After spending time and effort optimizing a high-quality page to rank for its target keywords, the last thing you want to see is it eclipsed by another page from the same site. Unfortunately, such a scenario is entirely possible when keyword cannibalization rears its head.
Want to prevent keyword cannibalization from ruining your pages’ hard-earned rankings? All you need to do is implement a few simple tactics to maximize conversions, improve the user experience and ensure your best pages achieve the highest rankings possible.
- What Is Keyword Cannibalization and Why Does It Matter?
- Find Keyword Cannibalization Issues
- Merge Similar Pages
- De-optimize Low-Performing and Less Relevant Pages
- Delete Low-Quality Pages
- Prevent Indexation
What Is Keyword Cannibalization and Why Does It Matter?
Let’s say you’re trying to rank for the keyword phrase custom t-shirts. The more blog articles you publish including that keyword phrase, the better off you’ll be, right?
Not necessarily: If your site has dozens of blog articles all including the keyword phrase custom t-shirts, they’ll all compete with each other to rank for that same phrase. This is an issue known as keyword cannibalization, and it’s especially important to monitor since Google stopped showing more than two listings from the same domain in its top results.
Google does this in the name of site diversity, a concept designed to provide users with more choices. To see site diversity in action, perform a Google search for any keyword and notice how many different domains you see on the search engine results page (SERP).
When searching for drug store, for instance, Walgreens, CVS, The Online Drugstore and Rite Aid all have a place on the first page, with none appearing more than once:
When keyword cannibalization gets out of hand, a site’s less important pages may end up ranking higher for a main keyword than its most important pages. When trying to rank for custom t-shirts, for example, you probably wouldn’t want an outdated blog post ranking higher than the site’s main page.
Keyword cannibalization can also reduce page rankings by diminishing both authority and links. Think of it this way: Instead of having one highly authoritative page with lots of inbound links, you might have several moderately authoritative pages with only a small number of inbound links each.
All in all, keyword cannibalization is a pesky issue that can sneak up on SEO practitioners without warning, especially when the site they’re optimizing has been up for several years and may have many pages targeting the same keywords.
Luckily for you, keyword cannibalization is far from impossible to fix. With a few straightforward tactics, you can stop your pages from gobbling each other up and start enjoying higher rankings, more clicks and increased conversions.
Find Keyword Cannibalization Issues
To identify a site’s existing instances of keyword cannibalization, you’ll need to examine its organic keyword data. This can be accomplished with the help of an organic keywords analytics tool such as:
Once your chosen tool is ready to go, analyze the site you’re optimizing to see which pages are ranking for which keywords. Whenever you see multiple pages ranking for the same keyword, it’s time to dig deeper. Ask yourself:
- Which page is ranking highest for the given keyword?
- Which generates the most conversions?
- Do any of the pages fail to meet the site’s quality standards?
If the highest-ranking page drives significantly less conversions or is much lower-quality than its lower-ranking counterparts, you’ve got yourself a classic case of keyword cannibalization.
But before you start nixing every instance of keyword cannibalization in sight, it’s important to recognize when they aren’t an issue. For instance, if you have two high-quality pages ranking first and second for a given keyword, and especially if each page provides visitors with a uniquely valuable experience, there’s no need to give up that valuable SERP real estate.
Merge Similar Pages
If a site has two medium- or low-performing pages ranking for the same keyword, or a high-quality page ranking lower than a low-quality page on the same topic, you may benefit from combining those pages into one.
For example, let’s say you’re optimizing a site for an urgent care, and it has two pages ranking for the keyword how to choose a doctor. Both are performing moderately well: Each is linked to by a few other sites, and each regularly generates a modest number of conversions.
But what if they could be combined into one ultra-authoritative page that’s linked to by many other sites and generates a higher number conversions than both individual pages put together? You may be able to achieve such a result by merging the two original pages.
As Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller explained in a 2018 livestream:
…if you take two or three or four kind of weaker pages and merge them into one, even within the same site or externally, then…we can say this is a stronger page. We can see that…more parts of the site are referring to this one single piece of content, so it’s probably more relevant than those individual small pieces that you had before.
Before you start combining all your site’s remotely similar pages, remember to follow a few key guidelines:
- Only merge pages that are highly relevant to each other, aim to achieve the same purpose and cover the same topic.
- During the merging process, take the time to edit the pages into one cohesive piece of content.
- Add even more value to the merged page than each of the original pages previously had—in other words, aim for a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
De-optimize Low-Performing and Less Relevant Pages
Let’s say you have two pages ranking for the same keyword. Page A is less relevant to the keyword and doesn’t generate many conversions, but it appears higher in the SERP. Page B is more relevant to the keyword and boasts a higher conversion rate, but it doesn’t get as much traffic.
If page A serves its own unique purpose but you don’t want it ranking higher than page B for the given keyword, you can choose to solve the issue by de-optimizing page A for that same keyword.
The simplest way to do this is by removing the keyword from page A’s title and headers, as well as most of its text. Be sure to replace the keyword with one you do want the page to rank for. By doing so, you’ll ensure both pages rank for the most relevant keywords possible without compromising each other’s SERP position.
Delete Low-Quality Pages
In some cases, the page ranking highest for a given keyword isn’t just less relevant or underperforming—it’s flat-out low-quality.
Pages can be low-quality for a variety of reasons. For instance, they could:
- contain too little content;
- provide little or no value to users;
- contain uncanonicalized duplicate content (more on that next);
- be severely outdated;
- be incompatible with modern browsers;
- be poorly written; or
- fail to meet their purpose.
Whatever the case, there’s no reason to allow low-quality pages to leech SERP rankings from high-quality ones. In such instances, it may be best to save yourself the trouble of merging or de-optimizing and simply delete the offending pages.
In the case of duplicate content-related keyword cannibalization, merging, de-optimizing or deleting pages may not be the best option—instead, you could benefit most from disabling search engine indexation altogether.
Duplicate content can occur for a variety of reasons, including:
- URL variations such as www.example.com versus http://example.com;
- printer-friendly or PDF versions of existing pages; and
- product descriptions copied across multiple pages.
In such situations, keyword cannibalization comes into play when a page containing duplicate content (i.e., a non-canonical page) ranks higher for a keyword than the page you do want to rank (i.e., a canonical page).
Several tactics can be employed to resolve this issue and prevent non-canonical pages from being indexed. For instance, you can use:
- the canonical tag to tell search engines which version of a page is canonical (and thus should be indexed) and which version is non-canonical (and thus shouldn’t be indexed);
- 301 redirects to redirect visitors and search engines from non-canonical pages to canonical ones; or
- the noindex meta tag to directly tell search engines not to index a page.
With indexation disabled in the right places, you’ll be able to take control of your pages’ rankings and direct search engines to those that matter most.
Kill Keyword Cannibalization to Bring Your Rankings to Life
No SEO practitioner wants to see their pages eat each other’s rankings, but when keyword cannibalization runs rampant that’s exactly what can happen.
Fortunately, it only takes a few quick and straightforward tricks to nip keyword cannibalization in the bud and enable your pages to achieve the rankings they deserve.
Screenshot by author / October 2020