Ultimate Keyword Cannibalization Guide 2020 – how to find and fix it (with Wincher)
About a decade or so ago, having multiple positions in a SERP for a good keyword was quite unusual and probably every webmasters and SEOs dream. Especially if you managed to get the first two positions. Today multiple positions in the SERP are far from unusual. We had a quick look at Wincher’s ranking data and approximately 10% of all keywords and search phrases contain more than two URLs from the same website. But is it really that good? Unless you hold the first top positions in a SERP, it’s probably not.
It’s very likely your website suffers from something called keyword cannibalization. But it’s not really that simple either. Keyword cannibalization is the widely used term when two or more different pages, i.e. content on different URLs but same domain, are ranking for the same keyword. Sometimes at the same time, or sometimes Google keeps changing which page or URL that ranks. The latter is usually a lot harder to discover, unless you know the tricks.
In this guide you will learn why keyword cannibalization usually is something you want to avoid, how to find it and of course, how to fix it.
Why this is probably bad for your SEO
Most SEO experts within the community do agree that this so called cannibalization phenomena is bad for your overall SEO. Although there isn’t really a consensus about how bad, and exactly in what way this will affect your SEO in a negative manor.
We will try to explain the phenomena in a fairly unbiased way, so you can come to your own conclusions. That being said, unless it is part of your SEO strategy to have multiple pages ranking for the same search query, it’s probably bad for your SEO.
Keyword cannibalization can occur in a few different ways, and there can be many underlying reasons for it. Everything from duplicate content to bad technical implementation or bad website structure.
Let’s start with having a look at the different ways keyword cannibalization can present itself in the SERP.
Two or more URLs ranking for the same keyword
Most common form is when two URLs are ranking for the same keyword or search phrase. Something a bit more unusual is three, or more, URLs ranking for the same keyword or search phrase, but it still happens in some cases.
This isn’t necessarily something bad, because having several positions in the SERP will not only increase the chance of someone choosing to click on your result, but pushing your competition further down in the SERP.
But there’s also a risk that your site’s authority on the search phrase is being diluted when Google can’t decide which page are supposed to rank. Potentially you could have had a better position, instead of that double result in the SERP.
Let’s say you have two similar articles or pieces of content, which both have attracted some nice organic traffic. Maybe even some nice organic links from other webmasters and bloggers out there. That actually sounds like a perfect scenario doesn’t it?
But what if the topics of these two articles, which obviously are very closely related since they are ranking for the same keyword or search query, had fit into one article? You can’t be sure what would have happened if that was the case, but it’s far from unlikely that all of those links would have been pointing to this one article. Let’s call it a master article.
Let’s pretend that you have two articles, article A and article B. Article A covers ‘how to repair a Tub armchair’ whilst article B covers the topic of ‘how to repair a Lawson armchair’. Before we go any further, Tub and Lawson are two different designs of armchairs. Different, but yet, both are armchairs.
Let’s say both articles have attracted 10 organic links each and are now ranking on position 7 and 8 in the SERP for ‘how to repair a armchair’.
If we instead of having two different articles about a fairly similar subject, we would have covered both of these questions in one single article. Maybe even added a few more armchair models like Wingback and Barrel. A master article on the subject of repairing armchairs basically.
Let’s call it article C, with the topic ‘how to repair armchairs’, what would have happened?
Potentially this article might have received all of the organic backlinks instead. Also this article would have been longer and covered a wider spectrum of questions to be answered. Both two important ranking factors when it comes to SEO in 2020. Maybe you would have position 5 instead of 7 and 8, or even somewhere in the top 3. Everyone that has read up on the SERP click distribution knows how much difference it makes for every increase in ranking position on the first page in terms of valuable traffic.
But it’s always a trade of. Having position 7 and 8, instead of position 6, might actually be worth it. If you are lucky enough to have both position 1 and 2 you are probably in the best possible scenario in terms of ranking and should just hope for it to stay that way. Even if it’s keyword cannibalization.
Google is alternating what page to rank
Keyword cannibalization is not always two pages showing simultaneously on the same keyword. First of foremost, it’s worth mentioning you can have more than two pages or URLs showing on the same keyword, but the same reasoning as above applies. Would you rather have two, three or even four decent positions or one great?
But there is another form of keyword cannibalization which is not as easy to discover without a proper tool. It’s when several pages are ranking for the same keyword or search phrase, but Google is alternating which page is shown in the SERP for said keyword or search phrase.
In opposition to the case when two or more pages are ranking simultaneously on the same keyword, this almost never comes with any positive side effects. The underlying problem might be the same, but without the small benefit of getting multiple SERP positions.
From our experience you can easily gain some quick rankings by sorting this out.
