Keyword cannibalization is a simple SEO issue that’s been around since the beginning of the digital age but continues to plague websites. Yet, a large number of webmasters still aren’t fully aware of the problem.
By definition, this is a problem with the internal information structure of the website: It occurs when multiple pages are targeting the same (or very similar) keywords.
In my experience, I’ve seen the problem occur both wittingly and unwittingly. One example of creating such issues unintentionally is pagination in content management systems (CMS) causing internal duplicate content.
For example, if you have a multi-page article targeting a given keyword (or phrase), you can have multiple pages of the same piece of content indexed as separate entries competing against each other for placement in search results.
On the other hand, we see webmasters do this voluntarily when they try to strengthen the same term or phrase on multiple pages. The logic behind this is that over-optimizing a term site-wide will increase the ranking for the term, as it might make it more important in search engines’ eyes. What this kind of strategy really leads to is a hit to the performance of the particular website in the search engine rankings due to the cannibalism issue I describe here.
In the following sections, I’ll go into more detail on how keyword cannibalism hurts your website and what measures you can take to avoid running into this problem.
Why you should avoid keyword cannibalism
By having multiple pages with the same focus, you’re forcing Google (and search engines in general) to choose between many pages and pick the one that fits the best.
This also means you’re competing against yourself: The multiple pages you’ve optimized for the given keyword are all trying to make it to the first place in Google’s search results. So instead of focusing your efforts on one piece of content and giving it the best chance to claim the top spot, you’re spreading them thin.
Moreover, if you’re running a popular website that’s producing quality content and attracting attention and backlinks from other sites with multiple pages on the same topic, you’ll be spreading that across various internal pages, thus losing its benefits and hurting the power of your pages to rank well.
Another important reason to avoid keyword cannibalism is that it hurts the quality of your content. After all, how many great articles can you produce on the same topic? Your goal should always be to produce one piece of awesome content that will collect all backlinks and allow you to dominate the search results.
Your on-page SEO is also likely to suffer because of your inability to focus on the internal anchor’s text value. One way to inform search engines what particular topic a piece of content is about is to link to it from other pages on your site using keyword-rich text in the hyperlink (i.e., the anchor text).
By spreading the anchor text links to different pages, you’re introducing confusion and betting on multiple properties instead of focusing on optimizing a frontrunner.
Finally, you should also think about your conversion rate and how keyword cannibalism can affect it. If you have one page that’s converting better than the next five on the same subject, aren’t you actually losing leads?
Here’s how to avoid keyword cannibalism
In the best-case scenario, you want to have a focus (keyword/phrase) for each page that’s not repeated on any other page. That also includes similar and complementary search terms.
Create a spreadsheet and list all the main URLs of the page together with the keyword focus they should be targeting. This will create a map that will guide you in organizing and optimizing the content on your page. Also consider performing a full-scale content audit of your website, which will allow you to target pages that should be scrapped, improved, or collected into a single property.
Make sure you collect all the useful information in one solid piece of content, and then place a 301 (permanent) redirect from all extra pages and URLs to the main page. I want to stress the importance of using this particular type of redirect, because it is the best way to make sure Google will pass the ranking power of the URL being redirected to the target URL (i.e., the main page).
After doing this, all traffic from the alternative pages will be sent to the main page. Over time this will also help search engines isolate the main page as the one that fits the given keyword focus/search term in the best way possible and place it higher in the search results for that particular query.
Finally, I’d like to make a couple of extra suggestions regarding your CMS.
Content management systems are a great way to run a company blog or even the entire website for your business, but they also have some disadvantages.
For example, WordPress, the most widely used CMS, creates a great deal of duplicate content through the use of pagination and taxonomies (e.g., categories, tags, and archive pages). There are numerous ways to deal with these issues, either manually or by installing plugins or extensions.
If your site is running on WordPress, you can use WordPress SEO by Yoast, which many people consider the best plugin for search engine optimization. Among its many useful functions, it also allows you to NoIndex the taxonomies mentioned above, which will discourage search engines from crawling and indexing content from the category and archive pages (i.e., duplicate content you already have on other pages). Similarly, pagination issues can be resolved through the use of a plugin such as WP-PageNavi, which adds relevant attributes to pagination links that guide search engines to the main property, ultimately avoiding duplicate indexation.
In the end, the most important step in dealing with keyword cannibalization is acknowledging that it exists and taking steps to guard against it.
If you have previous experience dealing with this issue, I’d love to hear how you dealt with it and what results it produced.