Keyword Cannibalization – What Is It and How Does It Affect Your Rankings?

Keyword Cannibalization – What Is It and How Does It Affect Your Rankings?

Keyword cannibalization affects websites and online stores all across the internet. To see if cannibalization can affect your sites and how can it change your rankings, keep reading. We’ll share 5 tips on how to deal with this phenomenon.

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Do you run a company blog, attempting to improve the Google rankings of your services or products with it? Or maybe you put a similar content on your landing pages, so they appear in the search results for the certain keywords? Keyword cannibalization is a phenomenon that can hinder your SEO efforts – it’s why you should learn more about it and the ways it can affect SERPs. Also, learning how to deal with it pays off – we’ll tell you about 5 methods of responding to cannibalization.

Keyword cannibalization – what is it, anyway?

Let’s start with a simple definition. Keyword cannibalization occurs when there are two (or more) pages within the same domain, that are optimized for exactly the same keyword.

For example. Say there’s an e-commerce X, featuring women’s clothes, among them summer dresses – it is obvious that this category requires an optimization for “summer dresses”. This keyword has a rather large search volume – i.e. users google it often. However, on ecommerce X’s blog there’s an entry titled “Summer dresses – how to choose the perfect one for your silhouette?” The entry is also optimized for the same keyword.

An often misconception is that such a practice will make the X domain rank better in Google for the keyword in question. In fact, it can confuse the search engine. Its algorithms may not be able to tell which one – category or blog entry – is more important. Hence the keyword-page match can change, which often results in fluctuations (often significant) of ranking positions.

Why the mistaken belief, then?

Belief that optimizing more than one subpage for the same keyword is a legitimate SEO method did not come out of nowhere. Just a few years ago, Google implemented a sort of clustered additional search results display. This feature kicked in when the search engine determined a few pages within a given domain, that are relevant to a specific query. SERP (search results) page therefore looked completely different than it does today. These additional findings were displayed slightly to the right, making the whole domain take more space on the search results page. It allowed boosting several pages’ rankings in one fell swoop.

Let’s use the example from the previous paragraph. Say the X ecommerce “summer dresses” category ranks as 5th in Google for that very keyword. And the relevant blog entry as 18th. By default, there are 10 top search result items immediately accessible (namely, the SEO-famous and desirable TOP10! however, if the display settings are customized, and the 1st SERP page is 20 results, instead of 10, the blog entry would rank up – from 18th to the (theoretically) 6th – since Google would display it in a cluster together with the subpage ranking as 6th.

In such clusters, up to several pages could have been displayed, which is why many SEO agencies or experts recommended optimizing more than one subpage within a single domain for the same keyword!

A result would look like that:

Example of serp with subpages

Sadly, that’s a bygone

Un(?)fortunately Google quit this search results display. However, many keep on optimizing several pages for the same keywords, which leads to cannibalization. In cannibalization these pages become ranking competitors – on top of all other competition out there; you simply end up fightingh against yourself.

Therefore, keyword cannibalization may lead to a decrease in your website’s search results rankings, as the site’s “SEO power” is diluted into several pages which, on top of that, Google may determine a black-hat-like scam attempt.

Common keyword cannibalization cases

Most often, cannibalization cases include:

  • Keyword-oriented blog entries matching the optimization of product or service category pages.
  • Several pages (e.g., several different product/service category pages, a home page “about us” page, etc.) are optimized for the same keyword.
  • Blog entry and tag or category group pages (this may involve not only keyword cannibalization but also internal duplication that Google penalizes).
  • Several pages concerning a similar and/or a single, recurrent topic (e.g. industry-specific blogs).
  • E-commerce featuring a focused, narrow product/service offer (e.g., a business selling printed sweatshirts).
  • Invalid internal linking (using the same anchors in different pages).

How does the cannibalization affect SEO, your business and search results rankings?

Keyword cannibalization has a real impact on SEO. As mentioned above, it can engender ranking fluctuations, often quite drastic.

For example. One of our Customers ranked as 1st  – which is quite natural – for its brand keyword (the SERP match was the main page).  In the meantime, the Customer conducted “about us” subpage optimization, expanding the content there. An action usually praised by SEO experts (valuable content on the site is a ranking factor) confused Google this time. As a result, the brand keyword began to be matched differently – one day with the main page (then it ranked as 1st), and on other days with “about us” subpage (then dropping to positions 19-20).

Of course, our response was immediate – by optimizing the “about us” page for a different key phrase, which resolved the issue.

Keyword cannibalization - SEO

In addition, often the incorrect internal linking is the reason for the keyword cannibalization. For instance, using the very same anchor for several different pages. Such practices cause the linking power dilution.