The reasons for Keyword Cannibalization
Unfortunately there’s not one single reason for this phenomena to occur. Usually this needs to be examined on a case by case basis. The most common reason is that you have similar content, or even duplicate content. Other reasons might be technical implementation done wrong, for example the lack of canonicals or wrongly implemented hreflang tags.
We should also mention that ranking with multiple URLs or pages on the same keyword isn’t always keyword cannibalization. Sometimes if your website is a very strong brand in Google’s eyes, search phrases which include your brand might show multiple hits in the SERP. Basically this would mean your website is actually the strongest source for this specific search.
A good example of this is Amazon. If you Google ‘Amazon Armchair’ they, Amazon, will dominate the SERP. Whether this just shows Amazon’s authority on this search query, or if they actually suffer from some mild form of keyword cannibalization is very hard to say. My guess is that Amazon is just strong. Very strong.
Depending on your issue, there’s several different ways to solve it. But before we do that let’s take a quick look at how easy it is to find keyword cannibalization on your website.
How to Check and Find Keyword Cannibalization using Wincher
If you are using Wincher it is actually ridiculously easy to check for keyword cannibalization. Just visit the dashboard for your website. Go to your Dashboard, then look at the keyword table. Look to the right of the best page column. If you have multiple pages or URLs ranking for the same keyword you will see an icon, a frame with a number in it. The number shows how many different pages or URLs are, or have been, ranking for that keyword during the set ranking period.
If you click the icon a graph will show you the ranking history for all pages on that keyword.
From this graph you can see in what way the keyword cannibalization appears in the SERP. Let’s look at how it might look.
So this is the graph that will show if you click the icon with a number in it. In this graph you can see that the first URL, the blue line in the graph, is always ranking the best among these four sites. The other three URLs, black, green and orange, are on the other hand ranking every other day, with some longer consecutive periods every now and then.
But there’s also another useful graph to give you more insights on keywords which are affected by cannibalization. If you take a look in the Best Page column, you will see a URL to the left of the icon. Let’s take a look at what graph appears if we click the URL instead of the icon.
This graph shows you the best page for this keyword. In this case you will only see one URL because the first URL, the blue one, is the one always ranking over the other three during this time period.
But the graph would look different if you had two or more URLs that kept switching places. See below.
This is how Microsoft’s website is ranking for a search for a specific error code. One page (the black bar) is obviously more relevant in the eyes of Google. But not enough, since Google keeps showing another page (the light blue bar) every now and then.
Let’s have a last look at the first graph, before we move on. This is actually from a real case where we did find, and fix, a case of keyword cannibalization.
In this graph you can see the website we were working on not too long ago. It was a multilingual site with localized content for Canada (blue line), Ireland (green line) and the United Kingdom (black line). On Google.co.uk we had problems because the Canadian and Irish content was ranking better than the designated UK page. In fact, most of the time the UK page wasn’t ranking at all.
We managed to identify the problem fairly quickly, which in this case, was a wrongly implemented hreflang tag. After we fixed the hreflang tag the UK page quickly got picked up by Google and it didn’t take many days before the UK page was ranking far better than the Irish page on the same subject.
As you can see it’s super simple to find cases of keyword cannibalization with the help of Wincher. It’s usually as easy to see if you successfully have solved your issues, using Wincher. Since most of the time you will see an increase in rankings fairly quickly. But let’s not jump ahead, first we need to actually fix the issue so keep reading.
How fixing Keyword Cannibalization can improve your SEO in no time
Finally we have reached the most important part of this guide. This is also the most tricky part, because keyword cannibalization is not always that easy to tackle in a good way. Unless your rankings actually increase afterwards, you haven’t really solved anything. Rather the opposite.
We have tried to cover the most common causes and solutions for keyword cannibalization. That being said, sometimes the problems can be way more complex. But we are confident that most keyword cannibalization issues will be solved following these steps. One thing is for sure though. A wrongly implemented hreflang tag which was our problem in the example above could be the problem, but that’s just one of many possible causes. Soon you will learn, most of the time the cannibalization is somehow related to content.
Right keywords for the right content
In a lot of cases, the source of the problem when keyword cannibalization occurs is the content. The keyword or search phrase that the different URLs are competing on are probably mentioned several times on all of these pages. Which would make both, or all if more than two, relevant for this specific search query.
As an example, let’s say you are selling furniture and have one page about ‘Desks’ and one page about ‘Tables’. But the content on both pages are pretty much covering some information about tables, even though the main topic is desks. And the other way around. Usually I encourage people to use synonyms when writing, in most cases it’s very good from a SEO perspective. So in most cases mentioning tables when writing about desks shouldn’t be a bad thing.
