Producing quality content is one of the most significant factors for driving organic traffic to your website.
It’s easy to get into the mindset of churning out hundreds of articles/pages to rank for your priority keywords, but one SEO killer that you need to be aware of is keyword cannibalization.
Read our latest guide to learn more about keyword cannibalization issues, how it negatively affects SEO, and how to fix it on your website.
Keyword cannibalization is when two more pages on your website rank for the same specific keyword.
You may think this is a good thing: if both pages rank, then I can get more organic traffic from Google’s search results pages, right?
This line of thinking used to be true a decade ago, but search engines have significantly changed their algorithms in a way that having multiple pages ranking for the same keyword can negatively affect the organic health of your website.
Keyword cannibalization typically occurs in two main places:
Cannibalization happens when two or more pages have metadata (meta title tags and meta descriptions) that target the same or very similar keywords. Since only the metadata has to be modified, this is a less time-consuming patch.
Since product pages typically contain very little text, keyword cannibalization is common on e-commerce sites. As a result, meta tags are one of the most important factors that search engines consider when determining how a website differs from others. E-commerce sites also struggle to distinguish metadata in order to target more precise keywords/subcategories.
This style of keyword cannibalism is more common on editorial pages (blogs, posts, etc.) or any other pages with a lot of text. This is when the pages' body material covers very close subjects. More work or a technological back end repair is needed to resolve this cannibalization. It's critical to first identify all competing pages before deciding on the best strategy for dealing with the issue.
Looking to learn more about search engine optimization? Read our SEO beginner’s guide for everything you need to know about SEO and how to drive business results through search engines like Google and Bing.
Below we’ll go through the biggest factors that keyword cannibalization affects on your site pages:
When multiple pages rank for the same keyword, Google tries to determine which of these pages is the most relevant one to display on its search results pages.
In the past, Google would display multiple pages from the same domain for given keywords. Nowadays, Google has updated its algorithm to only display a single page per domain for a given search query.
As Google tries to determine which page should rank for that query, it may get confused in identifying the best one. When Google runs into this issue, it may choose the wrong page to show up in the SERPs, or it may choose to show no results from your domain for that query.
This hurts your overall keyword rankings, along with the other major factors outlined in this article. John Mueller from Google has a great quote for this:
“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.”
Backlinking is one of the biggest ranking factors on Google. The goal of backlinking is to gain hyperlinks from relevant, authoritative websites that directly link to your own website.
Google uses this as a positive signal that your website is an expert or authority on a particular topic, which helps to increase what’s known as your domain’s authority in the eyes of search engines.
The aim of a good link-building strategy is to drive traffic and authority to specific web pages to help them rank better. Instead of creating several links to one consolidated insightful piece, keyword cannibalization breaks possible links between numerous pages targeting the same topic.
This dilutes the overall authority a single, insightful piece of content may receive, and divides it among the different cannibal pages that are targeting the same content, which will make those pages rank worse compared to if all links were pointed and consolidated in a single page.
Internal linking will suffer from a similar problem, directing visitors to several different pages rather than a single authoritative page with the same content. On top of helping search engines discover and crawl new pages, internal linking helps to spread the authority gained from backlinks among the other pages that you’re internally linking to.
Again, if you’re internally linking to several pages that could have been merged into super content, you’re wasting that link equity gained from backlinks and harming your pages in that way.
Google's algorithm is pretty good at figuring out what a web page is about. It is not, though, without flaws.
When several pages target the same terms, Google may decide that the worse or less relevant page is the most appropriate one to display in its search results. This devalues the other pages that cover the same topic.
Think of it this way - let’s say you have two types of pages: a product page that’s focused on conversion. And another page that is informational (like an article).
Depending on the intent for that search, Google may display a page that doesn’t entirely meet the proper intent of that search query. When a user visits that page, they may not find the answer they’re looking for, and bounce back into the search results to find another page that more appropriately matches their intent.
This is another bad signal to Google - the less time folks spend on your site, or the more they bounce from a page without interacting on it, the stronger of an opinion Google forms in deciding that your page isn’t relevant, and it will replace your keyword position with a competitor page that it deems to more appropriately match that user intent.
In many SEO circles, conversions are the ultimate metric of performance. Conversion rate enhancement is usually the target aim of most SEO projects, whether it's email sign-ups or a product order.
