Using Canonical & Hreflang Tags To Launch New Markets Quickly

Last week, someone accused me of being too technical when describing geo-targeting settings — it followed a conversation where I was told that one of my discussions was not “advanced” enough! So, I apologise in advance, as this post is going to be too technical for some and not for others!

It’s also a little theoretical, so I’m going to be talking about an approach that I personally haven’t seen tested yet — nor do I know anyone who has. But it is inspired by someone who should know about these things.

An Interesting Approach To Using Canonicals As 301s In Site Migration

At SMX East, I was lucky enough to share a panel with Maile Ohye from Google who was talking about pagnination and canonicalization, whilst I was talking about my oh, too-technical Hreflang tags. Yes, I know I don’t own Hreflang, but I have spent a year studying and explaining these, so they have kind of become my own step-tags!

Anyhow, Maile presented a very interesting approach to using canonical tags for site migration.

In this context, what we mean by ‘site migration’ by way of example, is when one company buys another and wants to close one site and move all of its links value and domain type-in traffic across to the site which will be the brand going forwards. (Sometimes both sites will be closed and pointed to a completely new name).

Migrating Content From Two Businesses Merging Can Create Duplicates

The traditional way of doing this would be to immediately redirect all links using a permanent 301 redirect structure. The downside is that the brand disappears completely from the Web and even when typing in, you go immediately across to the new brand.

As a marketer, you have to change that website and include some prominent message which says “Business B is now part of Business A — welcome aboard!”

Retaining both original sites can often mean the content from the acquired business moving to the new site and creating duplicates of the original, especially if there are tight deadlines and city rules to stick to.

Maile suggested that an alternative method would be to use the canonical tag to identify that two URLs were indeed the same content — and which of them should be chosen for display in the search engine results pages, only later swapping this for 301 redirects.

Using Canonical Tags To Migrate Sites Prior To Launching 301s

Using Canonical Tags To Migrate Sites Prior To Launching 301s

It’s an interesting idea and set me thinking: could this be used as a way of launching a business into new markets? I believe that it indeed can be used in that way.

Let’s take the example of a provider of adhesives, as I don’t provide services to any such company. Our invented supplier of adhesives has over 10,000 products, each with relatively low sales volume and each requiring a detailed and thorough explanation of the specific circumstances in which they can be used and those where they should never be touched. Very successful in the US, the company would like to expand to the UK and Australia.

Our prospective exporter has acquired the relevant domain names for the UK and Australia, where the planned roll-out is to take place, but has just been told about the risks of duplication by an expert in SEO. The boss has just figured out that some 20,000 pages of content would need to be re-worded to be safe, and there just isn’t the time, money or inclination to do that.

Setting Webmaster Settings Is Also An Option But Has Downsides

He could create second and third copies of his content on his dot-com and set webmaster tools geographic targeting settings to the two new markets. But he’s really convinced (and rightly so) about the value of appearing in front of customers using appropriate local domains. The customer’s US site is also highly successful and ranks very well in search engines.

Taking Maile’s nub of an idea, what the adhesives company could do is to create complete copies of all the content they need from the US site and publish them on the two new local domains they have acquired. They would then need to set-up the Hreflang references in the XML sitemaps to identify the languages and markets they are targeted at.

Of it’s own, this should send a signal to identify that the content is intended for the correct market place, though bear in mind the language of the content is still in US English and giving an opposite signal.

Using Hreflang Tags Followed By Canonicals To Launch New Same Language Sites

Using Hreflang Tags Followed By Canonicals To Launch New Same Language Sites

Additionally, these are still new websites with virtually no history or inbound links to help them get started, a problem marketers frequently face when they launch into a new market.

But what our adhesives team could do now is to use the canonical tag to identify that the content in the UK and Australia is the same content as that published in the US.

Why? Because the result would be that the strength of the US website would help the search engine results along in the new markets (as it probably did before all this) but now Google will show the domain in the UK and the in Australia so that the user will go to the correct new site.

This would help the new sites pick up the click-throughs associated with their sites, as well as enabling the adhesives company to change pricing and telephone numbers on the different pages. It’s also different from using the dot com and webmaster settings to achieve this in that the migration to fully-fledged local domain sites is made much easier. The pages already have the correct URLs and link building locally can help them along.

By the way, the intention behind the above strategy is that you do move to fully-fledged UK and Australian sites because the US language will not perform long term in those markets, though it does help to generate the flow of revenue to help fund the exercise.

I’m sure there are holes in the above strategy, please let me know if you spot them. But overall, it can be used as a graduated move into a market, perhaps as test marketing or as a precursor to a full scale later launch.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Multinational Search


About The Author: is a linguist who has been specializing in international search since 1997 and is the CEO of WebCertain, the multilingual search agency and Editor-in-Chief of the blog You can follow him on Twitter here @andyatkinskruge.

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  • Andrew Isidoro

    Very interesting idea. Would be interested to see how (or indeed if) this could be executed in practice though.

  • Oleg Korneitchouk

    According to Google
    you should not use canonical links when setting up a multilingual site -
    only hreflang.

    However, in my experience, this didn’t give as much ranking power to the
    non-original versions of the site. Are you recommending the new domains
    set a canonical to the original site or vice versa?

  • Federico Riva

    No advantages.

