Keyword Cannibalization and SEO: What You Need to Know | Perficient Digital

Keyword Cannibalization and SEO: What You Need to Know

One of the primary jobs of search engine optimization is to help the search engines better understand the content on a website, so that it can serve up the best results for a search query.

Related: Learn how search engines work.

What Is Keyword Cannibalization?

Keyword cannibalization occurs when a site has more than one page focused on the exact same keyword. When this happens, it forces Google to determine which page is actually the most relevant for a search query. It will pick one of them to show in the results, and it may not be the one you want it to be.

Keyword cannibalization is not an ideal situation for a variety of reasons. We’ll examine why in this post and then I’ll show you how to address the problem.

Why Keyword Cannibalization is Not Good for SEO

One of the reasons we perform SEO is to have better control over the experience our website provides. When we don’t work in tandem with the search engines to help them do their job better (understand web pages), they have more work to do, and the outcome may not be the preferred one.

The following diagram, taken from my book, “The Art of SEO,” helps illustrate the point as it relates to keyword cannibalization:

Having the same keyword targeted on multiple pages of a website doesn’t make a search engine thinks your site is more relevant for that term. When multiple web pages seem to be too similar, it can actually send out negative signals.

Consequences of Multiple Pages Optimized for the Same Keyword

  • Poor content quality: Imagine if you wrote a book that wasn’t well organized and had multiple pages of repetitive content. It definitely wouldn’t be a page-turner. You want to offer useful and engaging content to the users of your website, and in doing so, attract links and referrals to it. Best of all, Google rewards websites with quality, organized content.
  • Diluted external links: Let’s say you have multiple pages on your site about the general topic of snowboards, and you also have multiple external sites linking to those various pages about snowboards. Your site would be better off if all those sites linked to one page on the general topic of snowboards to consolidate link equity to that topic, versus splitting it amongst multiple pages on your site.
  • Diluted internal links and anchor text: When several pages target the same topic or keyword, you aren’t able to leverage the value of internal links and anchor text to point to the most relevant (or your best) page on the topic.
  • Lower conversion rate: It’s likely that out of multiple pages on the same topic, one or a few of those pages are converting better than others (as in helping you reach your website that business goals). You can test this theory by looking at your data in Google Analytics such as Tracking goals or Ecommerce Conversions Tracking, for example, or through tools like Optimizely. It’s a waste of effort to have multiple lower converting pages targeting the same traffic.

It’s worth mentioning that keyword cannibalization can happen when something as seemingly simple as the title tags in the meta information appears to target the same keywords, even when the content on the pages are somewhat different in focus.

How to Fix Keyword Cannibalization

The solution to this problem is simple in theory, but can take some work. It’s all about organization.

1. Look for duplicate title tags

First assess the content on your site to identify where keyword cannibalization might be happening, and then map out the preferred topical themes of the site, so that each page is targeting a unique topic (aka keyword).

You might first start with the easiest method of discovering a problem: identifying duplicate or problem title tags across the site. You can use a web crawler, such as Screaming Frog to help you do this. (At Perficient Digital, we also have our own industrial strength crawler that can crawl sites with hundreds of millions of pages).

This type of tool crawls the site and outputs a file you can navigate and sort to have a bird’s eye view of all the pages’ meta information, including title tags.

Just sort the output on the “title tag” column, and it gets easy to see duplicate title tags. Or, if you load the crawler output into Excel, you can use filtering to see how many pages talk about a given topic. For example, on the Perficient Digital site, we could see if we had more than one page talking about “SEO services” by filtering on that in the “title tag” column.

Once you identify any problem areas, you can start to update the content on the site.

2. Reorganize your site architecture

While it may be as simple as fixing duplicate title tags, you may need a more robust restructure of the content on the site if more than one page seems to be targeting the same topic in the body content.

One of the ways we can reorganize a website’s information architecture is first by visualizing what an organized architecture would look like, taking the pages and target keywords you already have and regrouping them as needed. This may leave you with some gaps to fill in terms of the topics you want to target, and you may need to write some new content.

 

You can use various visual tools to help you do this, like Balsalmiq, or even a simple spreadsheet.

