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Canonical tag vs redirects

Do the search engines treat them any differently?

3:26 pm on Feb 16, 2012 (gmt 0)

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Is the canonical tag a sufficiently strong hint to the search engines to get away with serving content at a promotional url

e.g. example.com/promoted-offer

rather than redirecting to the canonical url

e.g. example.com/offers/2012-02-16/from-poster
10:37 pm on Feb 16, 2012 (gmt 0)

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I normally use a 301 redirect from old to new URL.

On a site I am currently working on, one which has just migrated to a fully extensionless URL system, I've used only the canonical tag on the old pages to point to the new URLs for those pages.

I am seeing that Google drops the old URL out of the search results very rapidly after seeing the canonical tag on the old page. Many of the new URLs were already indexed within a week or two of the new site structure going live; Google cleans the old page out of the SERPs very rapidly once spidered.

The in-site navigation no longer links to any of the old URLs. I don't know if you get a different result if the old URL remains linked to from somewhere.