What Is Keyword Cannibalization? Plus How To Find and Fix It
Content volume is an important element of a search engine optimization (SEO) content marketing strategy.
In fact, in Semrush’s State of Content Marketing Report, 45% of content marketers said creating and posting more content was the most effective way to improve search rankings.
But more content isn’t always helpful. Sometimes, more content can be confusing to Google and other major search engines if you aren’t careful about your keyword strategy.
One issue marketers can encounter while increasing their production is keyword cannibalization, which can end up hurting search rankings instead of improving them.
Keep reading to learn what keyword cannibalization is, how to tell if it’s getting in the way of your SEO results, and discover the best ways to fix it.
What is keyword cannibalization?
Keyword cannibalization (also known as keyword overlap) happens when several pages on your website revolve around the same keyword or topic. Consequently, they compete with each other to rank, hurting your site’s organic performance.
On top of that, search engines can’t figure out which content to rank higher, and they might give a higher rank to a page you weren’t aiming to prioritize.
This doesn’t mean you can’t cover similar topics in multiple articles. The pages that are most at risk of competing with one another have two things in common: they target the same primary keyword and fulfill the same user intent.
Some keywords serve multiple search intents. The query “project management system,” for instance, has informational and commercial intent. You could write one article to serve each intent and have a much lower risk of creating a cannibalization issue.
Example of keyword cannibalization
Say you have two articles targeting the same keyword. One of them appears on the first page of relevant search results, but the other one (which you wanted to prioritize) isn’t showing up.
This is an example of cannibalization because one article is “eating up” traffic for the other page.
To get a better idea of how this works, let’s look at a potential real-life example using the keyword “email marketing strategy.”
Here you can see that Campaign Monitor has an article called “How to Plan Your Email Marketing Strategy for 2022” on the first page. If we search for the same keyword while filtering for Campaign Monitor’s website, more results turn up.
In a regular search, “How to Plan Your Email Marketing Strategy for 2022” has outranked all other articles on the same website.
But imagine if Campaign Monitor really wanted to prioritize the article titled “What Is an Email Marketing Strategy?” If that were the case, then there would probably be a cannibalization issue.
Why is cannibalization a problem for SEO?
Keyword cannibalization means two or more of your pages are competing against each other for higher search engine results page (SERP) rankings for a specific keyword.
Without a clear signal to search engines as to which page should rank higher, each page may end up appearing lower in the results, which decreases your content marketing ROI.
Think about it.
When two pages compete against one another, it’s like having a team with two players that want to outscore each other instead of working together to beat the competition.
At this point, you may be wondering, “Why does it matter?” If you have several pages ranking, that’s a good thing, right?
On June 6, 2019, Google launched a diversity algorithm update that set a goal of limiting each domain to only one or two appearances on page one search results. The goal was to increase the variety of domains that get exposed to searchers on the platform.
For marketers, this update meant the risk of cannibalization was suddenly much higher and could have a greater impact on their content’s ability to rank.
If your high-priority page doesn’t rank first, it may not be seen at all. You may also see URLs frequently switch positions for a particular keyword, which could make it harder for you to forecast organic traffic and quantify its value.
Cannibalization can also make it more difficult to achieve the first spot or top three rankings since the algorithm doesn’t know which page to rank. This may seem like a small consequence, but it can have a significant impact on your ability to drive organic traffic.
According to an analysis by First Page Sage, the top-ranked page on Google has an average click-through rate (CTR) of 39.8%, but average CTRs drop below 10% for articles ranked outside the top three.
In short, potential SEO issues caused by keyword cannibalization include:
The wrong URL (from your point of view) ranks for the target keyword
Pages frequently swap or change ranking positions
Multiple pages struggle to rank in top positions
The rank for a particular URL keeps changing
How to identify keyword cannibalization
When searching for keyword cannibalization problems, you want to look for webpages or articles that:
Are all having trouble in top positions on Google SERPs
Target the same primary keyword
Address the same user intent
Here are a few ways you can use Google Search and SEO performance tracking tools to identify which articles are competing against one another for the same keywords.
To use Google, search site:yourdomain.com “keyword" and replace “yourdomain.com” with your website and “keyword” with the primary keyword you want to target.
The SERP will show you a list of pages on your website that may rank for the given keyword. These are your potential cannibalization sources.
The next step is to see if cannibalization is causing any problems by checking your SEO metrics to see how well those articles rank for the particular keyword you’re targeting.
If your high-priority article is ranking #1, then you likely don’t have an issue.
But if the wrong article is ranking highest or you have multiple URLs with lower rankings, you may want to make some content changes.
Let’s look at how to fix keyword cannibalization in five simple steps.
How to fix keyword cannibalization
Audit your website content.
Analyze your content’s SEO performance.
Choose which articles to keep, merge, or delete.
Rewrite or redirect articles.
