What Is Keyword Cannibalization?

Jake Sheridan
Dec 6, 2021

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When it comes to engaging people and boosting your search engine position, keywords reign supreme.

As a result, search engine optimization (SEO) has grown into a multi-million dollar industry, with a slew of specialists providing tips on how to climb the search engine results page (SERP) and win the coveted number one place.

The majority of useful SEO advice boils down to a few basic suggestions: Conduct market research to determine which keywords are relevant to your target audience, and then generate timely and relevant content.

Keyword cannibalization is a term that isn’t commonly heard in the SEO world. While this unpleasant-sounding matter will not wreck your website, it may cause your pages and articles to rank lower than they should and, if ignored, may harm your site’s overall reputation.

Here’s all you need to know about detecting, assessing, and how to avoid keyword cannibalization.

What Is Keyword Cannibalization?

Keyword cannibalization is something to be concerned about since it has the potential to harm your rankings for a variety of reasons.

Keyword cannibalization occurs when the information architecture of a website relies on a single keyword or phrase in numerous areas of the page. While this might happen accidentally, having a slew of sites that all target the same keyword can be problematic.

It can also happen if you do not follow Google’s recommendations for keyword stuffing across several pages. The goal of most keyword stuffing methods is to rank for a certain term.

Why Is Keyword Cannibalization Bad?

The problem is that if many pages want to rank for the same keyword, Google won’t know which one is the most relevant.

Google will crawl your site and find dozens of pages that are “relevant” for the same keyword. However, Google will have to pick amongst those pages that appear to be the most relevant to the query. If you were hoping to get SEO value from this technique and rank your entire website higher as a result of this term, you’re out of luck. Furthermore, you are passing on other excellent SEO opportunities such as:

  • Quality content: If you’re targeting numerous pages with the same keyword, they should all be about the same thing. You run the danger of receiving duplicate material, poor quality content, or duplicates, which reduces your chances of receiving referrals and links.
  • Conversion rate: why waste time on several pages with the same purpose if one of them converts better? You should concentrate your efforts on one of these pages rather than a lower-converting version aimed at the same traffic.
  • Internal anchor text: If you target different sites with the same subject, you are passing up opportunities to concentrate the value of internal anchor texts on a single page.
  • External links: External links can increase the SEO value of a page that is targeting a particular keyword. However, if you have many sites targeting the same keyword, your external links will be divided amongst those pages. You are therefore spreading the value of external links over several pages rather than concentrating it on a single one.

The Rule’s Exclusion: When Cannibalization of Keywords Isn’t an Issue

You don’t have to worry about keyword cannibalization if you rank first and second for the same phrase and keep those rankings for a long time.

For example, Bodybuilding.com at some point ranked first and second for “back and bicep workout.”

They had held both of these roles for at least 6 months.

So why would they want to “resolve” this problem?

They wouldn’t do it. Here’s why:

In reality, they are not only ranked in the top two places with the highest CTR (click-through rate). However, by doing so, they effectively reduce the number of clicks to rival sites.

They would only wish to “correct” this problem if the page ranking in position #1 performed worse than the page ranking in position #2. For example, if the conversion rate on the top-ranking page was lower than on the other page, or if the bounce rate on the top-ranking page was particularly high for any reason.

However, because Google considers user engagement metrics (e.g., bounce rate, dwell time, etc.) when ranking sites, chances are this isn’t the case.

In fact, 13.53 percent of keywords with ten or fewer searches per month include only one or two words.

Keyword Cannibalization FAQ

How does Google handle cannibalization?

The essential point to remember is that “several pages optimized for the same term” does not constitute cannibalization unless the goal of these sites is the same.

When this occurs, you are effectively competing with yourself.

Indeed, Google’s John Mueller was asked a couple of years ago during a Reddit AMA: “How does Google see keyword cannibalization? People feel that having several pages on the same issue confuses search engines, reducing their chances of ranking.”

