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  • Keyword Cannibalization

    Keyword Cannibalization: How to Find & Fix SEO Cannibalization Issues

    Whether you realize it or not, your entire website could be plagued by keyword cannibalization problems, resulting in confused visitors, lower rankings, and ultimately, wasted SEO potential.

    Fortunately, with your awareness and dedication, it’s not only possible but relatively simple to fix keyword cannibalization issues on your site.

    Here we’ll discuss what SEO keyword cannibalization is, how it can hurt and what you can do to resolve it on your website.

    Let’s dive in!

    What Is Keyword Cannibalization?

    What Is Keyword Cannibalization

    In search engine optimization (SEO), much of your strategy will depend on your onsite content creation. You’ll be writing and optimizing onsite blog posts, whitepapers, and other types of content with the hope that they’ll rank as highly as possible for your target keywords in search engine results pages (SERPs).

    Oftentimes, content planners and SEO strategists will create a lengthy list of keywords and phrases they want to rank for. Then, they’ll create new articles for each of these targets (while simultaneously creating discretionary articles).

    Whether you’re extraordinarily careful with your keyword targets, totally flippant with them, or something in between, you can eventually run into a “keyword cannibalization” problem.

    Let’s say for a target keyword phrase, “best bike for a teenager,” you have not one but two pieces of content ranking. One of these is at position 4, while the other is at position 6.

    Cool! You have two pages ranking. More ranking pages is better, right?

    Not necessarily.

    In fact, this is an instance of keyword cannibalization in action; two of your pages are competing directly with each other in the SERP (search engine results page) for the same keyword, with each interfering with the other’s potential.

    In short, you don’t want to compete with yourself!

    Why Is Keyword Cannibalization a Problem?

    Why is this such a big deal?

    There are actually a few potential issues that arise from keyword cannibalization.

    • Stealing the spotlight from better-converting pages. Let’s say you have an excellent, comprehensive written guide that’s designed to convert incoming traffic. It works well, with a high conversion rate and lots of good feedback from the people who have read it. Right now, it’s ranking at position 6 for a target phrase, while another article on your site is at position 4. Which one do you think visitors will click if they see both?

    In these cases, a competing page will siphon traffic from your more important pages. In this scenario, instead of ranking for the same keywords, neither ranks well or a page that converts more poorly might outrank a money page.

    • Decreasing rankings for both pages. You’re likely aware that much of your ranking potential will be dictated by your link building strategy. The more links a given page earns, the higher it will rank (in general). If you funnel all your efforts to one powerful page, you might earn or acquire a 100 free backlinks. But if attention is distributed between two competing pages, they might only earn 60 and 40 links, respectively. Accordingly, neither page will be able to rank as high as a single page would if it had all that attention. In other words, both pages will fail to reach their true ranking potential.

    This is especially important because the vast majority of traffic from SERPs goes to the top-ranked result. It’s often better to have a single rank one position than to have several positions deeper in the rankings. If you can trade your rank 4 and rank 6 articles for a single rank 1 article, you’ll typically end up ahead in terms of visibility and traffic.

    • Google confusion. There’s another argument that having two pages covering the same topic can be “confusing” to Google, showing it two conflicting visions of the same topic coverage that compete for the same keyword. However, this argument doesn’t hold much water; Google’s algorithm is very good at determining the intent and subject matter of each article (not to mention content quality), so there shouldn’t be any issues there.

    That said, Google doesn’t know your goals or intentions – and even if it did, it wouldn’t go out of its way to align with your personal motivation. It’s important to build your strategy deliberately and with Google’s ranking algorithm in mind.

    • User confusion. More to the point, having multiple entries for a given topic in a single SERP can be confusing to web users – especially those who have never encountered your brand before. They’re seeing two different articles that cover a similar topic and compete for the same keyword. Which one is better? They may only click one – are you okay with them clicking the wrong one?

    When Keyword Cannibalization Isn’t a Problem

    Okay, let’s back up a second.

    Keyword cannibalization can be a problem – emphasis on “can.” There are also situations where it’s perfectly fine.

    For example, let’s say you have two awesome articles ranking at position 1 and position 2 for a keyword phrase. Both are highly relevant to the target phrase.

    This result from SearchEngineJournal is a good example of potential keyword cannibalization but without the negative consequences.

    In this scenario, you’re not really siphoning traffic or compromising your full potential; you’re already sitting at rank one, the best-case scenario, and nothing can take traffic from you. In fact, most of the people who don’t click the first position link end up clicking the second position link – which you also occupy, so you lose nothing here.

    It’s a nice spot to be in – and not something that requires intervention.

