A (Non-Spooky) Keyword Cannibalization Guide


Cannibals are never good. We honestly can’t think of a single time anyone said, “Oh, it’s okay. They’re just cannibals.” Vegetarians? Great. Pescetarians? Excellent. Cannibals? Nope!

When your SEO specialist mentions your site is experiencing keyword cannibalization, you should treat it with the proper level of concern. While it’s not the end of the world, don’t put the weapons away. Knowing what keyword cannibalization is and how to handle it can help you clean up and differentiate your content.

What is Keyword Cannibalization?

Keyword cannibalization is the issue of having multiple blog posts or pages on your site competing for the same (or very similar) keywords or search query in Google, whether the pages cover similar topics or they’ve been optimized for identical keywords. As a result, two (or more) pages are now competing for traffic, rankings, and conversions. 

Essentially you’re asking Google to weigh your pages and choose which ones it thinks answers the query best. If your site maintains a high enough authority score, you might secure multiple rankings for a specific search query. But traffic is hard enough to get; why cannibalize traffic to your own website?

Where Can You Find Keyword Cannibalization Issues?

Typically, you can find keyword cannibals in two obvious places.

  1. In The Meta Data

When two or more pages have metadata (meta title and descriptions) that target the same or very similar keywords, cannibalization occurs. This requires a less labor-intensive type of fix, as only the metadata needs adjusting.

This keyword cannibalization often occurs on e-commerce sites, as product pages tend to have very little text. This makes meta tags one of the main elements search engines look at to understand how a page differs from others. More often than not, e-commerce sites fail to differentiate metadata to target more specific keywords/subcategories.

  1. In The Page Content

This type of keyword cannibalization typically occurs on editorial pages (blogs, articles, etc.) or any other pages with substantial text content. This happens because the pages cover very similar topics in their body content. Fixing this cannibalization requires more work or a technical back end fix. It’s essential first to find all the competing pages and then decide on the best approach to tackle the issue.

Why Is Keyword Cannibalization Bad For SEO?

Unfortunately, many suffering from keyword cannibalization aren’t even aware that anything’s wrong, much to the detriment of their website’s SEO efforts.

The obvious exception is if pages rank in the first and second positions on SERPs. Celebrate your hard work paying off and focus on performance metrics for these pages.

When cannibalization occurs lower on SERPS, below the fold or the second page and beyond, these issues may be the reason why your pages can’t get over the hump. Here’s what happens when keyword cannibalization occurs:

Diminished Page Authority and On-Page Content Quality

Your pages are competing with each other as well as the millions of other webpages on the net. Instead of having one highly authoritative and relevant page, you’re splitting your clicks and traffic into multiple pages with moderate relevance.

Keyword cannibalization also signifies that your content is stretched thin and may only be tangentially relevant to the target keyword. 

Targeting the same keywords or phrases across multiple pages runs the risk of duplicate content and low-quality content, thus lowering your chances of referrals and backlinks.

Devaluation of The More Relevant Page

Google’s algorithm does a reasonably good job of understanding what a web page is about. However, it’s not by any means perfect.

With several pages targeting the same terms, there’s a chance Google will decide the wrong or weaker page is the most important and devalue the others that cover the same subject. It can be as simple as one page falling in line with search intent despite having lower relevance.

Diluted Backlinks and Anchor Text

A proper link building strategy aims to draw traffic and authority to relevant web pages. Keyword cannibalization splits potential links between multiple pages instead of building lots of links to one consolidated informative piece. 

Your internal linking will also face a similar issue and lead visitors to different pages instead of one authoritative page for what amounts to the same information.

Your Conversion Rate Suffers

Conversions are the ultimate sign of success in many SEO circles. Be it a newsletter sign-up or product purchase, conversion rate optimization is typically the end goal of most SEO campaigns.

It’s unlikely that all pages will convert equally. Inevitably one of your pages will show higher conversion rates than others. Unfortunately, pages that are cannibalizing are also splitting potential leads and conversions across several pages. 

Prevent losing potential leads and a higher bounce rate by directing new leads to the most relevant and conversion-optimized pages possible. 

You win twice, as conversions signify search intent alignment and relevance, increasing the page ranking and authority.

Fixing Keyword Cannibalization (Fire might work!)

Once you’ve taken an audit of your pages and their performance, you can decide which articles are worth keeping and which are best to merge or delete. Here are some actions you can take to fix your website’s keyword cannibalization issues:

On-Page Fixes for Keyword Cannibalization

Merge or Consolidate Content

In this case, two is not better than one. If two pages attract the same audience and aren’t unique enough, consider combining the two (or more) posts into one lengthy and well-written piece as a means to help your rankings, fix thin content problems, and solve your keyword cannibalization issues.