John’s reaction was as follows:

We just rank the content as we get it. If you have a bunch of pages with roughly the same content, it’s going to compete with each other, kinda like a bunch of kids wanting to be first in line, and ultimately someone else slips in ahead of them :). Personally, I prefer fewer, stronger pages over lots of weaker ones – don’t water your site’s value down.” — John Mueller, Google

Consider the following:

Which of your pages should rank if you have two or more that target the same intent? Which is the most beneficial to users?

There’s a high probability you wouldn’t be able to answer these questions since there isn’t a correct answer. Keyword cannibalization almost always occurs by chance — when new pages are released over time without regard for what already existing.

How can you expect Google to rank your page if you can’t decide which one to rank?

True keyword cannibalization issues mean that you are essentially asking a search engine’s algorithm to pick which one to rank.

While there are greater ranking factors pointing to one, there aren’t always. In this scenario, neither rank performs as well as they might; the pages consume each other’s capacity to perform.

However, it is a big issue that affects many websites, and clearing things up is an important chore that should be part of your overall SEO strategy.

How can SEO cannibalization be prevented?

Once you’ve determined that there are keyword cannibalization concerns on your site, it’s time to address them.

But, first and foremost, you must recognize that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to this and that the road you follow to resolve the difficulties is highly dependent on the particular circumstances.

Simply said, the solution to one cannibalization problem is unlikely to be the same as the solution to another. When the moment comes, there are conventional solutions to which you might resort. These are some examples:

1. Canonicalization

You may not always be able to delete the cannibalized pages and maintain only one. This might be a specialized PPC landing page, a wonderful piece of content from a user-experience standpoint, CMS constraints creating page duplication, or something else completely.

However, if this is the case, try utilizing canonicalization to assist you to sort out the issues. This allows you to pick one page as the principal one, suggesting that it should rank on the SERP, as well as guaranteeing that ranking signals, such as link equity, are given to the canonical page.

None of the pages will need to be deleted, and users will still be able to view them all.

Canonical tags are frequently confused with noindex tags, and as a result, many are hesitant to use them on their site. However, when utilized correctly, a canonical tag pointing to the page you wish to rank for the term may be placed on the weaker page.

2. Your internal linking structure must be reworked
In certain cases, changing your internal linking structure might help to solve cannibalization concerns, especially if you use exact match anchor text that leads to various sites.

Reworking internal links to ensure that they lead to the actual page (rather than a cannibalized version) can assist to clear up problems. However, it is seldom sufficient to completely resolve the problem.

To achieve better results, combine this strategy with tidying up sites that compete for intent.

3. Develop new content

One typical cannibalization issue seen by eCommerce companies is that a single product page ranks for search terms related to their product range.

When this occurs because no ‘range’ subcategory exists, the solution is as simple as establishing one.

When there isn’t a page that meets the intent, you’ll see a rating for ‘the next best thing,’ so you can create one. You should then see that the difficulty has vanished as a result of your ability to meet this goal.

4. Consolidating and merging pages

When you have two (or more) weaker pages that are cannibalizing one other owing to competing on intent, it makes sense to merge and consolidate them into a single page.

Essentially, you’re making one powerful page out of several lesser ones.

When you don’t have a clear primary page, this is usually the best approach to take because one piece of content is a standout, has links pointing to it, or is already receiving organic traffic when you can’t identify a primary page.

It may also imply that you need to add new content to improve the end page and that 301 redirects are in place for any pages that are removed or URLs that are altered to ensure that any ranking signals are sent over.

5. Page re-optimization

Frequently, you will discover that you have accidentally triggered metadata cannibalization simply by not optimizing for keyword variants.

Assume you own an eCommerce business and sell a product in three distinct colors. It is typical to find product variations on distinct URLs with identical title tag, H1 tag, and no apparent separation between the versions other than the image.

In this case, you may re-optimize the pages to target specific keywords and avoid cannibalization.

6. Cannibalized pages must be removed and redirected

If you discover that your site has many pages addressing the same objective, but you only need to maintain one of them, the simplest method to solve the situation is generally to use 301 redirects.

Once you’ve determined which pages cannibalize the most (consider inbound links going to the sites and organic exposure across various keywords), simply delete the others and 301 redirect their URLs to the one that is left.

