What is keyword cannibalization?

By Leon Tranter | SEO

Nov 06
keyword cannibalization

You might have heard of keyword cannibalization. It’s an advanced topic in SEO (Search Engine Optimization). To understand it properly, you need to really get your head around SEO and understand what keywords really are. In this article, I’ll dispel some SEO myths, explain what is keyword cannibalization, and tell you what you can do about it.

What really are keywords?

To understand this topic, you need to really understand what keywords are. Most people think they do but there is a lot of nonsense and misinformation out there.

Typically, people think about keywords in two ways:

  • A search phrase that someone enters into a search engine such as Google (this is what keywords actually are – and the name is a bad one because a keyword is often many words long)
  • A topic that a blogger or webmaster wants to rank for and decides that his or her article is about (this is completely wrong)

You often hear people say things like “the keyword for my page is blah” or “I think I’m going to do a different keyword for this article”.

Again, this is wrong. Pages don’t “have” keywords. You don’t “choose” a keyword for an article.

A keyword is a search term. It’s something that someone out there searches for. Google (or Bing or Youtube or whatever) then decides to show you some results for that keyword.

Those articles aren’t fundamentally related to that keyword. They just happen to be shown to one person at one point in time based on a keyword. Maybe tomorrow they will be gone and replaced by something else. Maybe someone else will see completely different search results for that same keyword (this is true, it’s called the Filter Bubble and it’s real).

Google decides what your keywords are, not you

You don’t get to pick your keywords. You don’t assign keywords to a page. You just have a bunch of pages, and at any particular time they may or may not be shown as a result for a keyword. And that decision is completely up to the search engine (usually Google).

Just because you chose a keyword and put it into Yoast and spent an hour tweaking things until the little face turned green doesn’t mean anything. At all. Google doesn’t care what you think your keywords “are”. Google just decides to rank certain things for certain keywords.

And it isn’t right or wrong. Again, your articles don’t “have” keywords. Just because you think your article that talks about acoustic guitars should rank for the keyword “best acoustic guitars” doesn’t mean it should or will.

If Google decides to rank it for the keyword “why you should play Backgammon”, then that’s that. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just Google’s decision. You might not like it but that doesn’t matter.

This might seem semantic or irrelevant, but it is really important for understanding what keyword cannibalization is. And you will struggle to really understand and succeed at SEO until you grasp this important point.

This video might help you understand the topic a bit more.

What keyword cannibalization fundamentally is

Keyword cannibalization is actually quite simple. It is where two or more pages on your website are currently each ranking for the same keyword. So if this article is ranking for the keyword “what is SEO” and my article on anchor text is also ranking for “what is SEO”, then that is keyword cannibalization.

What most people think keyword cannibalization is

Most people think that this is an example of Google being “confused” or “wrong”. And that is has become “mixed up” and you need to “fix it” and show it what your “true keyword article” is that you think you should be ranking for.

That is total nonsense. Google is neither wrong nor right in those decisions. Remember, articles don’t “have” keywords. It’s completely irrelevant what I think they should be. The only thing that matters is what Google thinks they should be.

Google isn’t “confused” because it decides to rank some older crappy article above another better younger one for the same topic. It does so because it’s algorithm has decided to, it’s as simple as that. And you can choose to do something about it, or not.

Why keyword cannibalization is bad

Keyword cannibalization is bad for a bunch of reasons.

SERP ranking dilution

search result dilution

You don’t want to suffer from link and ranking dilution

If you have two articles ranking for the same keyword, both are probably struggling. If they are at number 1 and 2 positions then you’re fine and you have nothing to worry about. But if they are at number 6 and 8, then you have a problem. If only one was ranking, it would probably be at 4 or 5 and getting more traffic.

External and Internal link dilution

This is related to the above point. If you have two or more articles on the same or a similar topic, they are probably each receiving a share of links, external and internal. If all those links were going to one article, it would probably be ranking much better (this is often a cause of the above point).

Conversion dilution

If you have two or more articles getting search traffic for the same search term, you will be losing some conversions. That’s because one article will be converting better than the other (it might not be the higher ranked article!), and traffic to the other one is therefore not getting the conversions it should.

It’s much better to concentrate your traffic to one page and continuously run A/B test until it is converting very well.

How to find out if you have this problem

Discovering this problem can be hard, especially if you have a big site. The only way I know of is to use a paid search engine tool like Ahrefs or SEMRush to analyse your organic results for all your pages. Then you would export into CSV or similar and look for duplicates. Those are your instances of keyword cannibalization.

Ahrefs have a free spreadsheet you can download that makes this process easier, but you still need the keyword dump from Ahrefs for this to work properly.

What you can do about keyword cannibalization

Once you’ve figured out where this is happening on your website or blog, there are a number of things you can do about it.

De-optimize one of your pages

The best bet is probably to de-optimize one of the pages. Choose which one you would like to rank for and try to reduce the chances of the other one ranking. Modifying or removing internal links (to point to the preferred page and/or use different anchor text) is an easy way to do this.

This is a safe and user-friendly method, though may take a while to take effect, and may not work at all. Remember, Google decides what it thinks your pages should rank for, not you. And it isn’t “confused” just because it doesn’t agree with how you want things to rank.

Merge your pages

You can create a “super” page by merging the two pages together. It makes sense to merge the content of the two or more lower ranking pages into that of the higher ranking page.

Don’t create a brand new page to merge all the content into, because you will lose all the existing PA (Page Authority) that you built up on the existing pages.

Then you can put in a 301 redirect on the lower ranking page or pages to point to the merged page. Deleting them isn’t a great idea (see below).

Delete one of your pages

An extreme option is just to delete the one you don’t want to appear in the SERPS. This works quickly but has some problems:
You’re reducing the net amount of content on your site
Your inbound and internal links will all be broken, you’ll need 301s to fix this and stop 404s (which Google doesn’t really like).

De-index one of your pages

You can also de-index one of the pages. This is a good option if you want to keep the content and are happy for your readers to come across the page via an internal link, but you don’t want it appearing in the SERPs.

Many people use this approach for category or archive pages, if and when they start getting indexed and ranking in the SERPs. They are a perfect example of a resource that readers might find helpful if they are already browsing your site, but you don’t want people landing directly on from the SERPs.

There are two ways to de-index a resource on your website. You can add the page to your robots.txt file, or add a noindex directive to the page itself (in a meta robots tag). For various reasons explained here (if you want to get really advanced), noindex directives are a better and safer option than robots.txt changes.

Summary

Well, I hope this article has been helpful for you. It’s only possible to really understand what keyword cannibalization is by understanding what keywords really are. And surprisingly few people really understand them. So if you’re still a bit unsure about this advanced topic, or want some more help, let me know in the comments!

And if you want to know more about SEO, I would start with my introduction to SEO, then read the articles I’ve written on backlinks and anchor text.