    Unfortunately, this is a rarity for keyword cannibalization events and usually only benefits websites that have existing, high domain authority.

    How to Discover Keyword Cannibalization

    Discover Keyword Cannibalization

    So how do you know if you’re currently affected by keyword cannibalization?

    There are a few simple, straightforward methods you can use for identifying keyword cannibalization problems. Unfortunately, they tend to be manual and time-consuming, so they don’t work especially well on a large scale.

    For example, you can conduct a search for a given keyword and simply see whether any of your website’s pages are featured in the SERPs. If you notice multiple pages ranking or almost ranking for that term, you know you have a problem.

    Using a keyword tracker like Ahrefs, Moz, SEMrush or AgencyAnalytics (shown here), can help you see which pages may be in competition with one another.

    If you keep track of the keywords each of your pages is targeting, you can search for duplicates and identify pages that are in conflict with each other. The only problem here is that some of your pages may be ranking for keywords and phrases they’re not specifically intending to target. Also, you might not be keeping track of your keyword targets – which is an issue in and of itself.

    So what can you do to keep track of keyword cannibalization on a large scale?

    One option is to use a tool like Ahrefs Site Explorer. With it, you can paste your website URL, head to the Organic Keywords report, and export the relevant columns to CSV format.

    From there, you can open the CSV in a spreadsheet program like Excel, sort the relevant keywords, and highlight the duplicates.

    This can still be time-consuming if you’re currently ranking for thousands of keywords, but it’s worth the effort.

    Options for Fixing Keyword Cannibalization Issues

    At this point, you’ve got a list of all the keyword cannibalization issues that are plaguing your website. What steps can you take to fix them?

    Setting Page Priorities

    To start, you’ll need to figure out which of your competing pages is the higher priority; the lower-priority page is the one “encroaching” on its territory and compromising its potential. You’ll be funneling your resources to the stronger of the two pages, while removing, limiting, or modifying the weaker “encroaching” page.

    In most cases, this is obvious; the more comprehensive, more detailed, better-converting, better-written post is going to be the superior one (and the one worth preserving).

    Delete the Encroaching Page

    Let’s start with the easiest option: delete the encroaching page.

    It doesn’t require much explanation because it’s quite simple. If this encroaching page doesn’t add much value to your site, if it’s obsolete, or if it doesn’t convert, you might consider deleting it. More content isn’t necessarily better for a website, and if this page is doing more harm than good, you might as well remove it entirely.

    Noindex the Encroaching Page

    Let’s say the situation is a bit different. This page is problematic, interfering with a priority page, but it still offers unique value to readers. You can’t afford to delete it outright because you want it to remain available to your visitors – but at the same time, you’d rather it didn’t show up in search engines.

    What can you do?

    Noindex it

    Noindex it. In your page’s HTML code, simply add a “noindex” meta tag; from then on, Googlebot will skip over this page when indexing your site.

    Keep in mind that if you utilize this option, the page in question won’t be indexed for any reason and won’t show up in any SERPs. It will disappear from the contested SERP, but it also won’t appear in any other SERPs.

    Tweak the Encroaching Page

    If you like the encroaching page and you think it has value elsewhere, there are a number of potential tweaks you could make to improve it – and remove it from the competition.

    • Identify the conflicting keyword. First, you need to identify the conflicting keyword or phrase. What is the search query that both pages are appearing for? This is the word you want to try to avoid.
    • Remove instances of the keyword. Though Google uses semantic search along with semantic HTML to limit its reliance on exact match keywords, you can still “deoptimize” the page by removing references to this word or phrase. Depending on the topic, this may require a few subtle edits or a full-blown rewrite.
    • Add a new keyword. After deoptimizing your article for the contested keyword, it’s a good idea to re-optimize it for a new target keyword. Find a target keyword or phrase that isn’t currently contested by your existing content and pepper it in.
    • Change existing links. You may also want to change your existing internal link structures. For example, you may want to change the URL of the encroaching page to better reflect its new content, then set up 301 redirects to divert traffic from the old, encroaching page to your new, primary target page.

    Merge the Content

    Another option is to “merge” the two pieces of competing content into a single, “master” piece.

    This is, in many ways, the best option. It allows you to preserve the best elements of both pieces of content, while also getting rid of the cannibalization issue – and it sets you up for the best possible search results in the future.

    It also happens to be the most flexible option, since there are many ways you can go about it. You can choose either piece to be a “host” piece and integrate elements of the other piece into it. You can tack one piece onto another as a form of expansion. Or you could rewrite a fundamentally new piece, incorporating elements of both original pieces to make it more robust.

