Keywords can be a deceptively complex thing to manage.
While giving all the pages on your website some relevant keywords can sound very easy, you are at a real risk of keyword cannibalization – which can backfire on your attempts to rank higher in search results.
But what is keyword cannibalization, and how can you fix keyword cannibalization issues before they escalate into a problem that directly harms your marketing attempts?
Table of Contents
What is Keyword Cannibalization?
Keyword cannibalization refers to multiple pages targeting the same keyword.
This means that two pages could theoretically come up at the same time in relevant search results.
While this might sound fantastic – and can be, in some cases – having multiple pages ranking for the same keyword can actually cause a few unexpected issues.
This often means that it is important to fix keyword cannibalization issues before they can escalate into a larger, harder-to-prevent problem.
Why is keyword cannibalization bad?
While SEO keyword cannibalization does not sound like a bad thing, having two pages that target the same keyword will actually bump them both down in the search engine results pages.
This can actually make your SEO for those two pages worse than if they were targeting different keywords.
More importantly, keyword cannibalization goes against the idea of diversifying how you rank.
While pages can technically target multiple keywords, you still want to try and target keywords that are unique for each page, spreading your search ranking presence around a larger audience.
Since both pages are from the same site and presumably focused on the exact same topic, Google will not be able to choose one over the other.
This usually means that both pages get pushed down to ranking lower, meaning that it becomes easier for another site to overtake them for the same keyword.
Are There Any Good Points to Keyword Cannibalization?
Keyword cannibalization does provide some benefits, but only in one specific context.
If you are trying to dominate search engine results and take up as much space as possible in the results, then focusing on one keyword above all else can work.
This can become a good strategy if there is one specific keyword you want to completely overwhelm and if you have the skills and resources to pull that keyword strategy off.
However, for most site owners, having multiple pages ranking for the same keyword is worse than just having one.
The only time you would find cannibalized keywords helpful is if your site is already able to dominate that keyword anyway. For most site owners, double-dipping on targeted keywords is just a waste of time and a drain on your keyword rankings.
How to Find Keyword Cannibalization Issues
Identifying a keyword cannibalization issue can be done in one of three ways.
In general, you want to identify keyword cannibalization as fast as possible so that you can tweak the keywords for the separate pages, but all three methods can be relatively fast if done right.
Searching Your Site
The most obvious way to find a keyword cannibalization issue is to use the search operator options on most search engines.
For example, putting search operators like “site:[your domain address]” into Google allows you to limit your search to just your own website. From there, you can insert the keyword you want to check for and then see which pages come up.
This is a good way to find duplicate pages or relevant pages that have the same keyword and search intent.
While not perfect and often missing some pages, this is a good way to find keyword cannibalization problems at basically any time, with only a brief search required.
Google Search Console (And Alternatives)
Google Search Console is ideal for identifying a range of SEO issues, and that can include trying to identify keyword cannibalization.
While you might not have a dedicated alarm to tell you when keyword cannibalization occurs, you can still see it in the data you gather.
Google Search Console allows you to check multiple keywords at once and see which pages are appearing for specific queries.
This can be good for working out which pages are appearing for which searches since similar pages with identical keywords will not always appear together.
Remember that GSC has equivalents on other search platforms, too.
These will all work differently, but as long as they provide a breakdown of similar keywords, it should not be hard to identify keyword cannibalization before it becomes too much of a problem.
Certain tools allow for dedicated reports about ongoing keyword cannibalization issues, giving you a breakdown of any pages that appear in search queries and the keywords they are targeting.
This is a great way to get a full spread of information on the competing pages across your site, as well as making it easy to see if they have the same search intent and overall goals.
Naturally, the exact way you do this depends on the software or services that you choose.
Some may make it easier to find similar pages than others, so be sure to familiarize yourself with your chosen tools before you end up needing to start identifying keyword cannibalization on a regular basis.
How to Fix Keyword Cannibalization
Fixing keyword cannibalization is simple in concept – you just need to make sure that no two or more pages target the same keyword with the same search intent.
This stops them from overlapping nearly as much and often results in better rankings overall, even if they are similar pages.
However, to do this, you need to understand what each individual method of solving the problem is. While saying “just make them different” is a good shorthand, you actually have to do more than just tweak the text on the page.
In general, there are five core keyword cannibalization solutions: redirects, canonical tags, link or content optimization, fresh content creation, and using noindex tags.
Sometimes, multiple pages focus on the same search intent and the same keyword, but you only really need one of them to get the results you are looking for.
These might be similar FAQ pages or blog posts that are all focused on the same topic.
301 redirects can be a good way to point the cannibal pages back to the preferred page that you actually want to promote.
As long as Google knows that you have redirected that URL, you can get rid of the self-created competition and ensure that only one site search result appears at a time.