On top of that, the keyword cannibalization affects also:

  • The conversion rate – instead of having on a single keyword-relevant subpage, there are several pages, seemingly accurate, but diluting the effect.
  • Content quality – it’s difficult to create equally valuable content on the same topic on several pages. This first victim is quality; in extreme cases the content may be straightforwardly duplicated across several pages.
  • External linking – as you know, link building done right has your SEO cornerstone. When referring into several pages, the links juice will be diluted into these, instead of staying concentrated from targeting one page only and strengthening it. for more tips on link building good practice, see our “Quality Link Building Essential Guide” to make your process even more effective!
  • Your “crawl budget” – each page has a certain indexing budget, which is the number of times the search engine will crawl your site in a given period of time. When many pages are optimized for the same keyword, it triggers crawling and subsequent indexation of the unnecessary ones. In the case of small websites this is may not be an issue, but it scales and for large e-commerce or vendor sites it can cause quite a problem.

How to deal with keyword cannibalization? 5 practical tips

Luckily, keywords cannibalization can be successfully dealt with. The 5 methods shown below can solve any issues cannibalization causes.

  1. Correct subpage optimization for a variety of keywords! However trivial it may sound, it’s still the best way to never face the keywords cannibalization issue. A good SEO consulting agency can help you with such optimizations and will build your search engine visibility targeting many key phrases – not just for a few obvious ones. A proper, wide strategy leads to an increased organic traffic and prevents the challenges of cannibalization.
  2. Optimize for long tail keywords – do not focus on short, general phrases. This prevent your keywords from future cannibalization. For example, the X e-commerce blog entry title could be “How To Find a Summer Dress” and make a long tail perfect for optimization! Maybe the search volume will not be as high as for “summer dress”, but such entry will nevertheless reach the users, without diminishing the SEO power of category pages (provided there’s an appropriate blog linking).
  3. Use canonical links – instead of duplicating the same keyword on many pages, use several different synonyms with an internal link referring to the most important (canonical) page (i.e.: “summer dresses” category of from the store will be indicated as more important than the blog entry, as the products are more important than articles discussing them). Therefore, such link should be tagged as canonical, along with blog entry title changed and linking to the category page from within the blog post. This is to let the search engines know about our priorities.
  4. Use 301 redirects – obviously, this method will not solve every cannibalization instance, but for some of them it will work perfectly well. This will help you merge several low-value, duplicate pages into one – appearing as more valuable for both users and search engines.
  5. Use “noindex” tag – when you neither want to use redirections or canonical links, nor are certain about deleting a less important subpage, you can always use the “noindex” attribute on it. “Noindex” takes the page off the search engines index altogether, so it won’t take any power away from other pages. Throwing a subpage out of index is especially when the cannibalizing subpage is functional for the user (e.g. containing blog tags or categories) – in such cases, the “noindex” tag saves us not only the cannibalization, but also content duplication within the domain.  

However, it’s always best to optimize the problematic pages up front, and then plan the next ones, in order to keep keyword cannibalization challenges at bay. Save the redirects or canonical links for the last resort.

We also recommend you a clever method of determining keyword cannibalization ground zero pages using Ahrefs and Google spreadsheets.

How to pick blog entry topics to avoid keyword cannibalization?

As strong industry blogs advocates, we always recommend running them to our clients, we also have some tips on how to create interesting article topics so to avoid cannibalization and positively influence SEO.

Keyword cannibalization - how does it affect seo

Businesses writing their blogs on their own often plan their topics as in the summer dresses example. Our approach is different, including the following steps:

  1. Make a list of keywords crucial for your business – those may be: best selling categories, specific products, etc.
  2. Then try to come up with a title without literal keyword occurrence, but only with a light reference.
    Example: “How important for your business are travel suitcases”. Instead of “Travel suitcases – how to choose wisely?”, etc. , but “How to pack yourself for a holiday trip?” – and mention the suitcases – their types, luggage airlines policies, etc. in the entry itself. While mentioning the specific models, link to the relevant product categories, such as filters: by manufacturers or other specifications (about 3-5 links per entry – otherwise it’ll appear unnatural).
  3. The blogpost focus keywords is therefore not only “travel suitcases”, but also “how to pack on a journey” – such long tail may have a high search volume, too, but without threat of being cannibalized with the category name. When publishing an entry, see our SEO blog optimization tips.

Keyword cannibalization is a frequent problem of websites of various types – ecommerces, business sites, blogs… Competing with yourself is poetic, but pointless. It is important, therefore, to be aware of what keyword cannibalization is and to learn how to prevent and react. Prevention, as always, wins.

SEO Specialist - Asia

SEO Specialist

In Delante from August 2017. SEO Specialist, humanist with a marketing stubbornness, crazy about UX. She likes Pandas and writing, she knows that content (context) is king, so she also took care of the copywriting department. And after work: cinema, board games, Heroes III.

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