Keyword cannibalisation: All you need to know for SEO
Keyword cannibalisation is a common term that you might hear quite often in the wider context of keyword research and content marketing in general. Often a symptom of content publishing that doesn’t adhere to a clear and focused keyword strategy among other things, keyword cannibalisation often results in a dilution of performance and traffic potential across such pages.
While it may sound like a slightly dramatic term, keyword cannibalisation can significantly impact your SEO and content performance and can be a real growth revenue blocker if not noticed and actioned upon. On the flip side, for brands with vast content inventories that have ranking footprints in a number of important keywords but are struggling to find ways to improve performance, addressing keyword cannibalisation instances can be a potentially quick growth driver.
Let’s take a more detailed look at what keyword cannibalisation is, steps to remedy it and how it has the potential to be a real area of growth for brands with plenty of existing content.
What is keyword cannibalisation?
Broadly speaking, keyword cannibalisation alludes to issues where multiple pages on one website target (inadvertently or otherwise) the same keyword or keywords, and as a result, end up competing with each other on search engines. Typically, this sees a split of equity between the pages, with the pages in question not able to fulfil their potential for ranking on certain keywords. The net result is often a loss of organic traffic, both in potential and in real-time.
For example, a brand might have two pages with similar content that address the same search intent for the same or similar keywords. This might come in the form of two blog posts tackling the same topic; let’s say “best ergonomic keyboard” and “best ergonomic keyboard for Mac”. While the “Mac” modifier may suggest a different topic at play, Google searches might actually offer up similar results in its top ten, and as a result, these two pages are competing against each other for both keywords.
Another example may come in the form of different content types cannibalising each other. An eCommerce store selling personalised notepads will likely get most of their revenue from their product products, with keywords such as “personalised notepads”, “personalised notebooks”, and “custom notebooks” being core drivers. However, the brand might also have a flagship blog piece on the same topic, perhaps titled “10 Ways to Get the Best Out of Your Personalised Notebooks”
If this flagship blog piece is heavier in detail and content quality, matches search intent and has attracted backlinks over time, it might end up outranking the commercial pages on the aforementioned core terms. While this isn’t a wholly terrible scenario and will still bring users to the site, brands will want to ensure their money pages are where users land when it comes to commercial and transactional keywords.
There are a number of reasons why keyword cannibalisation occurs, and they can often be tied back to a lack of a focused content strategy with a robust keyword mapping strategy behind it. Churning out content over time without assessing whether a brand already has content which could be improved to match a certain keyword is a common cause. Another legacy-based cause is brands neglecting to redirect old versions of similar content if there is a new version that is stronger and more authoritative on the keyword in question.
What is the impact of keyword cannibalisation on SEO and user experience?
We mentioned earlier that the typical net result of keyword cannibalisation issues is a net loss in traffic and revenue potential. At the very least, this arises from search engines getting confused as to which page to rank and performance suffering as a result.
Additional impacts of keyword cannibalisation can also see equity splitting of links to pages, both internal links and backlinks. If for example, you have two similar pages that are ranking for similar terms with a smattering of backlinks going to each, this is going to prove much less decisive and authoritative than one page that has the lion’s share of these links pointing to it.
Similarly, if you have more than one page targeting one keyword on your site, then it may become inevitable over time that they are both linked to in equal measure. As time goes on and your site and business grow, a content writer may not know which is the “stronger” variant of a page targeting one keyword within your site, and signals may become mixed.
Ultimately, what matters in situations caused by keyword cannibalisation is how the user is treated and how this could impact your bottom line. For example, if a user searches for a term such as “best ergonomic keyboard” and your site’s top result around this search term is a blog post rather than a product page, they may be deterred from clicking through.
Worse still, the user may end up clicking through though upon seeing that they’re presented with a blog page, may immediately bounce off, never to return to your brand as a negative association bias is formed.
How can brands identify keyword cannibalisation issues?
There are a number of ways to assess whether you are encountering keyword cannibalisation issues. A quick way to identify issues is to look at historic rankings across individual URLs, subfolders or domains as a whole.
Looking at keyword ranking histories, if you’re seeing examples of keywords jumping up and down erratically in their ranking positions, then it might be a sign of keyword cannibalisation. Investigating this ranking behaviour further may lead you to discover that there are multiple URLs ranking for the same keyword, with search engines getting confused in terms of which page to rank for which keyword. Many modern-day SEO suites such as SEMrush and Ahrefs have the ability to automatically filter out instances like this where you can get a good view of URLs that may be contributing to keyword cannibalisation.
Using Google’s own free toolset, brands can also ascertain instances where this might be occurring too. Heading into Google Search Console and looking at the “Search results” section, you can easily apply custom filters to look for instances where multiple pages might be gaining traction for the same queries.
