindex)
- View All Method
- Rel Prev/Next Method
Each of these is detailed below.
Classic Pagination for SEO: Using noindex
I’ve already detailed this technique in full, so I’ll skip the nitty gritty. The important thing to realize is that using this method does not directly transfer any equity from a series of component pages to the primary, canonical page. Rather, as component pages get crawled and link back to the canonical page, that equity is (hopefully) transferred as a second-order effect.
We would generally not recommend using this method for pagination today, except for fringe cases. It’s perfectly fine and will not hurt a site; on the contrary, it will greatly help a site that has SEO pagination problems. But, there are now even better methods as we’ll discover.
View All Method
The most elegant method is to utilize a View All page. In this approach, all component pages rel canonical back to the View All.
There are a few requirements for this approach:
- The View All must load quickly; at least 3 seconds end-to-end. Maile Ohye pointed out at SMX West that even if load times are excessive, if the page can load progressively the user experience will not suffer as much (since content will be viewable on the page immediately).
At SMX West, a few folks complained when I mentioned 3.5 seconds as the maximum load time tolerable for View All pages. The truth is, this is a “real world” goal and while not ideal, reflects the actual load times that we see on large sites.
Just take a look at these ‘last mile’ load times on US retail sites to get an idea of what latency looks like out there. It’s not particularly pretty, but more than anything demonstrates the opportunity these sites have.
Our analysis of 20 top ecommerce clients showed an average load time of just over 4 seconds. The fastest site was averaging 2 second load times, an exceptional result in this set. But it was more common to see load times above 3 seconds and well into the 4 second range. While the average load time was 4.2 seconds, the slowest site loaded in over 9 seconds!
Another requirement for the View All method is to ensure all products, or items, that are included on the component pages are featured on the View All itself.
This ensures that there won’t be anything left out of the crawl, as pages annotated with rel canonical tags will not necessarily have links within their HTML crawled. It will also ensure there is a relevant match between what is being folded together in the paginated series.
The benefits of this approach are two-fold:
- Users tend to love view all pages. In our experience and testing, pages with a lot of products or items all featured at once convert much higher than landing pages with a smaller selection of products. But the pages need to be fast.
- All component pages in the series transfer their equity to the View All in a fairly direct fashion.
Also something to be aware of: Google will attempt to use your View All page by default, all things considered, when there are no other proactive signals in place. Be aware of this and take steps to control the SEO experience proactively yourself.
The Rel Next/Prev Method
The most current technique for SEO pagination makes use of the HTML 4/5 link element rel=”next” and rel=”prev”. The specifics of this implementation are well detailed in this Google support page, so let’s focus on the benefits and results.
It’s been our experience (especially with e-commerce clients) that it can be difficult to get a View All implemented as the canonical and default page. Merchandising teams don’t always like them; they don’t make holiday or seasonal specials as easy to manage; advanced landing pages can be better looking and UX and content teams often prefer them; they can make spotlighting certain products more difficult; and many other reasons.
Because of these challenges, rel next/prev is often an excellent method for handling pagination.
The benefits of this approach are as follows:
- All component pages share their equity with the series. What does this mean? Basically, when page 9 of a series gets a link with rich anchor text, that equity is shared across the series with all the other pages. That’s a good thing.
- However, using rel next/prev doesn’t prevent a component page from displaying in search results. So while these pages will “roll up” to the canonical (or default) page 1, they could still fire at search time if the query was relevant for that specific page. At SMX West, Maile assured us that it would be a very rare thing for that situation to occur. But it could occur.
- Because of this, an additional recommendation (strictly as an optional step) is to add a robots noindex, follow to the rel prev/next component pages. This would ensure that component pages would never fire at search time.
- Finally, all rel next/prev pages should also have a self-referencing rel canonical tag. In cases where tracking IDs are appended to a URL, these rel canonical tags will ensure no duplication and equity leak occurs.
Conclusion & Pagination Recommendations
SEO pagination needs to be recommended situationally (like so much of SEO). Here are my recommendations:
- If you have a fast loading View All page, and that page contains all the products and/or items included across the component pages, use this method. All component pages rel canonical to the View All, and it becomes your default ranking page in SERPs. It’s elegant, simple, and efficient. It will also best pass equity from each page to a single, canonical URL.
- If you don’t have a quality View All, or your company doesn’t want to use that as the canonical URL, implement the rel next/prev methodology instead. This method will consolidate signals across the series, rather than concentrate them on a single URL; however, the end result should be the same, if implemented well: the canonical, ranking URL (normally page 1) will be given the equity. There is a substantial benefit in using this method over the classic noindex approach: equity is actually transferred to the series itself.
Remember, the classic method does not directly pass any equity – there are no signals to do so – rather it achieves the same ends by opening up the crawl of component pages and keeping them out of the index and from competing with the ranking URL. Be aware that with rel next/prev, component pages can still fire at search time (although unlikely). You can optionally use a noindex, follow as well to avoid this. Ensure all pages have self-referencing rel canonical tags.
- There are edge cases where the classic noindex method of SEO pagination is still viable. These are in situations, for example, where it’s important to address Bing consistently along with Google (Bing does not yet support rel next/prev), or when HTML 4/5 elements are not yet ready to be deployed at an organization. In cases like these, the classic noindex method is still a good option.
No doubt this will change again, but here’s the latest for your SEO campaigns. Best of luck and please let me know in the comments your experiences and insights.
Updates: Google’s Maile Ohye has recently published a video on pagination and SEO. Be sure to check it out. Vanessa Fox also covers the details in her thorough treatment of the topic, Implementing Pagination Attributes Correctly for Google.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.