It's doubtful that all of your pages will convert in the same way. This is prevalent on pages with differing intents (is the user in the transactional, informational, or consideration stage?) Some pages will have stronger conversion rates than the others (think transactional vs. informational, or a product page vs. blog posts). Unfortunately, cannibalizing pages are splitting potential leads across several pages that rank for the same keyword.
By assigning /consolidating a single page to a target keyword, you can influence users to find pages that convert the best. On top of leadflow goals, this is another SEO benefit because conversions are indicators that a website is relevant and aligned with the search purpose, boosting that page's domain authority and keyword rankings.
Your pages are up against each other and the millions of other websites on the internet. Instead of making a single highly authoritative and important website, you're dividing the traffic and clicks among several sites of moderate importance.
Keyword cannibalism also means the material is spread thin and could only be tangentially related to the desired keyword.
Targeting the same keywords or phrases across different sites increases the likelihood of duplicate and low-quality content. Google hates duplicate content and may choose to show known of your pages in the search results.
Here are a couple of situations where you might be experiencing keyword cannibalization.
Have you ever noticed that a URL that ranks for a certain keyword changes? This is a frequent symptom of keyword cannibalization, and it indicates that Google is unable to determine which page should be ranked.
This fluctuation in rankings is common as URLs change. You may have noticed that your keyword ranking status fluctuates a lot.
As URLs change, this may happen as a consequence of keyword cannibalization, and competing signals cause the rating location to fluctuate accordingly.
If one page has more links than the other, but there is a strong conflict of intent and overall content quality, your organic traffic may swing significantly if one of the URLs ranks prominently for a high-volume keyword.
You may believe you should be seeing an improvement in rating, but your site appears to be stuck. Particularly when you know you've built great content and won great ties. This may be aggravating, but keyword cannibalization is a common problem.
Essentially, the authority on your pages is being divided into two or three, rather than just one, and no page is ranked as well as your site should be.
Links are a major ranking aspect, and when link authority is spread through several URLs, it can create even more doubt by sending contradictory signals.
Look for cannibalization problems if the rank isn't rising.
Now that we’ve covered the impacts of keyword cannibalization, we’ll walk through how to identify competing pages on your website.
The first step is to figure out what topics and categories you’re targeting on your website. An example we can use is in the mortgage space. Our primary categories may be:
You want to then identify the sub-categories or topics that you’re targeting in each category. One example is content for FHA loans under the “home loans” category.
There are different types of FHA loans (streamline, refinance, 15 year fixed, 30 year fixed) that your site could cover and rank for unique keywords. However, your site might also have duplicate or cannibalizing content, such as:
A lot of these topics are very similar and may even rank for the same target keyword (FHA Loan). In this case, you would want to consolidate all of this content into one page (the FHA Loan guide may be the best fit to make a stunning, comprehensive piece of content).
So you want to identify these content buckets, pull a list of all of your site articles / categorize them, figure out what your main pages are on your site, and determine which of your articles are very similar to one another.
The prior method of checking for keyword cannibalization can be tedious. You can use a tool like SEMRush to pull a list of your top organic keywords and put them into a spreadsheet, or use the quick overview dashboard to view individual keyword rankings, which will show you if multiple pages are ranking for a single keyword, and the keyword positions of those individual pages.
A quicker method is to just export all of that data into an Excel spreadsheet.
After you've set up your spreadsheet, arrange your columns in alphabetical order by Keyword. This means that all keywords that have been cannibalized will be next to each other, in a different location and URL.
After that, you can search the page from top to bottom to see which keywords have several pages vying for them. But you don't want to squander your time scanning, do you?
Instead, plug in the following formula:
If you use this formula right, you should be able to quickly repeat the cell and transform Column A into a long list of automatic tests without having to do any job.
Similar to SEMRush, you can use Ahrefs to pull the same relevant information in the exact same way, whether you’re identifying cannibalization on an individual page level, or doing a bulk check using an Excel spreadsheet.
A free method of checking for keyword cannibalization is through the use of Google Search Console.
Sign into your dashboard and filter your results by keyword by entering your target keyword as an exact match.
This will pull all the pages that are ranking for that single keyword.
You can also use Google Search operators to discover similar pages. For example, if we want to find all of the pages that may rank for the term “FHA Loan”, we would use this search operator:
Site:example.com “fha loan”.