    Here’s a good process to follow:

    • Start with the primary target (and theme). What is your target keyword, and what’s the best topic to target that keyword specifically? What do you want this article to cover and how robust do you want it to be?
    • Merge or rewrite. At this point, you can add one article to another, chop up the sections and combine them, or write a new piece with components of both prior pieces. It’s totally up to you.
    • Eliminate redundancies. If you had two articles covering a similar topic, there are likely sections with redundancies – duplicated content that doesn’t truly need to be stated twice. Eliminate these to make for smoother reading.
    • Smooth out formatting discrepancies. You may also run into formatting discrepancies – especially if these two pieces were written by two different authors. Your comprehensive, finished piece should be internally self-consistent for readability and professionalism.
    • Keep users as your top priority. As you write, revise, and edit your work, always keep your users as your top priority. You may be attempting this work as a way to appease search engines and rank higher in SERPs, but that’s not going to help you if your readers bounce when they encounter the piece for the first time. Write something eloquent, detailed, robust, and entertaining.
    • Do a final read-through. Don’t assume the merge is seamless. Do a final read-through before committing the final publication and make sure it reads consistently and smoothly. This is your last chance to correct any errors and make last-minute improvements.
    • Address existing links. After publication, you’ll need to carefully manage your existing links. That likely means setting up 301 redirects for links to URLs that no longer exist, funneling all traffic (and passed authority) to your merged mega-page.
    301 redirects can be performed by a WordPress plugin (see included image) in the .htaccess file in Apache or redirect file in an Nginx server.

    Keep in mind, if you’re looking to fix keyword cannibalization by combining two pages with a 301 redirect, be careful!

    If both pages have a good number of inbound links, combining them may do more harm than good to your overall rankings for that term.

    This keyword cannibalization fix is perhaps the most risky, especially for established websites with a lot of inbound links to pages that compete for the same keyword.

    In performing this fix, it is advised to consult with some outside SEO consultants who have done it before and know what the likely impact is going to be.

    How to Prevent Keyword Cannibalization Issues

    Once you’ve corrected your existing keyword cannibalization issues, it’s a good idea to enact measures to prevent keyword cannibalization problems in the future.

    Here are some of the best strategies to do it:

    • Keep a running list of target keywords. Don’t lose track of your keyword targets or write content arbitrarily. Keep a running list of your target keywords and phrases – as well as the content pieces you’ve already created, so you don’t mistakenly duplicate your efforts.
    • Always check before writing a new piece of content. As an added measure of protection, anytime you want to write a new piece of content, check to see whether you’ve done anything similar in the past. If you’ve already written an article that’s ranking for a specific keyword, is there another keyword you can target? Or is there a way to flesh out the existing article rather than creating a new page?
    • Make use of synonyms and closely related phrases. If you’re feeling stuck, consider using synonyms, related phrases, or alternative phrases for your new piece of content. Due to Google’s semantic search capabilities, this won’t eliminate the risk of keyword cannibalization entirely – but it will mitigate it.
    • Audit your website content regularly. Finally, take the time to audit your entire content marketing and SEO strategy regularly. At least a few times per year, do a deep dive to look at your keyword rankings, your current content results, and other variables. If you notice any keyword cannibalization issues, this will give you a perfect opportunity to correct them before they do any further damage.

    Is your website suffering from a keyword cannibalization problem? Have you done your own SEO keyword research, but don’t know where to go next?

    Or are you having trouble ranking for your highest priority keywords and phrases?

    You may need the help of an SEO agency like SEO.co. At SEO.co, our clients’ goals become our goals. With our seasoned SEO experts and teams of link builders, writers, and strategists, we can help you get the search results you’ve always wanted. Contact us today for a free consultation!

    Chief Revenue Officer at SEO Company
    Industry veteran Timothy Carter is SEO.co’s Chief Revenue Officer. Tim leads all revenue for the company and oversees all customer-facing teams for SEO (search engine optimization) services - including sales, marketing & customer success. He has spent more than 20 years in the world of SEO & Digital Marketing, assisting in everything from SEO for lawyers to complex technical SEO for Fortune 500 clients like Wiley, Box.com, Qualtrics and HP.

    Tim holds expertise in building and scaling sales operations, helping companies increase revenue efficiency and drive growth from websites and sales teams.

    When he's not working, Tim enjoys playing a few rounds of disc golf, running, and spending time with his wife and family on the beach...preferably in Hawaii.

    Over the years he's written for publications like Forbes, Entrepreneur, Marketing Land, Search Engine Journal, ReadWrite and other highly respected online publications. Connect with Tim on Linkedin & Twitter.
    Timothy Carter