  • Andrea Moro

    You have spent too much time on the hreflang tag but you haven’t propably spent the same amount on the canonical one, and some of your assertion leave me with some doubts on the validity of your suggestion (perhaps because not supported by a clear example). However, analysing your suggestion I believe your idea will generate a sort of internal loop with possible unexpected results.
    The Hreflang tag is supposed to help Google serve the correct language or regional URL. To make this working, webmasters should communicate all the URLs including the self referencing one. Although I noticed the latter to not be really necessary to keep everything working, google guidelines still mark this as necessary.At the time Google bot will pass through the page, it will read all the URLs to later provide the relevant URLS according to the regional engine queried at the time.So canonical tag is not part of the process at all and perhaps it is even useless.
    So let’s go back to your US domain.
    Your content is completely duplicate – according to your explanation – and as far as I understood the entire set of products is merchandised regardless the country.
    So here we go, all duplicate pages will included the hreflang tagging each other according to the guideline. What it will make the difference is the canonical tag. So here we go, three scenarios:
    1) US page to canonicalize the UK site.As soon as your US page will include the canonical tag toward the UK you will be saying to the bot that the US page is a duplicate copy and that you want the UK one to be returned.
    This will be ok for the UK version, but what will happen to the US or the AU version? The latter will feature in the AU results because of the hreflang, the US will suddenly disappear even from favouring the UK version.
    2) UK version to canonicalize the US siteUK site has no power, the Hreglang will ensure the proper version to be returned but within the UK searches you are suggesting the US site to return.So you are not effectively promoting your UK site, but the old trusted one.What’s the point?
    3) UK to canonicalize the US, and US to canonicalize the UK.This will generate a loop with inconsistencies and also what about the AU site? This cannot be part of this insane process, so something is missing here.
    In the end, and just to recap, the canonical designates the version of content that gets indexed and returned to users. By implementing a roundtrip like the one I have picked up from your explanation your canonical + hreflang won’t make your sites discoverable in the new market faster as you said.
    Now, I’m keen to read any more deeper experiments you may have done, because it may be possible I didn’t completely understood your methodology, hence my conclusion are not accurate either.

  • sharithurow

    Hey commenters-

    I attended this session at SMX. I understand where Andy is coming from…his context.

    Did any of you attend the session? If you did not, it might not be so easy to understand Andy’s context. If you did? I just cannot tell, based on what you wrote. Please pardon my ignorance.

    it goes without saying (as Andy has taught me many times over) that UK English is considerably different than Australian English and US English. There are a number of strong signals, stronger than hreflang, that he did not include in this article but certainly did include in his SMX presentation.

  • David Sottimano


    Not discrediting you Andy, but the illustration is a bit confusing plus it’s already a complex topic. That’s why I think Andrea might be confusing examples here.

    1) Whichever site(s) is canonicalized to another target, they are gone from the index. When hreflang is used alongside the canonical, it allows the preferred version of your country / region targeted URL to fire at search time. This means although the canonical tag has removed 2 of the sites (UK & AU, US is the canonical target), users will get to the right page in the appropriate country specific search result. Example: A brand keyword search would normally show the homepage of the US site, but with hreflang + canonical, the Australian URL will be shown on with the US homepage’s title + meta description. This will work for all 3 countries.

    2) You want the to be returned in the UK, while .com in the US. The implementation with the canonical should ensure there’s only 1 version for PageRank but different pages for user experience. Don’t see the problem here?

    3) This is where I think the 2nd chart is misleading. There shouldn’t be cross canonicals, you’re right.

    @Andy I get your point, and I’m 100% with you. The only thing I would be worried about is launching the new dupe sites with the canonical tag, and then reversing it once I’ve started to build up the UK & AU sites. I’m much more comfortable with using subfolders on the main domain (/uk/, /au/), canonicalizing those, and then 301 redirecting to the appropriate, when I’m ready. Canonical tags can be disastrous sometimes :S

  • Andrea Moro

    Hi David,

    by implementing canonicalization + hreflang, in the end is not helping to launch a site into new market.

    Hreflang on its own will suffice as it will ensure the proper URL to return.
    On the contrary, canonicalizing the URL to the US site, you will loose the benefit to serve the “regional” version of your tags, which may be slightly different and more in line with your local market.

    So again, what’s the point?

    As you got the point, I think we can further discuss about it? Should we do an hangout at a certain point this week so other users can be involved too?
    I’m always open to new learning opportunities.

  • Andrea Moro

    Would be interesting if you can share your thoughts in deep as something is missing at this stage.

  • Modesto Siotos

    I’d like to comment on the first slide (Using Canonical Tags To Migrate Sites Prior To Launching 301s) as I think Andrea and David have sufficiently covered the hreflang and canonical complexities.

    I can’t really see many benefits adding cross-domain canonicals from the old (strong) site to the new (weak) one. That means that as long as the two sites remain live the old, established one will lose its rankings, whilst I wouldn’t expect the new site to gain all the link equity of the old one and receive the same amount of traffic.

    Why not just leaving the new site live for a while but without any canonical tags and say something like says “Business A (old site) will soon become Business B (new site)” ?

  • David Sottimano

    I hear you – this is a complicated subject and I think I’m even getting confused at this point. I would love to discuss this further, and maybe we should try and get many test examples live and invite Pierre Far to join in. dsottimano on Twitter, look forward to hearing from you.

  • Egan Rao

    If there hangouts confirmed, please send me an invitation.. I’m really thinking of a strategy to go into US and AU market with over12k product pages with contents currently focusing UK market.

  • Mary Kay Lofurno

    Hi Andy,

    I, like Shari was at your International seminar the day before and the session with you and Maile Ohye. Its an interesting idea, did you run it by Maile? What was her feedback?


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