Optimize your internal linking strategy.
1. Audit your website content
Identify the main keywords that you want to check in your content audit. Next, run a Google site: search for each keyword to identify if you have different pages ranking for the same keywords.
Make a note of all the articles that target the same keyword and user intent. This is your list of potentially competitive pages.
2. Analyze your content’s SEO performance
Go to Google Search Console and navigate to the performance page. Filter the queries section to show search queries that contain your focus keyword.
Google Search Console will show you how many of your pages appear in the search results for that keyword. It will also show you the CTR and the total number of clicks for each article.
If you see you have multiple articles about the same keyword and with the same user intent, but only one or two of them receive the majority of the traffic, you know you’ve found a cannibalization issue.
3. Choose which articles to keep, merge, or delete
After you’ve identified the pages with cannibalization issues, there are three actions you can take for each: keep the content, merge it with another piece, or delete the page.
Pages that are earning traffic can be kept or merged with one another. In contrast, pages that appear in search results but aren’t earning any traffic are usually better off being deleted and redirected to one of the pages you’re keeping.
In addition to looking at your page performance in Google Search Console, you can use Google Search results to help determine which pages to keep. To do this, run a search for your primary keyword. The first article from your domain is most likely the one you want to keep.
But you can find others by typing “&filter=0” at the end of the URL and running the search again. Doing this removes Google’s host clustering filter, which automatically hides similar content from the same domain.
A search without host clustering will show you which other articles have relevant information that you may consider editing or merging with the main article.
For example, if you search “social media marketing strategy,” an article from Hootsuite is in the second position. But if you scroll down, you’ll see that no additional results for that domain appear in the top 20.
But, if you run a search without host clustering, two more Hootsuite pages pop up in positions 8 and 17.
To improve SEO performance, you could add information from the other two articles to the main one.
Or you could merge the articles in positions 8 and 17 together to create one in-depth article that targets “social media strategy for small businesses,” which is a slightly different keyword.
4. Rewrite or redirect articles
Once you’ve made a decision for each page, it’s time for some manual work.
For articles that you plan to get rid of, you need to delete them and redirect them to the main page’s URL.
If you’re combining any articles, you can use a content optimization tool like Clearscope to help decide what content to keep, how long your new article should be, and how best to structure it.
5. Optimize your internal linking strategy
Finally, you can optimize your internal linking structure to help search engines figure out which article you want to prioritize.
To do this, identify your cornerstone content pieces (the articles you want to rank highest) and make sure any other pages targeting similar keywords point to the high-priority pages.
In other words, you use backlinks from your own domain to create a structure where lower-priority pages support your cornerstone articles. This makes it easier for search algorithms to identify the most important pages on your domain.
How to avoid keyword cannibalization for future articles
Identifying and fixing keyword cannibalization follows a simple and straightforward process, but it can be time-consuming. You can avoid constant cannibalization fixes by adding these proactive steps to your SEO strategy.
1. Keep a running list of cornerstone content pieces
Maintain an active list of cornerstone content pages and the search terms they’re optimized for. Check new ideas against this list as part of your keyword research before you create content briefs.
2. Check existing content during keyword research
If you’re writing a new article on a given keyword, such as “on-page SEO,” do a site search before you create the content brief. Search site:yourdomain.com “on-page SEO” to find similar pages that may be too competitive.
3. Analyze keyword search intent
Look at competitive articles and see if there’s an overlap in user intent. If so, you may want to pause before you create a new piece of content that’s going to compete with existing articles.
4. Address potential keyword cannibalization issues
If you identify the potential for cannibalization issues, here are some ways you can change up your strategy.
Target a different user intent. You only want to use this for keywords that show multiple user intent opportunities.
Change your primary keyword. Look for relevant long-tail keywords that won’t compete with the original. For instance, if you already have pieces ranking for “on-page SEO,” you can change your content brief to target “on-page SEO for e-commerce websites.”
Delete the existing article. If the existing piece has been around for a few years and contains outdated information, you might be better off deleting it and creating a new page. If you do this, simply redirect the old article to your new one.
Update the existing blog. In some cases, you may decide to scrap the new piece altogether and focus on re-optimizing the existing page by adding or updating the information.
While creating new content is one of the most effective ways to rank higher in the SERPs, it’s not the only strategy available. Semrush’s report also found that 43% of content marketers saw higher rankings after updating content.
Final thoughts: How to identify and fix keyword cannibalization
Keyword cannibalization can negatively impact your content strategy and make it harder for Google to properly rank your pages. But the good news is that running a content audit to identify and fix cannibalization issues can help you rank higher for your most important queries.
Let Clearscope assist you during the merge and rewrite process. Our AI-powered platform can help you decide which content to include in the pieces you keep and ensure you cover the same topics as the competition.
Contact us today to request a demo.
Director of Marketing, Clearscope
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