Google automatically removes redirects from its index after a few weeks.
Using this method basically means that you get to keep all of the boosted SEO with none of the downsides, both before and after the now-redirected page is de-indexed.
This method also allows you to push all of the ranking power and “link juice” onto a single page when doing SEO work, meaning that you are not having to spread your SEO offers across multiple landing pages targeting the same keyword.
A canonical tag tells Google that two similar pages are duplicates and that they should not both be treated as complete pages.
In other words, it allows you to tag one page as the “parent” and others as the “children,” preventing Google from seeing them as duplicate content that needs to be penalized.
These tags are easy enough to add, requiring only a small change to a page’s HTTP header.
Not only does this avoid the duplicate content issue, but it also tells Google which of the duplicate pages is the primary one, which becomes your preferred page that is displayed on search engines.
This makes it extremely easy to highlight a preferred page, even if there are copies of it across other URLs.
You will not have to delete any of the other versions of the page, even if they are spread across multiple URLs, since only one of them is actually visible and counted in search results.
Some cases of keyword cannibalization occur by accident when the wrong page begins to gain more traction than it should.
It only takes one page exploding in popularity or ranking value to mean it is ranking higher than another, which can accidentally target it at a keyword you did not intend to target.
This is common with category pages in site search systems.
While the top-level category page might be the more relevant page to most users, you could accidentally boost a subcategory even higher, forcing Google to choose between two pages on the same website that are basically almost identical.
It is important to optimize your links to point to the right pages.
While spreading links out is not normally bad for SEO, doing it poorly can have the wrong pages rank higher than they should while neglecting the intended landing page.
Remember: related pages generally share a target keyword, but that target keyword is not actually relevant unless you get those pages ranking.
If multiple pages start to gain ranking power due to link building, and they all share the same keywords, then keyword cannibalization is almost inevitable.
Creating New Content
Another common cause of keyword cannibalization is creating multiple pages that all target similar keywords because they are all different variations of the same topic or are effectively different versions of one article.
An article about football boots is different from one about running shoes. Multiple pages about the same keywords (such as articles about choosing running shoes, buying running shoes, finding running shoe deals, etc.) are much more likely to cross over with one another.
If the topics are similar, then the anchor text might be, too, and the organic traffic is going to overlap heavily.
Since the pages are so similar, having them all ranking high will not necessarily draw in more traffic because each one is targeting the same organic traffic audience.
It is a good idea to create content that actually stands out. Do not just make multiple pages focused on re-used anchor text: give every new page and article something relevant to a specific audience.
You want each new piece of content to feel like something that had to be an entirely new article and could not just be rolled into an existing piece of content that targets the same niche.
In many situations, you can prevent keyword cannibalization by making sure that you only have one highly authoritative page per search intent for every keyword you are trying to target.
Having one landing page instead of multiple pages makes keyword overlap far less likely.
If all else fails, you can insert noindex tags to tell crawlers not to index a certain page. While this cuts off the rankings forwarding that could boost a page’s search engine results page rank, it also marks the chosen web pages as off-limits to the indexing system.
By doing this, you can undo the accidental indexing of things like product pages, technical pages, or anything that was not meant to be ranking in the first place.
It is common to have pages compete with others that were not even meant to be competitive, so removing their ability to get indexed can really help.
Remember that this completely cuts off the ability of that one page to be indexed, at least until you remove the tag.
This means no organic traffic to that page and no presence in search results, so it is best used for pages that are not meant to get traffic, like the categories on an ecommerce website to the terms and conditions page on a service-focused site.
Search Engines Hate The Same Keyword on Multiple Pages
In simple terms, you want to keep every keyword specific to one page if you can help it.
Search intent is obviously an exception (since the intent behind a search can completely change what pages appear), but two or more pages focused on the same audience, same internet, and same keywords are a bad sign.
Whether you are doing keyword research to find alternatives, looking at how other ecommerce websites have tackled it, or just using Google Analytics to find cannibalized keywords, make sure that you do not rush into any decisions that you might regret.
SEO needs to be done carefully and logically, especially in this kind of context.
Preventing Keyword Cannibalization
Keyword cannibalization is a simple issue that can happen for a wide range of complex reasons, and dealing with it early can be important if you want to avoid potential issues with your rankings.
While most SEO is focused on building external and internal links or optimizing your site to run better and load faster, it is important to remember that every page you create has an impact on the others.
Keyword cannibalization is the end result of not paying enough attention to the content you produce or the keywords that you target.
The last thing you want is to create content that starts conflicting with something else that you have already created, especially if it leads to both pages struggling to rank compared to competitors that have optimized their keywords and content more effectively.
Searcharoo is a Link Building & Content Marketing company run by SEO’s based in the UK.
Our goal from the start has been to provide premium links and content services, at fair and affordable prices.