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I've pages with titles like 'Alpha to Beta'. For every such page, there is an inverse page 'Beta to Alpha'. Both pages link to each other.

When someone on Google searches for 'Beta to Alpha', I'd like them to land on the correct page, but sometimes 'Alpha to Beta' ranks higher (or vice versa).

I was thinking of inspecting the referral link when a visitor arrives on my site, and silently redirecting them to the correct page based on what they actually searched for. Just wondering if this could be penalized by Google as 'cloaking/sneaky redirects'?

Or is there a better way to ensure that the correct page on my site ranks higher for the matching query?

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How different are the pages "Alpha with Beta" and "Beta with Alpha"? Though they're the inverse of each-other, the fact you've thought of redirecting based on search intent suggests there's a more substantial difference than the order of keywords in the title. –  GDav Nov 5 '12 at 17:30
    
Yes, they are very different ... a better example would be 'Alpha then Beta' –  EoghanM Nov 6 '12 at 11:32
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2 Answers 2

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See About rel=canonical:

A canonical page is the preferred version of a set of pages with highly similar content.

Point from what you call "inverse page" to the what you call "correct" page via the canonical link.

At least for Google this should solve your problem.

To the redirect question: As long as you treat searchengine and human visitor all the same there is no problem. Only if you, in simple terms, differentiate.

In case the content on these two pages is not the same and can be assumed to be unique or have value in itself (Alpha with Beta means something very different from Beta with Alpha) then leave the navigation to the user and have a link saying something like

You are on Alpha with Beta, here is Beta with Alpha.

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rel=canonical wouldn't work here as there is very different information at each page. Reading my question again, this is not clear - apologies. –  EoghanM Nov 6 '12 at 11:33
    
I'll accept this answer based on the 2nd part - adding a message advising the user of the existence of the other page which better matches their original search query. Unless there is some other was of advising Google of the significance of the word order? –  EoghanM Nov 6 '12 at 11:36
    
The first approach is to do more onsite optimization and offer the search engines more hints and reasons about the two terms. More linking of the whole terms between your pages, usage in prominent headings, in alt descriptions, things like that. The second way is to create (more) links with the exact terms to the pages. Anyway, if your term contains stop words (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stop_words) it might become a tough game. –  initall Nov 7 '12 at 8:15
    
'more linking of the whole terms' - was actually omitting this, will definitely implement this and hopefully report back. –  EoghanM Nov 7 '12 at 15:36
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I'd advise against redirecting users based on perceived intent: you stand a good chance of alienating your visitors if you make incorrect assumptions, it's complex and prone to error (you want to redirect users, not bots, so probably need to start checking user-agent, etc.).

Besides, it doesn't address the real problem, which almost certainly is the content.

If the two pages are "very different", but appear almost interchangeable to a search engine, the content isn't sufficiently specific and differentiated. I'd recommend taking some time to rewrite the content and, in particular, the page title and headings.

Think also about site architecture. Is there a way you can organise your information that underlines the differences between them?

With all of this, make incremental changes and monitor analytics to see whether you're on the right track. Perhaps consider A/B or multivariate testing - look at Google Experiments (requires Google Analytics) for example.

The bottom line is, this is almost certainly not a problem with a technical fix: it's about getting your content right.

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Thanks, I appreciate that it may seem like a content issue, but the information on both pages is strictly orthogonal. If the user queries for 'Alpha to Beta', they definitely want the 'Alpha to Beta' page and the 'Beta to Alpha' page has completely incorrect information for them. –  EoghanM Nov 7 '12 at 15:35
    
Yes, I'm not arguing to the contrary. My point is precisely that a user searching A-B wants A-B, not B-A, and the fact that a search engine isn't effectively distinguishing between the two, and is therefore failing to match content to search intent, suggests there is scope to optimise the content. –  GDav Nov 7 '12 at 18:49
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