Millions of small businesses have harnessed the power of SEO in the last two decades and counting. It’s one of the few reliable ways to generate free traffic that remains stable over months and years.
Just like any other skill or strategy, SEO comes with a learning curve, and that includes keyword cannibalization. Unaddressed, this common SEO issue can damage your rankings and cause your traffic to plummet seemingly unexpectedly.
We cover what keyword cannibalization is, how it occurs, how to resolve it, and preventative measures for the future of your site. Keep reading for your keyword cannibalization crash course.
What Is Keyword Cannibalization?
Keyword cannibalization is the phenomenon of one website having two or more URLs, blog posts, or product pages targeting or ranking for the same keyword(s). When this happens, search engine algorithms become confused about which page or post to rank for that specific keyword.
As a result, the website’s ranking(s) for any of the keywords in question perform poorly. That website may lose rankings it had in the top three positions for a target keyword, see great URLs drop lower on page one of Google, or drop off page one completely.
This is a detrimental phenomenon that can be tricky and time-consuming to resolve, especially if the cannibalization is widespread. The more pages are affected by keyword cannibalization, the more your site’s rankings and traffic are at risk.
How Do You Recognize Keyword Cannibalization?
Recognizing keyword cannibalization doesn’t require you to be an SEO expert. You simply need to know where to look, understand its severity, and have a plan to fix it.
Here are the steps we recommend when you want to check for keyword cannibalization:
1. Use your SEO dashboard.
Every comprehensive SEO dashboard has a tool for checking content originality and cannibalization issues. Log into your dashboard, look for a section titled “Keyword Cannibalization” or something similar, and click on it. This tool will display whether or not any URLs are experiencing cannibalization and what you can do about it. Many SEO dashboards also provide a historical rankings report so you can see when conflicting pages appeared and how it affected each page’s performance.
2. Perform a manual check.
Did you see one of your posts dip in rankings or get overtaken by another page? Search for the first page’s target term in Google. You may see a second URL in a higher position than your first URL. Create a spreadsheet to track these negative changes so you know what to keep a closer eye on.
3. Periodically search for your own keywords.
See how your posts and URLs are performing by manually searching for them two to three times per year, minimum. SEO dashboards don’t always reflect up-to-the-hour changes, and making sure you have the most accurate data is critical to success. Google’s algorithm changes so frequently too that you don’t want to assume another platform has noticed all of the updates. Just like step two, if you see anything unexpected, take note of it and work toward a solution.
Is Keyword Cannibalization Good or Bad?
Keyword cannibalization is bad for any website’s SEO.
It prevents pages from ranking at their full potential and disincentivizes search engine crawlers from understanding the new content and updates to a site.
When a website has more than one page or post prioritizing the same keyword(s), it weakens the site’s topical authority and comprehensiveness. Millions of blog posts are published every day worldwide, so Google evolved to reward original, well-organized content much faster.
Thankfully, keyword cannibalization isn’t the most complex of SEO issues to resolve. With a roadmap of necessary changes and enough time, you can see your rankings improve in a week or less.
What are the Most Common Causes of Keyword Cannibalization?
Keyword cannibalization can occur due to several factors. Here are the most common ones:
1. Pure accident.
Most of the time, cannibalization doesn’t occur because someone was lazy or careless. If you and your team produce a lot of content, i.e. one blog post per writer per day, a little bit of keyword cannibalization is bound to happen. As soon as you notice overlapping posts, identify which post is performing better and make that the correct URL for your target term(s).
2. Poor planning.
Another common cause of keyword cannibalization is a lack of foresight. Doing keyword research or creating new content without reviewing existing content multiplies your issues and exponentially increases the likelihood of cannibalization. Always review what’s been published before researching any ideas for new content.
3. No time and effort committed to content refreshes.
One of the most overlooked areas of SEO is regularly updating and improving your content. Content marketing and SEO are extremely competitive fields and require continual updates to your entire content inventory. Neglecting this task can cause one or more of your pages to overtake another and compromise the efficiency of your SEO work.
How to Fix Keyword Cannibalization
Keyword cannibalization must be addressed as quickly as possible to prevent further hindrances to your SEO efforts. Here are the best ways to resolve it:
1. Identify the URLs that are both causing and experiencing keyword cannibalization.
Use your SEO dashboard to export all cannibalized URLs and add them to your spreadsheet. Create columns that include the target keywords for each page as well as which URLs are the sole page for each keyword.
2. Consolidate overlapping pages.
When you find URLs that have lots of similar content, take any useful content from the less-complete page and add it to the better one. This improves the better URL’s content without wasting the research and time you put into the other URL.
3. Use canonical tags.
Canonical tags tell search engines which variation of a page or blog post is the original. This is important if you have many product variations, thousands of content pages, or any content that otherwise appears similar. Canonical tags are crawled quickly by algorithms and indicate the differences between all of your URLs.
4. Vary your anchor texts.
Anchor text is the words selected for hyperlinks from one URL to another, whether external or internal links. Leveraging a keyword-rich approach to anchor text is ideal, but not if it’s the only technique you use. Google recognizes that the majority of content online occurs “naturally,” which implies varied anchor text content and length. If you have too many URLs with the same anchor texts, switch them up every time you’re doing an SEO optimization sprint.
5. Use 301 redirects when appropriate.
If you have multiple outdated or recently updated URLs, use 301 redirects to point your readers from the old posts to the new ones. Search engine algorithms will pick up that your content has changed and will soon reprioritize your new URL(s) for the keywords you’ve assigned to them.
6. Monitor your content and site rankings.
After making all necessary content adjustments for your site’s current cannibalization, you and/or your marketing team should check the relevant URLs for ranking updates over the next month. This helps you know if the fixes were successful and if any further adjustments are needed.
How to Prevent Keyword Cannibalization In the Future
Now that you know how to address existing keyword cannibalization, it’s imperative to prevent it moving forward. Use these strategies to minimize your chances of experiencing cannibalization as a result of ongoing SEO efforts:
1. Use an editorial calendar.
Keeping your content calendar up-to-date and accessible by everyone doing SEO for your company is a must. A clear content plan prevents writer overlap and helps you spot inconsistencies faster. It also helps you plan optimization work and ensure writers aren’t getting too pigeonholed with any one topic.
2. Fix keyword cannibalization during your regular technical SEO sprints.
You can neutralize keyword cannibalization before it has a chance to do serious damage by scanning for it regularly. As soon as one issue pops up, assign it to one of your tech SEO staff members. You can sometimes prevent cannibalization from having any effect if you’re fast enough.
3. Keep your keyword research efforts as fresh as possible.
When it’s time to produce new content, don’t simply look for variations of keywords you’ve already written about. Look for new topics that are still relevant to your audience, which further reduces the possibility of any URLs getting cannibalized.
The Bottom Line
Keyword cannibalization is an important SEO issue to watch for and guard against. Return to the strategies in this post when you haven’t dealt with cannibalization in a while.
Regular SEO team communication and a strong, clean editorial calendar are the best proactive strategies for this fully preventable content issue. Keep your canonical tags and redirects updated to limit the possibility of keyword cannibalization occurring unnoticed.