This will pull up all of the pages that Google deems relevant / is targeting this phrase on your website. The only caveat to using this method is that it’s more useful for long-tail or medium-tail keywords.
For broader searches (like FHA Loan), a lot of content may have information on FHA loans in some capacity. Google will show all websites that contain this keyword in its content or meta elements, which isn’t as useful and requires manual validation to determine if those pages can standalone, or if they should be consolidated.
Now that you’ve identified keyword cannibalization on your website, we’ll now walk through how to fix it.
Again, reference your list of URLs and determine which pages are suffering from keyword cannibalization.
Next, based on those topic buckets that you created, you’ll want to identify which pages should be consolidated into a single page, or which ones need to be deleted from the website.
Another method to prevent keyword cannibalization is to de-optimize those pages for that targeted keyword.
If that page can standalone and is unique, but doesn’t have a matching page that it can be consolidated to and is still cannibalizing a keyword, you can de-optimize that page for that target keyword.
You’ll want to remove any mentions of that keyword within your H1 headers and content. This should help to de-prioritize that page, and give priority to the pages that need to be ranking for that search phrase.
This includes de-optimizing internal links on your website. So if you have internal links with “FHA Loan” anchor text targeting multiple pages, you’ll either want to update your internal linking structure to point to a single page about FHA loans, or update the anchor text to a different phrase if you still want to link to multiple resources.
Canonical tags are often confused with noindex tags, and as a result, many users are hesitant to use them on their websites. When applied correctly, however, a canonical tag is a powerful tool for minimizing keyword cannibalization.
As an example of cannibalization, consider two close money pages on your affiliate site that are vying for the same broad word.
By adding a canonical tag from one page to the other, you're telling Google that, while there is some material duplication and similarities between the two, the one you choose is the more relevant one.
So, instead of ranking that one, score that one.
Canonical tags will give priority to your target page of your choosing instead of splitting that equity between two or more competing pages.
Let’s say you have multiple pages ranking for the same query, but you don’t want them to be 301 redirected, consolidated, or deleted.
Using noindex tags is a solution to this, where users can still find and read that content within your website, but you’re signaling to Google that you don’t want certain pages indexed on your website.
Noindex tags can help with thin or duplicate content, while serving as a directive to Google that you want X page ranking, but Y and Z pages do not show up at all in the search results.
Having said that, I prefer canonicals over noindex tags. Google prefers them and gives a stronger direction on if multiple pages should be consolidated or combined. Here’s a quote from John Mueller on that subject:
“Noindex (alone) & robots.txt disallow (in general) are not clear signs for canonicalization. Just having a noindex on a page doesn't tell us that you want to have it combined with something else, and that signals should be forwarded. This is also where the guide that you shouldn't mix noindex & rel=canonical comes from: they're very contradictory pieces of information for us. We'll generally pick the rel=canonical and use that over the noindex, but any time you rely on interpretation by a computer script, you reduce the weight of your input 🙂 (and SEO is to a large part all about telling computer scripts your preferences).”
301 Redirects can be useful for cutting down on keyword cannibalization. These are important when you’re consolidating content into a single page, or you’re deleting content from the site.
A 301 redirect will divert that page authority garnered from internal links / link building to your new target page, allowing it to rank more effectively with that additional link building juice.
Now that we’ve walked through how to fix keyword cannibalization on your website, it’s important that you know how to prevent it from happening in the future.
First, you’ll want to map your keyword and content plan out. Using the content mapping method I outlined earlier, you’ll want to use this as your north star for determining the right place for your content in the grand scheme of your website and identifying your content clusters of your website.
As you identify new topics or content, look at those buckets that you created. Are there any articles that already have that information, or are similar?
From there, you can decide if you want to update your content to include new information, or need to create new content buckets for tracking.
You’ll also want to perform keyword research for all of your topics. If that content is targeting or may rank for the same keyword as another piece of content on your list, it’s wise to scrap that idea and write something different instead.
Google views user intent in four ways: informational, navigational, transactional, or commercial.
Make sure that your content matches the right intent. For example, if the top search results for a query are all product landing pages, you would want to create a product landing page to match that intent. If you were to create a blog article that’s informational, chances are it won’t rank well because it doesn’t match the user intent.