Ultimately, you’ll delete one of the two articles and adapt the other one. Just don’t forget to redirect the post you delete to the new authoritative piece.

De-optimize Content

It sounds like the opposite of what an SEO firm should suggest, but let us explain. Sometimes a page will rank for a keyword because of a single reference. If you’re able to remove undesirable keywords from content, it should help remove it from the pool of competition. 

Improve Internal Linking

Internal links not only help users navigate your site for more content, but they also help Google understand the hierarchy of your website. Establishing a proper internal linking structure can solve your keyword cannibalization issues. You want the majority of your internal links pointing to your important high-value pages.

Find all internal links directing clicks to a less desirable page, swap the link’s destination to the high-value page, nofollow them, or remove the internal link entirely. Pay close attention to links with keyword-rich anchors, as any links containing the cannibalized keyword in the anchor text may be helping the underserving page rank. In this case, either change the anchor text or the linked landing page.

Kill it with fire (Delete the page)

Use this as a last resort or when the page in question is of low-quality and potentially “cannibalizing” traffic from a similar but better page. You can also kill the page if it offers very little, if any, value to readers. Before you delete, always make sure to check if the page has any inbound links. If it does, be sure to always add a 301 redirect from that page to a similar one to preserve that link authority.

If the page does not have any inbound links, kill it with fire! (delete with impunity)

Technical Fixes for Keyword Cannibalization

Noindex a Page

This solution works best to fix keyword cannibalization for pages that you want to keep because they are useful for your visitors. But you also don’t want to risk potentially cannibalizing another page’s traffic.

Blog category pages are a perfect example. Blog category pages are useful for navigating a website but offer little use as landing pages directly from the SERPs. 

De-indexing a page prevents it from appearing in SERPs while remaining accessible on your website.

Use A Canonical Tag

A canonical tag (rel= “canonical”) is a snippet of HTML code that defines the main version for duplicate, near-duplicate and similar pages. This code snippet directs Google to the most relevant page that should be indexed for each of these queries. This solution also ensures a better user experience and more relevant information.

This is what a canonical tag looks like:

 <link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.example.com/authoritative-page/” />

Use 301 redirects

The final suggestion is a 301 redirect. While it may be the simplest to implement, it comes with drawbacks. Having too many 301 redirects on your site may make it seem less reliable; imagine it like a technical bait-and-switch.

However, 301s might be necessary to fix keyword cannibalization if you already have multiple pages ranking for the same terms. Find all of your web pages with this issue and choose which page you feel most accurately and comprehensively covers the topic. Apply a 301 redirect from every “duplicate” to the best page you picked. Using 301s consolidates your cannibalized content by linking the less relevant pages to a single authoritative piece.

If you find too many pages all targeting the same keywords, it may be time to focus on long-tail keywords with lower search volume but higher intent and less competition. Here are some pros and cons of long-tail keywords

How To Prevent Keyword Cannibalism

As with most things, the best way to avoid something is prevention, and there are two good ways to do that: 

  • Keyword mapping/planning
    • Implementing a correct mapping strategy for your site is vital to your SEO strategy; it’s as important as your keyword research! 
  • Matching intent with content
    • Google attributes one of four types of search intent to keywords: informational, navigational, transnational, and commercial. 
    • Check the search term on Google and check what the results display for that keyword target. If the SERP is filled with product pages, your blog won’t do too well.

With these two strategies in mind, you can produce planned out and well-intentioned content with little to no overlap. No overlap = no keyword cannibalization.

In Conclusion

The word cannibalization doesn’t sound like it belongs in the SEO lexicon. However, it accurately describes a potentially problematic issue for growing websites. 

While Google’s algorithm continues to evolve and improve its ability to discern a searcher’s intent, we feel it’s best to make your web page’s intent and subject matter as unique and transparent as possible. Keyword cannibalization is something you should keep an eye on. Fortunately, the damage isn’t permanent, and there exist several SEO-friendly solutions to fix a website that’s cannibalizing its keywords.
If you think you have issues with keyword cannibalization or have any other SEO questions, please feel free to reach out! Unlike cannibals, we don’t bite!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael was an in-house and freelance content writer before joining the team at Redefine Marketing Group. He is now the Content Manager at RMG, where he focuses primarily on content creation but helps with SEO and Social Media. Michael graduated from CSU Channel Islands with a degree in English.
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