Do you continuously see wrong pages ranking for target keywords? Wondering whether you haven’t unintentionally cannibalized certain phrases in your content strategy?
FACT: Keyword cannibalization is the single most prevailing SEO mistake that can ruin the best-laid content marketing strategy.
Almost every site I evaluate suffers from having at least a couple of pages or blog posts targeting the same keyword.
I have to give those companies some credit, though. Keyword cannibalization is a ridiculously easy mistake to make. It’s easy to lose track of target keywords after a while, particularly if you’ve been publishing a lot of content each month.
The thing is – Cannibalizing keywords would, most likely, confuse the search engines. As a result, your pages will struggle with achieving their full SEO potential.
In this post, I’ll show you how to identify whether your site suffers from keyword cannibalization. And then, we’ll discuss some ways to overcome the issue.
So, let’s begin.
What is Keyword Cannibalization
Keyword cannibalization occurs when multiple blog posts, landing pages, or other content assets end up targeting the same keyword or search phrase.
If you’re wondering why we use such a gruesome term – cannibalization – the reason is simple. When targeting the same keyword with multiple pages, you, de facto, cannibalize your own SEO efforts.
In short, you begin to compete with yourself for rankings, links, traffic, and conversions.
Links (and their anchor text) that would point to the primary category page get split across many assets. Since all those pages could, technically, rank for similar queries, organic clicks get split between all of them too. As a result, your rankings and conversion rate suffer, greatly.
But that’s not all.
Why Keyword Cannibalization is a Problem?
Cannibalization affects your rankings in two ways.
#1. You have multiple landing pages competing for the same keyword
In this instance, Google is unable to decide which of your pages to rank for the main phrase. So, it ranks all of them. Unfortunately, it means that those pages will, inherently, compete with each other for the best rankings possible. And it mightn’t be the most ideal landing page that will end up ranking better.
Here’s an example to illustrate the issue. The domain I highlighted has two similar pages ranking for the primary keyword. One of those pages is a blog post. The other is a commercial product page.
The keyword has a commercial intent too, meaning that it’s the other asset that should rank for it. But it’s the other way around, in spite of the commercial page having more authority and links.
Luckily, both pages rank together, closely. The company doesn’t lose out much in this situation. Well, perhaps apart from not being able to rank higher for their high-value keyword, even though it should!
Often, I see domains with low relevance pages appearing on page one and another one further down the SERPs.
#2. You have multiple landing pages appearing for the same keyword
In this scenario, only one of your pages appears in SERPs for the keyword. However, Google might flip the result between all pages targeting that phrase.
In other words, a certain page might appear in SERPs one day, another one the other day, and so on. Of course, depending on each page’s optimization, strength and links, the actual SERP ranking will change.
Here’s an example from my site. (And yes, I’m prone to having keyword cannibalization here too. I told you, it’s a ridiculously easy mistake to make…)
For a while, Google couldn’t decide what page to rank for the keyword, “SaaS SEO consultant.”
First, it was my homepage, then (strangely enough,) my SaaS copywriter landing page, then the homepage again. At some point, two pages competed for the phrase. A total mess, wasn’t it?
I realized and cleaned up the cannibalization, finally. Now, only the SEO consultant page shows up in SERPs.
Note how rankings fluctuated with each landing page change too. I admit, they may not seem significant. But it illustrates the effect each page had on where my domain appeared in those search results.
What Are The Negative Effects of Cannibalizing Your Own Keywords?
I want you to understand the severity of the issue, fully. So, let me not sugarcoat it. Here’s what happens when you cannibalize your keywords:
- You reduce your opportunities to rank superbly well. Your content competes with itself for rankings, after all.
- You risk Google devaluing the most authoritative page, just like I’ve shown you in the example above.
- Your primary page may get fewer links, internal and external.
- Your site architecture suffers too. And that may translate into a poor user experience.
Here’s the thing, though, most likely, you have the cannibalization issues on your site. Well, unless it has just one or two pages, of course. But then, you wouldn’t be reading this post, so my assumption stands.
How to Identify Keyword Cannibalization?
Most commonly, you stumble upon the issue, often unknowingly. I get many SaaS marketers reaching out to me, wondering why their content isn’t performing. They created a massive pillar page on a topic, for example. The page is an incredible resource, yet, it’s nowhere to be found in SERPs. But they see other pages ranking for the phrase instead.
Or they wonder why so much of their content appears in the search results. At the same time, however, none of these pages manage to outrank the competition.
Some ask why the ranking URL changes from time to time too.
The above are symptoms of the cannibalization issue. So, if you’re noticing similar symptoms, you, most likely, have it too.
Often, the ranking report might indicate the issue.
Some rank trackers will mark any additional pages appearing in the search results, besides the top-ranking URL.
The tracker I use adds a little plus icon beside the ranking URL to indicate another page in SERPs, for example. You can open it then to find out what the other page is (the icon turns to the minus sign then.)
