November 9, 2022

How to Avoid Keyword Cannibalization

By: Mary Hiers

Search engine optimization (SEO) forces you to think about many moving parts. For example, you have search intent, keywords, structure, originality, cannibal keywords… Wait, what?

Keyword cannibalization is a concept many people haven’t considered. It happens when multiple pages on the same website rank for the same keyword and the result is harmful to the overall website’s ranking. Here’s how it can affect your website, and what to do about it.

How Keyword Cannibalization Occurs

The larger your website and the more content on it, the bigger the risk of keyword cannibalization. It is actually the result of too much of a good thing. In this case, it’s keyword-optimized content.

Suppose your website has four pages that all rank in the top 10 for a certain keyword phrase. Living the dream, right? 

In fact, those four high-ranking pages could be holding back the best of those pages from ranking at the very top. It’s similar to a political party having two good candidates and splitting the vote. You’re better off mobilizing behind one of them.

It’s important to state upfront that the solution is not to get rid of the “worst” of these pages. You instead have to determine which one you want to rank highest, and then make changes to the others (re-optimizing them, moving inbound links around, or merging them, for example).

Keyword cannibalization is only a problem if it holds back the ranking of your website as a whole. If your domain sits at the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs) for the keywords you want to rank for, then don’t worry about it.

Effects of Keyword Cannibalization

Perhaps the biggest effect keyword cannibalization can have on your website is causing the “wrong” URL to rank for a particular keyword. In other words, you know which page you want to rank highest for that keyword, but some other page on your website outranks it.

The problem with the “wrong” page from your website ranking highest is that you risk a bad user experience. Whereas if the “right” page from your website ranked highest, the user would get what they came for.

You may also experience a dilution of the power of your links and anchor text. It’s better to acquire 10 links for one great page than to acquire 6 for the best page and 4 for a less-important page. 

Another consequence is that your site’s ranking for a keyword struggles to increase despite your best SEO practices. Or, ranking position (along with organic traffic) can fluctuate. 

The main effect is that there can be a mismatch between what you want a page to do for the user and what it actually does for the user. It diminishes the user experience, which can hold back your SEO efforts. 

How to Diagnose the Problem

Many SEO tool packages contain position ranking tools that can show you when you have multiple ranking pages that could be gumming up the SEO works. But there are other ways to diagnose keyword cannibalization.

Perhaps the easiest way to uncover the problem is to use the site: search operator on Google. Suppose you own a carpet cleaning company and you want to rank highest for “residential carpet cleaning.” Here’s what you would do:

  • In the Google search box, type residential carpet cleaning
  • Check if more than one of your pages ranks for the keyword phrase
  • If so, define what your intent for each of those pages is
  • If they all have the same intent, you may benefit from combining the pages
  • If they have different search intents, you may choose to modify each page to make the intent clear
  • But it may be unclear from a simple site: search which page is the one you should put your effort into, so consider other diagnostics before merging, redirecting, or re-optimizing pages

You can also use your Google Search Console to diagnose keyword cannibalization. Here’s how:

  • Select “performance report,” then “queries”
  • Click on a query to see a list of URLs that rank for that query 
  • Is there more than one? If so, keyword cannibalization could be at fault

A third technique is to use a Google search without host clustering. 

  • Do a regular Google search on the keywords you’re concerned about
  • At the end of the Google search URL, attach &filter=0 and hit return
  • Check for multiple ranking pages from your site
  • If you see them, they will be listed in order so you will automatically know which one ranks highest (i.e. which one you would merge multiple pages into should you choose that solution)
  • This solution helps you prioritize pages if a simple site: search has shown multiple pages ranking for the same keyword

How to Fix Keyword Cannibalization

So you have several web pages hovering in the top 10 (with none ranking number one) for a particular keyword phrase. What do you do so that a bunch of “pretty good” pages aren’t holding back your best page (and your site as a whole)?

  • First, make sure the keywords fit the pages. Does one page inexplicably rank well for a keyword when it is about something totally different? If so, perhaps it should be revised to minimize the use of that keyword and try to rank for another, more appropriate keyword.
  • You can restructure your website so that your best, most authoritative page becomes a landing page that links to other keyword variations on the pages that also rank for that keyword.
  • You can consolidate multiple ranking pages into a single more authoritative post on the URL that ranks highest. 
  • If you have, say, two pages with similar content that rank for the same keyword, you can use a 301 redirect to link the less-relevant page to the more-relevant page. (But don’t be tempted to just throw in a bunch of 301 redirects pointing to the “best” page. This can harm page ranking for other important keywords.)
  • Reoptimize pages by changing title tags and H1 tags to target the most relevant keywords for that page.
  • Check internal links to make sure that the same anchor text does not point to different pages in different contexts. In other words, all of your anchor text reading “chili recipe” should point to the same page. 

How to Avoid Keyword Cannibalization

Fixing keyword cannibalization can be a chore. It is definitely one of those “an ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure” situations.

Content planning, a sound SEO strategy, and frequent monitoring can prevent most if not all keyword cannibalization. 

The main way to prevent keyword cannibalization is to ensure that each page is optimized to target different keywords

Every time you add a page to your site, ask yourself, “What do we want people to do with this page?” Also ask, “Do we already have a page for that?” 

If not, explicitly spell out both the keyword phrase you want to optimize for and the search intent you want to target. Do you want searchers who are looking for information? Or do you want searchers who are ready to pick which model, color, and size they want?

This level of conscientious planning combined with the regular site: searches or &filter=0 searches can fix cannibalization problems before they can harm your overall website ranking.

When It Is Not a Problem

Suppose you do a &filter=0 search and discover you have three pages ranking in the top 10 with one page ranking number one. There is nothing to be gained from cannibalization fixes because one of your pages is already at the top.

Additionally, if your website as a whole is progressing up the SERPs, don’t worry about cannibalization. It only becomes a problem when it holds back your website as a whole. 

Finally, if you see some periodic rank swapping or keyword overlap on pages you know fulfill different search intents, don’t worry about cannibalization. Each of those pages is ranking based on intent and is probably also getting traffic from its own long-tail keywords. Here is an example from our website: 

As you can see there is definitely some keyword overlap, but the search intent is different for each page. This is not a case of cannibalization.

Ecommerce and Keyword Cannibalization

With eCommerce sites, things are a bit different. On an eCommerce site, you may have several products that target similar keywords (like “blue athletic shoes”). You can avoid keyword cannibalization by making sure each product links back to the correct category page (men’s shoes, children’s shoes, etc.).

Structuring eCommerce sites to incorporate breadcrumb navigation usually saves you from ending up with keyword cannibalization. It is still wise to periodically check using a site: search or a &filter=0 search to be certain, however. 

Smart SEO Planning to Nix Keyword Cannibalization

When your SEO planning matches pages with both intent and keywords, you can usually steer clear of keyword cannibalization. But what if you don’t have the time or resources to do this level of SEO planning?

One thing you can do is talk to us. Schedule a call with our team and learn more about how we design and refresh websites so they are powered by intent-focused SEO. If you are the best company in your region for your niche, then let us help you design the website that will fulfill its potential and bring you the business you deserve. 


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