But then we do have these situations when two pieces of content starts to compete for the same keyword. In the case with ‘Desks’ and ‘Tables’ we would recommend to only mention desks on the page about desks, and only mention tables on the page about tables. Of course this would also apply to the title, headers and meta description.
Although, this is not always a possible solution. Two pages could be competing and there might not be because of the use, or lack of use, of synonyms. But no worries, there’s more ways to solve keyword cannibalization.
Consolidate content and pages
If you have two or more similar pages covering the same topic it might be worth considering to consolidate those pages into one single page that covers the said topic. Not only do you get one, longer, article. You would probably also cover more on that subject through this merged piece of content. Like our example earlier on, the guide about ‘how to repair armchairs’.
If you decided to merge two, or more, pages it’s not only important to move your content and make sure it fits in good with whatever page you are merging with. Even if it means you have to do some rewriting or even remove some pieces. It’s also very important that you do a 301-redirect from the page you are abandoning, to the page URL you are merging to.
Deleting Low Quality Pages
In some cases it might not even be worth merging or consolidating two pages. If the page is thin in terms of content, or the quality is very low, it might be worth considering deleting it completely.
If you do delete one of the pages, do make sure to make a 301-redirect the URL you want to keep. This should obviously be one of the URLs that was ranking for the same keyword.
Noindexing and Canonicalize
If you have a page with very low quality content or a page with very thin content, where deletion is not an option for technical, or other reasons, noindex might be your solution.
Another option would be canonicalization. But this should mainly be used if the page is duplicate or very similar to the other pages ranking on the same keyword.
For blogs and ecommerce websites this is actually a very common problem with category and tag pages getting indexed. If you chose to have category pages, make sure to add something that adds value. For example that could be a category description with some unique content.
Here is a typical example, and a possible case of keyword cannibalization, where a tag page is ranking instead of an actual piece of content. This could have easily been avoided by setting noindex on all tag-pages.
Alter Internal Linking Structure
You are probably already aware of what impact the anchor text has on your SEO. This includes internal links as well. Make sure that you don’t use the same anchor text for several different pages.
If we go back to our example with furniture. It wouldn’t make sense to use the anchor text Table for a page which is supposed to be dedicated to desks.
Using internal linking can also help Google to decide which page to show in the result. If you have two pages competing on the same keyword you can always nudge Google in the right direction by linking from the page you don’t want in the SERP to the page you want to be seen.
The number of internal links going to a page also matters a lot. That’s why category and tag pages quite often outranks a lot of your other content.
External links and the anchor texts used usually have an ever bigger impact than the internal linking. External links are obviously harder to control. But you should definitely check your external links and make sure as many of them go to the page you want to rank, or at least make sure the right anchor text is being used.
If you have consolidated two or more pages, it could also be worth reaching out to people linking to the page which was removed, or merged, into the new master page. This could be very time consuming though, and with a proper 301 redirect you shouldn’t lose too much SEO value.
A few tips on how to avoid keyword Cannibalization
Hopefully we have helped you tackle some of your worst cannibalization issues. But not letting them happen is even better. Don’t get us wrong, it’s probably impossible to be a hundred percent protected from these kinds of issues. But doing good ground work will minimize them.
The easiest way to avoid keyword cannibalization is to have a well thought out content marketing plan. There’s not a single one-size-fits-all template when it comes to a content marketing plan, it’s usually something that needs to be assessed on a case by case basis.
For example, a webshop with thousands of products will need a very different content marketing strategy compared to a SaaS software company.
Let’s stick to furniture and armchairs as an example just for a little more. If you are selling a lot of similar furniture and are writing product descriptions you should really focus on what makes every piece unique.
Instead of writing a hundred product descriptions about armchairs, which one and each mentions armchair at least five times, focus on the details. Is it a Tub, a Lawson or a Wingback? What color is it? What material? Is it made by a famous designer?
Not only will you minimize the risk of keyword cannibalization. You will also increase your chances of ranking on long tail keywords. And we all know by now that if some is searching for a blue velvet wingback armchair the chance of selling one is a lot higher if that’s what they will actually find.
We know, it sounds like this recommendation contradicts our previous example with the guide to ‘how to repair armchairs’. This is why we put so much emphasis on the importance of assessing these kinds of things on a case by case basis. It’s possible to write a guide that covers most aspects of a subject. Writing a product description is something completely different. When you create content nowadays, you want to create high quality content that fulfills the search intent of a user.
This is just some examples to give you an idea. But the same way of thinking can easily be adapted to any kind of product, service or other piece of information.
Our conclusion is, having a well thought out content marketing plan when you start your project, will lower the risk of keyword cannibalization.
Please let us know what you think about this post in the comment field below. And please share your experience with keyword cannibalization!