By the way, in the example shown in the image above, if your site has a lot of authority, Google may choose to show more than one of the pages on a query like “snowboards.” This is NOT a case of cannibalization. You’ve clearly differentiated the titles (and hopefully the content as well), so this is not a problem at all.

When you’re done, your site might look like this:

 

In the image above, you can see the information architecture is well organized. There’s a main page on the general topic, and supporting pages on various subtopics.

This helps Google choose the best web page for a query, and helps users navigate the site more easily to find what they are looking for.

Conclusion

Is your website cannibalizing its own target keywords? Sometimes all it takes is the right tools and minimal effort to fix the issue, and other times you may have to undergo a big content and keyword reorganization project.

No matter what side your site is on today, taking the time to remedy this common issue can pay dividends for your SEO strategy, helping search engines better understand what each individual web pages is about, thus expanding your ability to show up more in the search results, and for more queries.

Art of SEO Series

This post is part of our Art of SEO series. Here are other posts in the series you might enjoy:

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22 responses to “Keyword Cannibalization and SEO: What You Need to Know”

  1. Jice Lavocat says:

    Hi Eric,
    I’m currently experimenting the reverse technique, but I think it could keep the same name.
    On a given keyword, I start to get one page in a good position. Usually I start with the page that is already ranking highest for a given keyword.
    Then, as my content increase in quality or focus (or because one page is more business-relevant to me), I now try to push a second page for the same keyword. So both pages would eventually compete. My goal is to have the two pages as high as possible in the SERP. I try to lever the SEO juice I got from the first page (it’s usually a blogpost) to push the second page (which usually has less content).
    What’s your opinion on this strategy?

  2. IanPears says:

    Great points Eric, book reference was a nice one.
    Regards,
    Ian.

  3. Eric Enge says:

    Definitely a bit risky. Not risky in the sense that they’ll penalize you, that’s not the issue. They may choose to rank only one page, and they may not pick the one that you prefer. OR, you may spend a lot of time trying to push a second page on the term, not get anywhere, and you could have spent the same energy on pushing a page for a new keyword.
    I’ll be interested to see how it works for you!

  4. Subhankar says:

    Hi Eric first of all thanks for the post I have a site which has this problem. A keyword is optimized for both the home page and a category page. The home page is ranking for that keyword so what can I do in this situation ??

  5. Chris Jones says:

    A particularly dire scenario is when a Snow Sports company starts out selling only snowboards and “fans” link to the home page with the link text “snowboards”.
    When the other products are added it looks daft to talk about only snowboards on the home page so the Company makes a snowboards category page. Google refuses to rank that page and lowers its ranking for the home page for “snowboards” since it no longer talks in detail about them.
    Everything on-site is perfect to inform Google of the snowboard topic page but Google remains convinced the home page is the correct page even though it barely mentions snowboards. It simple contains a link to the snowboard category page.
    So Eric, would you say those external links with anchor text of “snowboard” are the problem since they provide the signals that Google is paying (too much) attention to?

  6. Eric Enge says:

    If you don’t want the home page to rank, I’d consider making text pages to that page to make it less likely to rank for the keyword. But, if it ranks for the keyword, perhaps you should declare vistory and leave it alone?

  7. Finnegan says:

    It is common sense when you really think about it. Using each page as its own topic/identity…hence you can target that specific page. Thank you for the info.

  8. Fotomaton says:

    Difficult to find an exact point between a good optimization with the keywords and an excess that penalizes. Although within a text there are times that it is complicated to use synonyms when the keywords are very specific and it is necessary to include them. In that case I almost see it preferable to increase the text enough so that the percentage of the word density decreases

  9. Mark says:

    Eric – great read and info as always. While redirects and restructuring are the best options for consolidating multiple same/similar pages, what are your thoughts on canonicaling to one page? Say you have ‘hockey tape’ living under ‘hockey sticks’ and ‘hockey accessories’ – would you canonical to the strongest page or even perhaps no index the weaker of the two?

