Keyword Cannibalization: Do Your Posts Eat Themselves?

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What is Keyword Cannibalization?

Updated: 30th September 2019

Keyword cannibalization is one of those exciting, sensational and click-baity types of terms that SEO marketeers love. I am no exception.

When I first heard of it, I imagined a horde of words engulfing one another in a zombie-like feeding frenzy.

I have an active imagination.

The truth is not so far from my imagination… a little less gory of course but potentially equally worrying!

What is Keyword Cannibalization?

Keyword cannibalization occurs when multiple pages from a website appear in the search results for the same search at the same time. Multiple pages usually means two but no more than three.

Cannibalization can happen when these pages are deliberately or accidentally optimized for the same keyword.

This leads to search engines understanding thesm as highly relevant to a keyword, but can’t decide which should take priority.

Is This Bad?

Many believe that when multiple pages in a site appear for the same keyword, they compete against one another. This weakens the page rank for all pages concerned.

There is some sense behind this idea, and it goes something like this.

Search engines are very sophisticated and able to “understand” page content. If search engines see multiple pages in a site as equally relevant for a keyword, they might be confused about which page to show.

If this is true, another concern is that your preferred page might not appear in the results at all, as the competing page could take priority.

In this case the relevancy of one page cannibalizes that of the page you’ve optimized for the same keyword.

However, just because you’ve optimized a page for a specific keyword, it does not mean that it’s the most relevant page for that term.

As I mentioned earlier, search engines are incredibly good at determining and understanding page content. What you view as the most relevant page for a keyword and what Google does can be completely different.

So because you prioritize a page to rank for a search term by optimizing it, it doesn’t mean it will rank above another. This is especially true if the content is very similar.

So is this bad?

I can answer this definitively… and the answer is maybe!

When is Keyword Cannibalization Bad?

Keywords

There are certain situations whereby keyword cannibalization is definitely bad and to be avoided.

This bad cannibalization happens when:

  • The internal linking (linking to other pages in your site) is confusing to search engines.
  • You have multiple pages about the same subject and the content is optimized for similar (or the same) keywords.
  • Pages have the same meta information (titles, descriptions, etc.)
  • You don’t use canonical URLS to identify a “master” page when content is similar.
  • Links on other websites point to multiple pages using the same keyword anchor text (i.e. the clickable text links). This splits the link value across multiple pages rather than one.

If your site has many of the above it is possible that search engines will become confused about which one to rank.

As a result it’s also reasonable to consider that page ranking will suffer. Alongside this, other factors such as Click Through, Bounce and Conversion Rates might take a hit as a consequence too.

It’s a fiddly problem to fix definitively to be fair, since keyword cannibalization probably occurs on most websites. This is especially the case the larger they become.

When you write about any topic in a niche, there’s always going to be potential for some form of cannibalism. Especially so when you publish often and over long periods.

To summarize then, keyword cannibalization is bad when multiple pages having similar content rank for a specific keyword at the same time.

When is (Apparent) Keyword Cannibalization Not So Bad?

Having multiple pages ranking at the same time for a specific search is not always a sign there’s a problem.

There are cases where two pages rank for the same search but have different content, even if it’s related.

As long as these pages don’t rank because of links that use the same anchor text, then it’s likely not a problem. It might actually be a benefit! Assuming of course that content isn’t the cause.

If search engines see multiple pages as relevant and offer something useful to visitors, then you have multiple pages taking up more space in the results. In this situation your search visibility increases, which might mean more clicks and visits to your site!

In order for this to happen though (and not be keyword cannibalization), these pages would contain high quality content.

How to Check Your Content for Cannibals

There are a number of tools that can help.

For a price, subscription-based tools such as those found at SEMRush, SEOMonitor and Ahrefs can help you troubleshoot your content.

A simple and free way you can troubleshoot is to run a search in Google. You can do this by using the “site:” operator combined with the keyword you believe is being cannibalized. You use it like this:

site:domain.com “keyword”

Find out more about Search Operators.

This will return all pages that Google sees as relevant to that search term.

Look at the content of each and decide if they are too closely related and causing you a problem.

Be sure to check:

  • Page Titles
  • Meta Descriptions
  • The content itself.

If you find anything that looks like duplication, you might need to address it in one of the following ways.

How to Cure the Cannibals

Fix Cannibalization

There are a number of ways to address your keyword cannibals. However, each requires you to understand which page is the one you want to rank for the keyword being consumed.

Once you are comfortable that you know this you can use any of the following approaches.

Rejig Your Content

This is perhaps a less maverick approach than some others.

It requires you simply to modify the content (page titles, meta description, main content) of the less favored page. The modifications would be to optimize it for a different search term… preferably one that’s doesn’t compete with another page!

Content Consolidation

You might decide that the lesser preferred page content can’t be rejigged. If this is the case you might consolidate into the preferred page.

This would involve editing your preferred page to include the content from the other. Of course this might require substantial work, but you’d likely end up with a higher quality piece.

Once you’d done this you’d need to:

  • deactivate the cannibalizing page
  • Set up a 301 redirect from it to your consolidated version.

301 Redirection

If you decide that you no longer want the cannibal content on your site, you could just remove it.

As with content consolidation, for completeness you should set up a 301 redirect to the page that you’re keeping.

Canonicalization

You could decide to leave both pages live, but tell search engines which should be the master (canonical) page

Setting up a canonical URL from the less preferred page to a master will result in search engines seeing the canonical version as the one that should rank for the cannibalized keyword.

This approach has the benefit of retaining all content that might be interesting to your visitors. At the same time it stops search engine confusion about which page to rank for the keyword.

Find out more: What are Canonical URLs?

Summary

  • Keyword cannibalization is when two (possibly three) of your pages appear in the search results at the same time for the same keyword.
  • If the pages that rank have very similar content it may be an SEO issue you need to fix.
  • If the content on multiple pages is very similar, search engines may not know which one should rank. As a consequence they could choose to show each one in the results.
  • It can devalue the ranking power of each page affected.
  • There are a number of things you can do to fix keyword cannibalization issues. You could rewrite or consolidate content, redirect traffic from one page to another or canonicalize.

That’s all for the moment! Thanks for reading.

Paul

If you have experience of keyword cannibalization or want to ask a question about it, drop me a comment below.

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