by Mac 

August 3, 2020

In 2019 Google made an announcement that rel=next/prev were no longer needed to handle pagination. In the past, these two tags were vital when it came to helping Google understand how a series of pages were connected. This predominantly occurred on e-commerce sites, specifically on product listing pages. However, we still see questions regarding how to handle pagination when it comes to canonical tags. There’s a standard answer that’s always given, but we believe that there are two paths when it comes to pagination.

Note:

 While Google no longer uses these tags, other search engine bots may, so we don’t recommend removing them.

The Original Method

The original method for handling pagination meant that you used a self referencing canonical tag on all paginated pages. This meant that each of those pages had the chance to rank and show up in the SERPs. Google’s own recommendation and guidance was to use the self referencing tag. As an example, this is what you’d see as the setup:

Note:

If the URL had a parameter attached, you’d still reference the paginated page, not the root page.

As we mentioned, the result of using this method was that every paginated page had the chance to rank for terms. Since this is the original method that Google told people to use, you’ll see most SEOs take a dogmatic approach to pagination and say that this is the only way it should ever be done. We think that’s wrong.

The Second Method

Before we start, this is considered wrong. The tag should not be used like this. Google may just outright ignore your tags if you did this. It also may not, I've seen it both ways. I also wouldn't swap to this if you have the other setup because the value gain is minimal. It really comes down to what you're aiming for. Alright, you've been warned. That said...

The alternative way of handling pagination is to not self reference the paginated URL in the canonical tag, but to reference the root page. Here’s how this setup plays out:

URL: https://www.example.com/category/page2

Canonical tag: https://www.example.com/category/

Note:

If the URL had a parameter attached, you’d reference the root page, not the paginated page.

In the first method, the paginated URLs can rank for terms, and all products on those paginated pages gain a small benefit from internal page rank. This means that those pages can also rank for terms a little easier, as they can make use of the weight of the paginated page that is linking to them.

However, in the second method you do away with this usage of internal page rank to the products on the paginated pages, because you’re telling Google that all of their value should be passed to the root page. This effectively strips the paginated page of any power it had (in theory, as Google considers canonical tags to be a hint).

Why would you do this? Well, you don’t always want paginated pages to rank, and you may not want those products on the paginated pages to rank as highly. By consolidating all linking power in one primary page, you can further boost the URLs that are linked from the primary page. This means that you can boost specific pages that appear on the root page. Consider it a case of giving more power to a few pages, rather than diluted power to many pages. This method shouldn’t always be used, but it’s an option that is available to you. 

Note:

Internal page rank is leveraged through internal linking and can be seen as each site’s own personal use of Google’s Page Rank system. It’s not the exact same, but it works.

How does Google React?

We’ve used both methods, and seen Google accept both and reject both. It’s easy to identify whether Google has accepted what you’re doing.

Head over to your Google Search Console property and use the URL Inspection tool to inspect a paginated page. You want to look specifically at the Google Selected Canonical tag. If Google is fine with what you’re doing, it’ll say that it’s respecting the user declared canonical. However, if Google believes it knows best, you’ll see the tag it has selected. Sometimes they respect the tag, other times they force a paginated page to be self referencing.

So what do you do if you try the second method and Google doesn’t respect your canonical tag? Well, you don’t really have to do anything. Google’s going to do the heavy lifting on its end and correctly attribute value where it needs to be. If you really want to, you can change the canonical tag. If you leave it alone, Google may at some point choose to honor it. The option is up to you.

Conclusion

It’s important to know that you don’t need to follow what everyone says regarding any one topic. In the case of pagination, you’re fine using the original method, but sometimes that method isn’t what’s best for your site or for your goals. Don’t be afraid to go against the grain of what other SEOs and Google recommend. Both cases work, and you have the option to use what’s best for you.

About the author 

Mac

Mac is one of the Search Mentors. His first experience with SEO was badmouthing a CS 1.6 clan on a public forum and getting caught when they googled their name. Oops. Mac's been involved in SEO in various capacities for 10 years, but is primarily involved in technical SEO. He doesn't show his face because his company probably wouldn't like that he does other SEO related things.

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