How to provide better credit on the web using the standard rel=“canonical” by looking at an example from the Open Learner Patchbook
A couple of weeks back, I noticed and began following Cassie Nooyen when I became aware of her at the Domains 2019 conference which I followed fairly closely online.
She was a presenter and wrote a couple of nice follow up pieces about her experiences on her website. I bookmarked one of them to read later, and then two days later I came across this tweet by Terry Green, who had also apparently noticed her post:
I really hope this new post of the Open Learner Patchbook comes across the feed of lots of learners who haven’t experienced a Domain of One’s Own program before.
Patch Twenty Five – My Domain, My Place To Grow
— Terry Greene (@greeneterry) June 21, 2019
This means that there are now at least two full copies of Cassie’s post online:
- Original: https://techbar.crnooyen.knight.domains/blog/what-having-a-domain-for-a-year-has-taught-me/
- Copy: http://openlearnerpatchbook.org/technology/patch-twenty-five-my-domain-my-place-to-grow/
While I didn’t see a Creative Commons notice on Cassie’s original or any mention of permissions or even a link to the source of the original on the copy on the Open Patchbook, I don’t doubt that Terry asked Cassie for permission to post a copy of her work on his site. I’ll also suspect that it may have been the case that Cassie might not have wanted any attention drawn to herself or her post on her site and may have eschewed a link to it. I will note that the Open Patchbook did have a link to her Twitter presence as a means of credit. (I’ll still maintain that people should be preferring links to their own domain over Twitter for credits like these–take back your power!)
Even with these crediting caveats aside, there’s a subtle technical piece hiding here relating to search engines and search engine optimization that many in the Domain of One’s Own space may not realize exists, or if they do they may not be sure how to fix. This technical subtlety is that search engines attempt to assign proper credit too. As a result there’s a very high chance that Open Patchbook could rank higher in search for Cassie’s own post than Cassie’s original. As researchers and educators we’d obviously vastly prefer the original to get the credit. So what’s going on here?
Search engines use a web standard known as rel=“canonical”, a microformat which is most often found in the HTML
<header> of a web page. If we view the current source of the copy on the Open Learner Patchbook, we’ll see the following:
<link rel="canonical" href="http://openlearnerpatchbook.org/technology/patch-twenty-five-my-domain-my-place-to-grow/" />
According to the Microformats wiki:
rel=“canonical”to a hyperlink, a page indicates that the destination of that hyperlink should be considered the preferred or definitive version of the current page. This helps search engines avoid duplicate content, and is useful for deciding how to link to a page when citing it.
In the case of our example of Cassie’s post, search engines will treat the two pages as completely separate, but will suspect that one is a duplicate of the other. This could have dramatic consequences for one or the other sites in which search engines will choose one to prefer over the other, and, in some cases, search engines may penalize one site for having duplicate content and not stating that fact (in their metadata). Typically this would have more drastic and averse consequences for Cassie’s original in comparison with an institutional site.
How do we fix the injustice of this metadata?
There are a variety of ways, but I’ll focus on several in the WordPress space.
WordPress core has built-in functionality that should set the permalink for a particular page as the canonical one. This is why the Open Patchbook page displays the incorrect canonical link. Since most people are likely to already have an SEO related plugin installed on their site and almost all of them have this capability, this is likely the quickest and easiest method for being able to change canonical links for pages and posts. Two popular choices for this are Yoast and All in One SEO which have simple settings for inputting and saving alternate canonical URLs. Yoast documents the steps pretty well, so I’ll provide an example using All in One SEO:
- If not done already, click the checkbox for canonical URLs in the “General Settings” section for the plugin generally found at
- For the post (or page) in question, within the All in One SEO metabox in the admin interface (pictured) put the full URL of the original posts’ location.
- (Re-)publish the post.
If you’re using another SEO plugin, it likely handles canonical URLs similarly, so check their documentation.
For aggregation websites, like the Open Learner Patchbook, there’s also another solid option for not only setting the canonical URL, but for more quickly copying the original post as well. In these cases I love PressForward, a WordPress plugin from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media which was designed with the education space in mind. The plugin allows one to quickly gather, organize, and republish content from other places on the web. It does so in a smart and ethical way and provides ample opportunity for providing appropriate citations as well as, for our purposes, setting the original URL as the canonical one. Because PressForward is such a powerful and diverse tool (as well as a built-in feed reader for your WordPress website), I’ll refer users to their excellent documentations.
Another useful reason I’ll mention for using rel-canonical mark up is that I’ve seen cases in which using it will allow other web standards-based tools like Hypothes.is to match pages for highlights and annotations. I suspect that if the Open Patchwork page did have the canonical link specified that any annotations made on it with Hypothes.is should mirror properly on the original as well (and vice-versa).
I also suspect that there are some valuable uses of this sort of small metadata-based mark up within the Open Educational Resources (OER) space.
In short, when copying and reposting content from an original source online, it’s both courteous and useful to mark the copy as such by putting a tag onto the URL of the original to provide it with the full credit as the canonical source.