In our guide to keyword research made easy, we offered a straightforward approach that anyone can get started with. While that guide is perfect for the beginner SEO, it did skip over some of the more advanced aspects of keyword research.
One of those is keyword cannibalization.
Keyword cannibalization worth knowing about before you get too far into your SEO ventures so that you can take active steps to prevent it. And, if you’ve been in the game for a while, learning how to deal with keyword cannibalization is an integral step to making every post stand a chance in the SERPs.
The term itself might bring some interesting images to mind, but “keyword cannibalization” is about the best phrase to use to describe the situation. Keyword cannibalization is when two or more of your pages are competing with each other for the same keyword.
In other words, they are eating each other’s rankings.
For example, imagine you are doing SEO for a plumber’s website. The site has been around for a while, and a lot of the content was created before you started working with this client. You discover that three separate pages are all ranking differently for “emergency plumber”:
That’s keyword cannibalization.
When Google crawls the site, because of the content and other SEO factors, it has to measure these pages up against each other and decide which one ranks where.
Keyword cannibalization is a problem because the search engines are effectively dividing your authority for a term among several different pages. Likewise, you are dividing your visitors’ attention among multiple pages. These pages are competing for click through rate, conversions, pageviews, and more.
Think of it this way. If you have two pages both ranking for the same term, but one converts at 30% and the other at 5%, which one do you want visitors to go to?
If the lower converting page is ranking higher, you’ve got a big problem. But even if it’s ranking lower, you could still likely be losing customers to people who are choosing the poor page over the good one.
One thing that’s worth understanding at this point is that keyword cannibalization isn’t always a problem. If you have two pages ranking in the 1 and 2 spots of the first page, that’s a pretty good place to be.
It looks good for your brand, so as long as both pages are performing well, there’s no real issue here.
The real problem is when one page is holding another one back. For example, you’ve got a page ranking #7 and another ranking all the way on page two. That lower ranking page is likely stealing authority (and possible backlinks) from the other page. Fixing the cannibalization may help you move the needle on the winning page.
Now that you know what keyword cannibalization is and why it matters, let’s take a look at how to find out if it’s actually a problem for you.
In order identify keyword cannibalization on your site, you’ve got to start by checking your rankings. Use your SEO tool of choice to get a list of your organic rankings by keyword. SERPed has a tool called What Ranks Where, that is good for this. But Ahrefs, SEMRush, and all the other staples can perform similar functions.
Export your list to Excel and sort it alphabetically by keyword. Scour the sheet for any instances of duplicate or very similar keywords that have different ranking urls.
Generally speaking, the page that is ranking highest is usually the one with the best, most relevant content. But you may also want to check other analytics like your click-through rates and conversions to see which page you want to prioritize your efforts towards.
Once you’ve found all of the instances of keyword cannibalization that are occurring on your site, the next step is to actually do something about it.
If your site is relatively young, you may have very few (if any) problems with cannibalizing your own keywords. If you’ve been publishing content for a long time, though, you may have a pretty big list to tackle.
The exact strategy to fix keyword cannibalization is different for different cases, so here are several different methods to employ.
A lot of the time, keyword cannibalization occurs because of thoughtlessness about past content. You published a post back in 2016 about How to Trim Your Own Hedges, and then three years later wrote a very similar post because you just forgot one already existed.
In cases like these, if the two pages are very similar, you can simply combine them. The best way to do this is to hold on to the page that’s ranking the best, and add anything to it from the other page that isn’t already covered. Obviously, you may need to restructure it a bit in order to make it fit naturally, but that shouldn’t be too much work.
If both pages are pretty unique but just covering different aspects of the same topic, you may benefit from combining them into a single longer post. This can help you transform thin content into something much more authoritative in the eyes of Google.
If the two pages are meant to be targeting different keywords, but they accidentally ended up focusing on the same one, you may be able to fix the keyword cannibalization by shoring up your on-page SEO.
The first step is to re-optimize the content to target a different keyword. You can find a good to-do list in our On-page SEO Guide, but the process basically involves changes like this:
After you’ve edited the content, you want to take a look at your internal linking. The anchor text that you choose for every internal link gives Google a little bit more information about the target page. If one page has a lot of internal links related to the keyword that’s being cannibalized, you should edit the anchor text to better represent the new term you’re aiming for.
Sometimes, a page just has to go. If the content is super thin, or the page just isn’t adding anything new, don’t be afraid to give it the axe.
Two service pages both describing boiler repair don’t need to be on the same website, for example. If there is nothing unique enough about either one, you can feel safe simply unpublishing the one that’s ranking lower.
When you make any of the above changes to your website in order to reduce the impact of keyword cannibalization, consider if a 301 redirect is in order. This can help you prevent broken links and salvage any backlink equity that you may have built up over time.
The execution is pretty simple. If you are removing any pages from your website, redirect the old, underperforming url to the one that you actually want to rank. This ensures that visitors and SEO power get passed on even though the page is taken down.
So, now you know a little bit more about keyword cannibalization and how to fix it. As you start to tackle any existing problems, don’t forget to take steps to prevent keyword cannibalization in the first place.
A good start is to use a tool like Yoast SEO, which lets you designate a target keyword for each page. Yoast will warn you if you happen to choose the same keyword for two different pages. Additionally, just remember to check in on your organic rankings regularly to keep track of any new instances of cannibalization so that you can deal with them before they have too much of an impact on your rankings.