Search engine optimization professionals were caught off guard this week by Google’s admission that it hasn’t used its pagination identifier in “a number of years.” The admission reinforces the requirement that SEO practitioners be flexible and focus on what matters.
What Is ‘rel=prev/next’?
Originally designed to streamline indexation of multi-page experiences, rel=prev/next told Google that individual category pages shouldn’t be served separately in search results.
Pagination creates copies of the first page, only with different products. However, it wouldn’t make sense to land a searcher on page 2, 12, or 22 of your product assortment. Consumers should land on the first page to see all of the products.
The markup for, say, page 3 of a category listing for “samplesite.com” is:
<link rel=”prev” href=https://www.samplesite.com/category/page/2″ />
<link rel=”next” href=https://www.samplesite.com/category/page/4″ />
The screenshot below is rel=prev/next for page 3 of Practical Ecommerce’s “Conversion” category.
So the rel=prev/next metadata, used in combination with canonical tags, essentially merged these pages together in Google’s indexes and accrued any link authority to the first paginated page. Google didn’t need to waste time sorting through the paginated variants and could index and rank only the first page.
That was the idea.
In 2012, Bing also stated that it supported rel=prev/next, which means that Yahoo did, too. Bing’s representative Frédéric Dubut indicated on Twitter this week that it’s still in use for “page discovery and site structure understanding,” but not as a method for merging pages.
On March 21, 2019, Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller, a source of reliable technical SEO information, confirmed on Twitter that, “We don’t use link-rel-next/prev at all.”
One interesting part of this revelation is that rel=prev/next was Google’s creation. In 2011, Google introduced it as a way to reduce duplicate content and to help focus its crawl equity in key areas.
For the last eight years, using rel=prev/next was a common practice. SEOs used precious resources to implement and test this requirement, resources that we now know could have been spent on other projects.
In fact, Mueller described rel=prev/next as a helpful tactic in the Google Webmaster Central Hangout on March 19, two days before he reversed the message on Twitter. Shortly afterward, Google removed its help document, and the 2011 Webmaster Central blog post was marked as no longer valid.
Thus Google advised webmasters to do something for its algorithmic use, stopped using it, and didn’t tell us. We spent resources continuing to implement something they had created and abandoned.
And yet, no one in SEO noticed that it no longer mattered. It didn’t have an impact that was measurable in any way, so there was no way to identify that it did or did not work.
When there are so many interconnected pieces in SEO and one piece is no longer a factor, how do you know? And if a tactic works or doesn’t work, how do you know? The truth is, you don’t. Not for certain.
Google and other search engines hold the cards. They control the algorithms. They determine the intent and contextual relevance of keywords and phrases. And they determine which pages will and won’t appear in search results.
What to Do
Since Bing still uses rel=prev/next, keep it on your site. But I wouldn’t spend a lot of time implementing it anew, however.
As to dealing with uncertainty, focus on what works and what has always worked. The best recommendations in SEO are the ones that have high impact and don’t go out of style.
- Have you done your keyword research and analysis?
- Have you analyzed your natural search performance for opportunities?
- Have you optimized title tags and other on-page elements for priority pages?
- Have you looked for crawl blocks and indexation issues?
- Have you reached out to bloggers and media to connect with their audiences via links back to your site?
Don’t obsess on one thing — whether it’s rel=prev/next or link acquisition or anything else — to the exclusion of all others. Play the long game across all areas of SEO so that when one thing changes, your SEO program doesn’t fall over.
It takes time and continuous education. Read reputable sources such as Search Engine Land and Search Engine Journal. Pay attention to studies across vast numbers of sites and rankings.
Think critically about the source and credibility of any advice you read.
Don’t chase shortcuts and tricks. There are no tricks that drive lasting benefits. Eventually the tricks that work today will stop working as the search engines get smarter. When that happens, you may even have to spend time and money removing those efforts.
An example is the past practice of obtaining easy but low-value links. There’s now an entire industry of removing low-grade links. They can be harmful.