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I have some pages that have a short lifespan; this includes careers entries, landing pages and so on.

Currently when these are no longer available, they return a 404.

When these pages expire to a 404, would it be acceptable to switch the canonical url to an alternative location?

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You should not use canonical tags on 404 pages.

If your page is gone, return a 404 or 410 error. If there is another page that is similar enough that it would fulfill the same user intent, then use a 301 redirect instead of a 404.

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It would be acceptable. However, from a user experience perspective, it would be much better to 301 redirect the user to the new canonical url, instead of displaying the 404 to the user and adding a rel=canonical for the search engine's benefit.

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    I don't think search engines honor canonical tags in 404 pages anyway. A redirect is just an all around better option if you have a replacement. However, redirecting to something that isn't a replacement (such as the home page) will just confuse users and not get any search engine benefit. – Stephen Ostermiller Mar 6 at 12:33
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    Agreed - you need to be redirecting to a page that is an alternative. But if it's not, you shouldn't be using it in your rel=canonical, either. – Paul M Mar 6 at 12:54

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