You can also analyze your site to identify the instances of keyword cannibalization. Here’s how.
Start by listing all pages on your site. Export your sitemap or download the list of landing pages from the Google Search Console. Both options should reveal your key pages on the site.
To organize such information, I create a spreadsheet and add the list in one column. You can use any other method to do so, of course.
Next, add the target keyword for each page.
Now, I also recommend that you add metadata – title tags and description – and the page title information to the mix. The cannibalization might occur on that level too. In such cases, the page targets individual keyword. However, the meta title or description tags suggest it targets an already used phrase instead.
Similarly, whoever wrote the page’s title might have included the wrong keyword, unintentionally. Such an issue might occur when writing SEO-friendly headlines that target multiple keywords, for example.
Finally, go through the report. Any pages that target similar keywords should stand out like a sore thumb.
(TIP: Have more than a hundred pages and find it difficult to scan the report for cannibalization? Sort the keyword column alphabetically. You’ll quickly find keyword groups where there should be none.)
The Three Strategies to Fix the Keyword Cannibalization Issue
You know what is the cannibalization, how to identify the issue and what damages having it could cause to your SEO. Let’s discuss how you could fix it, then.
I recommend three strategies:
- Restructuring the site’s architecture,
- Expanding the keyword set on additional pages, and
- Consolidating all those pages into a single resource.
You don’t have to do them all, of course. And each offers its set of benefits (but some downsides too.) Let’s go through them in detail, then.
Solution 1. Restructuring the site’s architecture
This is the simplest and the least invasive option. In general, it requires you to:
- pick the most important page for the keyword first,
- mark it as the source page with a canonical tag.
Well, to be precise, you place the canonical tag pointing to it on all the other assets that cannibalize this page.
By doing the above, you tell Google which is the correct URL to rank for the keyword.
Why this is the least intrusive option? Because your users won’t see any difference on your pages. Visitors will see those blog posts and other pages as they were, exactly. Google, however, will consolidate them, pointing all of their assets – links, page authority, etc. – to the canonical page.
In short, you’ll keep all pages as they were. However, the most important page for the keyword will benefit from their combined authority and strength.
There is a downside to this method, however. By selecting one page as the canonical, you take away the other pages’ opportunity to rank and drive traffic.
How does this solution work in practice?
Place the correct canonical tag on every page targeting the keyword. The tag looks like this:
<link rel=”canonical” href=”URL” />
The URL is the web address of the specific page you want to denote as canonical, of course.
Here’s an example of a canonical tag on a page.
The additional resource I recommend on the topic: Yoast’s guide to canonical tags. You’ll learn how to use the canonical tag from it, also to overcome the duplicate content issue.
Solution 2. Change or Expand Keywords on Additional Pages
This solution overcomes the challenge above. After implementing it, you’ll fix the keyword cannibalization issue while increasing the number of keywords your content can rank for.
Doing so, however, will require two things:
- Conducting in-depth keyword research, and
- Reworking all the other pages apart from the most important asset you want to rank for the keyword.
Your goal with this solution is to change the keywords those other pages target.
Again, start by deciding which page you want to rank for the keyword. You won’t be editing this page (unless only to improve its on-page optimization, of course.)
Then, go deep into the seed keyword. Find out if there aren’t any long-tail keywords you could target with the remaining pages. Granted, applying this solution might still not solve the problem. It’s worth doing, though, if you don’t want to change the site’s architecture.
Solution 3. Consolidate All Pages
Now, I admit that this is the most severe but also, the most effective solution. Why, because you create a single page of all those cannibalizing assets. As a result, nothing else remains to rank for your target keyword.
Again, this method has its pros and cons. The biggest concern is losing all the other assets. That, and not knowing how well such a single page will rank in the end.
But, if you have a collection of shorter pages on a similar topic, combine them into a single entity.
However, if you have a long-form, exhaustive guide on the topic already. Your remaining pages only expand on its information, then, considering creating a topic cluster of them.
Doing so would require combining some of the elements of the previous two solutions. But the result might be a cluster that builds up your authority AND targets all keywords along the buying journey.
TIP: When combining those pages, remember to redirect their URLs to the new page with a 301 redirect. This way, you’ll retain their links and authority.
- Cannibalization occurs to some degree on almost every website.
- The problems resulting from having it include not achieving high rankings and risking Google devaluing your critical content.
- The three ways to overcome this problem are:
- reworking the site’s architecture,
- expanding the keyword set or
- consolidating all cannibalizing pages into one.
About the Author
Pawel Grabowski is the founder, SEO strategist, and principal content creator at Smashing Copy.
Pawel specializes in building roadmaps that help our clients deliver more targeted organic traffic and website conversions. He also creates and optimizes our clients’ content and has been known for being able to breathe new life and rankings into any old content asset.