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Canonical names and Google

Most websites like this one have two very different types of visitors: the "regulars" and everyone else. The regulars are the folks who visit daily or weekly or even monthly. For this web site, that's a group of a few hundred people. Those are the people I write for. Everyone else comes from search engines.

It's the folks from search engines who pay the bills.

That makes perfect sense. First, there's a heck of a lot more of them. Second, they are searching - which means they want something, so an ad on a page they find here may be just what they want. The regulars aren't searching, they are just reading. Ads mostly don't interest them.

So: while the regulars are the folks I care about, it's the other visitors that bring in the money. Therefore, I always have to be concerned about how those people get here, and that means paying attention to the needs of search engines. The rule is: write for people, but make sure that search engines can understand it too. That's sometimes easy, sometimes hard, but there's one aspect of it that the search engines have done rather badly at: canonical names.

What's the problem? Well, many web sites are set to respond to at least "www.xyz.com" and "xyz.com" identically, but search engines often have been seeing those as two separate pages. That splits the popularity rating - you don't get all the search engine "credit" you might otherwise deserve. Some sites (this site, for example) respond to just about anything: "foobar.xyz.com", "yabbadoo.xyz.com", etc. Sometimes the site traps some of those names and sends them off to different sections: I think I've noticed that Ars Technica does this. So in a case like that, the search engines are getting different pages, and should index and rate them separately, but shouldn't when the pages are identical.

If you are totally confused by DNS, I recommend Take Control of Your Domain Names, a $10.00 PDF E-Book that demystifies all of this.

Apparently Google is trying to do better with that. It's all very confusing for us as well as them, but we can help them not index other names by making internal links specific: "http://xyz.com/somepage.html" rather than "/somepage.html". Of course that's going to be very annoying if you ever change your domain name, which is why I and most other folks originally did all our internal links in the short, relative form. Now we have to change all those to keep the search engines more accurate.

Maybe the search engines will get smarter about this. We know that Google looks for (and penalizes) duplicate content, so you would think those tools could be applied to solving this problem: if "www.zyz.com/index.html" is identical to "zyz.com/index.html", just put all the credit in one place and leave it there. Which place? Ahh, there's the problem - what if later on "www.zyz.com" gets pushed to a subdirectory dealing with "www" issues? Should the credits follow that or stay with the main page? That seems like an unimportant distinction, but it really isn't and could be quite important. For example, let's say I have a popular site "elephants.com". I also have "circus.com", and up to now, "elephants.circus.com" and "circus.com" have been the same pages. But now I want to move "elephants.com" to "circus.com", so I put up a 301 redirect to "elephants.circus.com" and trap that to a sub-directory on "circus.com". Or it was the other way around: I moved "elephants.circus.com" to its own site. Either way, I've made a mess of search engine rankings and it will take some effort to get it "right". Being specific with internal links will help the search engines figure it all out more quickly.

When I started building my site, these things were completely unimportant and unknown, and it seemed to make sense to plan for future changes with relative links. Who knew search engines would become so important that changing a domain name is something you absolutely want to avoid? So, this site is full of 'href="http://aplawrence.com/page.html" ' links. I have changed many, but still have work to do in that area. If you are just starting with your site, consider how you will handle this carefully.


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