  10. Eric Enge says:

    Mark – I’m thinking canonical hockey tape to the best fit page (probably accessories?), and not NoIndexing anything. Well, in this case, I think that all 3 pages deserve to be indexed, but am going with the presumption of your example that the hockey tape page doesn’t.

  11. Cathie says:

    So if a page is not ranking for it’s keyword but another page is, should be take all references of the keyword off the other page? De-optimize it?

  12. Mark Traphagen says:

    Cathie, if the page that’s ranking is not the one you want to have ranking, the simplest solution would be to tag it with the ‘noindex’ tag.

  13. Rafael says:

    Eric, I’m wondering about a similar situation, although a bit different:
    Let’s say I have an eCommerce site where I sell peanut butter, in which case I have a “Peanut Butters” category page I’m trying to rank for the keyword “peanut butters”.
    At the same time, I’m using content marketing (I.e a blog) for link building, where I write a blog post about the “Best Peanut Butters”.
    1. Which of these will end up ranking?
    2. Do you believe the category page will rank higher for the main keyword, since Google is likely to favor a “buyer intent” page over a blog post?
    3. Do you believe adding the category page on a subdomain (shop.mypeanutbutters.com) will increase the likelihood of both pages ranking for the main keyword, or there is no real difference vs a subdirectora in this case…
    4. How would yo go about doing this?
    Thanks!

  14. Eric Enge says:

    In general, if the phrase was “peanut butter” I would have said option 2 was most likely. Google is pretty good at recognizing a commercial query and finding the commercial page on your site. In the case of your exmaple query though (peanut butters), if you search on it now in Google, you can see some article content ranking there, so your article does have a chance of ranking for that phrase. It seems like the fact that the word is plural (butters) causes Google to consider that people are looking for reviews of the best ones. The easiest way to see what’s likely to happen is to do what I did, which is search on it in Google and see what kind of results it serves now.
    As for trying to get two listings, that will be very diffcult unless you’re site is really authoritative on the topic.

  15. Brandy says:

    Hi, Something was not clear to me. How do I let the search engine know the main topic and what are my sub topics?

  16. Vanessa says:

    Hi Eric,
    Great post! Question: My News blog has several articles that usually are related to the same keyword, example: Best Luxury SUV. I can have 10 articles taking about different Best luxury SUV. Should I use the same keyword for each article or should I play with some variations like: Best Luxury SUV 2017, Best Luxury SUV 2016, Best Luxury SUV?
    Thanks!

  17. Eric Enge says:

    Hi Vanessa – I’d probably advise against having 10 different articles focused on the topic of Best Luxury SUV. In Google’s eyes, they all compete with each other, and they will likely treat one of them as more important than the others, meaning the other 9 are wasted. You’d be better off covering other topics so your site can rank for different search terms.

  18. Benhtri says:

    Hello Eric.
    Thanks for the post, great. I also have the same question, it seems that article writing on the same topic it is easy for keyword rankings to decline.

  19. Regarding the previous comments, if 2 pages are ranking then we suggest either 301 redirecting or de-optimizing one of the pages. Having 2 main pages that optimize the same set of keywords is something you really want to avoid.

  20. Gaurav Khare says:

    Both contents should be different and it should be organized like shown above in the picture.

  21. Jim says:

    Hi Eric. I have a similar question as Vanessa had above. I am currently writing blogs on Herb plants, the A to Z of herbs. If it was one blog it would be far to long. I had decided to make a series of around 6 blogs out of it and each of those blogs will still be around 5000 words each. I see that you suggest to just do one topic, but this can be difficult in my field of Gardening. Is there anyway I can use a different heading (keyword phrase) for each blog and a sub heading say A to C of Herbs (which I have already posted) and then D to G etc., I would intend to use internal linking to help visitors with the process plus an explanation on each blog. Would this be to confusing for visitors? Jim

  22. Eric Enge says:

    Hi Jim – I’d think I’d try to understand how users would search and try to create a page for each major topic. Maybe you have a page only to the A herbs. Or you might even break the A herbs into multiple pages. I’m quite sure that the search volume for phrases like “A herbs” is quite low, so I’d be inclined to have one page for each herb.

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