Adding a filter on a target query by clicking on “+New”, and then navigating to the “Pages” tab will show you which pages are earning clicks, impressions and keyword positions for this term:
In addition, a site search operator on Google with a relevant keyword appended may also bring in some interesting insights.
Let’s take a look back at our “ergonomic keyboard” example and investigate what one of the top-ranking domains, PC Magazine, is returning on this search term:
As we can see, Google is treating the article on “Best Ergonomic Keyboards for 2023” as the top result, which is to be expected. But we can also see here that there are results around “cheap keyboards” and “best keyboards” to name a few. It might be the case that the surrounding search intent and keyword ranking profile for these individual articles warrants individual articles (as is the case here for PC Magazine), though it may be worth investigating.
Note: multiple pages may rank or indeed show click and impression data on Google Search Console for multiple search queries. In a lot of cases, this is fine, however, it is worth analysing further if there are clear signs that Google is getting confused over two or more similar pages. This may be the case if there is frequent ranking fluctuation and disruption as well as an ongoing vying for traffic metrics between one or more pages across single keywords.
What can brands do to fix keyword cannibalisation?
At the end of the day, you will want to ensure that you have the right page ranking for the right keyword, and that you have matched user intent and are providing a satisfactory user experience based around this keyword. A lot of the decision-making around how to fix keyword cannibalisation will come down to extensive data analysis as well as some internal subjective discussions as to how to proceed.
As we’ve established, there are a number of steps businesses can take to ascertain whether they are falling foul of keyword cannibalisation. There are also a number of questions that need answering before any action is taken:
Are there clear and obvious data points which suggest that two or more URLs are competing for the same keywords?
Are we seeing a decline in conversions and other end-of-funnel metrics around these pages attributed to these keywords?
Does user behaviour suggest evidence for this too?
Could the content on these pages be optimised to better match intent for our target query?
With all this data in mind, do we really think performance could be improved by taking steps to address these keyword cannibalisation issues?
If you have arrived at the conclusion that something needs to be done to address the cannibalisation in question, then there are a number of potential approaches to take. The most likely approach to take to improve performance is consolidating one or more pages into a stronger-performing variant.
For example, if you’re a brand that has three pieces of content on “best ergonomic keyboards” that are clearly cannibalising each other, then performance can be improved by lifting and shifting relevant content into a fresh, master page. Once this has been republished, the old variants can be deleted and redirected to the master page, which can help aid in consolidating ranking signals spread across these old pages into one.
In some cases, further keyword and search intent analysis may need to be carried out to decide whether it’s best to keep the page variants, but tweak one or the other so they target individual keyword types respectively. If there is a clear case to pursue this and the different pages simply need editing to match separate keywords and their intents, then this is another solution.
There are some more drastic actions you can take to rip the proverbial band-aid off, however, most of the time these aren’t recommended:
Noindexing the offending page(s)
This may be an obvious solution if you’re dealing with two pages competing with each other for the same keyword. However, noindexing one variant risks losing all the associated keyword ranking signals and backlinks (if any) that could easily be passed onto the “stronger” page.
Deleting the page
Similar to the noindex solution, this should only really be considered if the page in question has no value, is completely irrelevant or is harming your reputation by ranking alongside the keyword you are ranking for.
Canonical URL solutions
Canonicalizing a series of similar URLs to another is a typical method associated with handling duplicate content. If you’re offending keyword cannibalisation pages that are ranking for the same keywords and are very similar in content and structure, this may be an option. In the context of keyword cannibalisation however this will rarely be the case, and your best bet is to continue with a strategy of content consolidation.
How can I prevent keyword cannibalisation in the future?
Keyword cannibalisation is a very common symptom for businesses that have grown over time, have seen personnel change and perhaps have dipped in and out of content and SEO strategies throughout their journey.
While it can be damaging and hindering revenue potential in some scenarios, it should be viewed as an opportunity to improve performance using existing assets.
Futureproofing your business from suffering from keyword cannibalisation involves incorporating ongoing keyword research and content strategies that have a clear vision of which pages need to be mapped to which keyword.
Thorough intent and SERP analysis need to be carried out to assess which types of pages users are landing on from which keywords. Taking a hub and pillar approach – whereby you have a master topic on one keyword bucket with individual pages targeting specific keywords within this, is a sensible consideration. Performance will of course need to be monitored on an ongoing basis to ensure different pages don’t overlap in their keyword rankings and any potential cannibalisation is kept at bay.
About the author
Michael Carden-Edwards is SEO Strategy Lead at Reddico. A seasoned SEO and digital marketing expert with 13+ years of experience, Michael has directed SEO strategies for major brands like British Airways and O2 as well as conducting countless public and internal SEO training sessions. Based in Sevilla, he joined Reddico in 2021, enjoying the flexible working and unique culture from a sunnier climate.