This is typically the most straightforward method of resolving cannibalization concerns.
Make careful to change any internal links that connect to the deleted sites, but aside from that, the removed URLs should slip out of Google’s index over the course of a few weeks.

Also, the most effective method is to examine those URLs using competitive research and link-building tools, such as SEMrush or Ahrefs, Google Analytics, or  Google Search Console, to determine which one has the greatest organic strength.

Should I use the same keywords on every page?

It’s vital to optimize your anchor text, but don’t use the same anchor text for every link to a web page. Visitors may find it amusing, and others argue that it may harm your search engine rankings since it appears that you are attempting to “game” them.

So, shake things up. Use variants on the keyword, your company’s name or even a URL to make it appear more natural to both users and search engines. Try not to repeat keywords more than 50% of the time.

Why is keyword cannibalization bad for SEO?

Unfortunately, keyword cannibalization may have serious repercussions for your SEO. Many persons who are victims of keyword cannibalization are unaware that anything is wrong.

They may even be pleased when one page ranks fifth and sixth for their desired keyword, not recognizing that one authoritative page would most likely rank higher and convert better.

However, the practical implications are clear: lost site visitors, inquiries that lead to the incorrect page, changing SERP positions, and, eventually, lost revenue.

Why? Because:

1. You’re wasting your crawl budget

The amount of times a search engine crawler crawls your website in a certain time period is referred to as your crawl budget.

Having several pages devoted to the same keyword causes crawling and indexing of unnecessary pages. (Note: tiny sites are unlikely to see a difference or have to worry about their crawl budget, but major eCommerce sites or sellers with many goods would.)

2. Your conversion rate will suffer as a result.

Eventually, one of your pages will outperform the others. Instead of guiding new visitors to that page and making it as authoritative as possible, you are losing prospective leads when they arrive on less relevant pages.

3. Google may reduce the importance of the more relevant page.

Keywords are one of the primary ways we assist Google in understanding what our pages are about. If all of your keywords are the same, Google attempts to determine which page is the greatest fit – and if your content is too similar, it may be incorrect.

4. You’re undermining your page’s authority

Instead of having a single highly authoritative page, you’re dividing your CTR over several modestly relevant pages. You’ve effectively made your pages into rivals, and you’re now competing for page views and SERP rankings.

5. It is an indicator of poor page quality

Multiple pages targeting a similar keyword indicate to your consumers that your content is likely stretched thin, and it also indicates to Google that your content may not match your keywords on each page.

6. You’re weakening your links and anchor text

Backlinks that could have gone to a single unified source of information are now spread among two (or more) pages. Similarly, your anchor text and internal links direct readers to a variety of diverse pages rather than a single authoritative website on the issue.

Don’t forget: check out the other definitions (over 200) in our growing SEO glossary.

Resolving Keyword Cannibalization Issues Can Lead to Significant Gains

Hopefully, this article has given you a better understanding of keyword cannibalization.

Keyword cannibalization is an underappreciated but important issue, particularly for sites that have been running for some years and have accumulated a large number of pages. But don’t worry – there are easy ways to monitor this issue, and perhaps this piece will help you speed up the process of locating such occurrences.

Most of the time, it’s just a matter of taking the most logical strategy while keeping other SEO factors like backlinks, crawlability, duplicate content, and keyword research in mind. If at all feasible, test your modifications before implementing them at the site-wide level or making them permanent.

By using a process-driven approach to find and fix keyword cannibalization issues, you can make this a regular component of site auditing and put in place measures to prevent such problems from recurring.

It takes time and resources to find the search terms that will move the needle for your business. You must collect keyword data, organize it in a spreadsheet, do search intent analysis, and filter out any irrelevant terms.

So let us handle everything for you.

Hand off the toughest tasks in SEO, PPC, and content without compromising quality

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Written by Jake Sheridan on December 6, 2021

Founder of Sheets for Marketers, I nerd out on automating parts of my work using Google Sheets. At Loganix I build products, and content marketing. There’s nothing like a well deserved drink after a busy day spreadsheeting.