“If I Run Out of Stock, Should I Canonicalize to an In-Stock Item?” Google Responds

John Mueller of Google gives his response to this interesting e-commerce/retail situation.
SIA Team
November 11, 2021

If you own an e-commerce (or even retail) store, this should be of interest to you. 

First, I’ll tell you a bit about canonicalization. (Although I’ll give the basics here, in July, I did write more extensively on this subject, in an article titled, Canonical URL: 3 Factors to Consider in Canonicalization for SEO.)

I’ll start with this: Google, on its search engine results pages, likes to display unique results.

That is, for the 10 or so organic results, each one should be different. 

And of course, that makes sense: you don’t want to see a results page where 2 or more results are extremely similar or identical. 

Okay, so with that in mind, let’s consider a situation that you, as a retailer or e-commerce entrepreneur, might face: you have 1 product, but various versions of that product (different color, material, waist measurement, etc).

While each version of this product may have it’s own page, there’s not enough variation among each version that would merit Google trying to rank numerous, nearly-identical versions of a product. 

And, in fact, according to Google, these 2 or more pages could effectively compete against each other. 

What If You Have Multiple Variations of the Same Product?

Because think about it this way: Googlebot comes to your site, and sees that you have a certain specific line of jeans. 

Okay, great. 

But, that line of jeans comes in 8 different sizes. Each size has a page on your site, but other than the difference in size, each of these pages is more or less identical. 

Is Google going to rank 8 nearly-identical versions of the same product?

Not likely. It’ll try to pick one of these 8 to show. 

But which one?

Google doesn’t know. Which is why, effectively, the 8 pages will be competing against each other.


…you use canonicalization and tell Google which of the 8 you want to be the reference one. (You can also canonicalize to a category page, which might actually be better.)

What If You Run Out of Stock of Your Favored Product?

Okay, so, let’s say that you’ve canonicalized to version 1. 

But…you run out of version 1. 

What do you do?

That was a question asked of John Muller during the English Google SEO Office-Hours From November 5, 2021.

The video below is queued to the 45:37 mark, which is where the question was asked:

“Would it be OK to move the canonical to one of the products that are in stock?”

John’s response (which I’ve edited slightly) was:

“Sure. Sure. I mean, you can change canonical over time. 

“I suspect what would happen here is that it takes a while for our systems to recognize that, because you’re changing the rel=canonical, and our systems generally try to keep the canonical stable. 

“We especially want to avoid a situation where we’re fluctuating between two URLs as canonicals just because the signals are kind of similar. So probably there will be some latency involved in switching over. But that’s something you can definitely do.”

So, it may take a while for Google’s systems to reflect a change in canonicalization–that is, for the canonicalization to have its effect seen in the search results. 

The only problem with this is that we don’t know exactly how long this will take. 

Days? Weeks? 

This duration can vary for different sites, so what if you change canonicalization for an out-of-stock SKU today, but you get that product in a week or two?

So, that’s something that retailers have to consider. 

A Possible Setup

Granted, I’m sure there are some site platforms where you can have a category page with all variations of your product. 

Each of these variations (of color, size, etc) can have an individual page that has a canonical going to the category page. 

And, for any that are out of stock, maybe your site platform gives you the option of putting a notice for the visitor: “Out of Stock.” 

This would be great: because each variation page has a canonical to the category page, and you can label items out of stock (on their own pages and on the category page).

Also, you wouldn’t have to worry about changing canonicals as often, because visitors will see that a product is out of stock, and Googlebot may rank the category page, which is usually a stronger page than each of its variation pages.

Of course, each site is different, so do think about this and do what’s best for your visitors, ease of navigation, and SEO.Source: Google Search Central YouTube channel