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Keyword Cannibalization: How to Identify It, How to Fix It!


Fish Eating Fish


Keyword cannibalization is one of those SEO buzzwords that carries with it a certain myth and mythology. But behind the commonly held ethos of how keyword cannibalization is perceived lies a real problem that could impact your site and more importantly your bottom line. If you're wondering what keyword cannibalization is, what it's not, why it's a problem, and what you can do about it, then this post was written for you. If not, give it a read anyway, what do you have to lose?  



What Keyword Cannibalization Is and What It's Not - Sifting the Chaff of Myth from the Shell of Reality



Any good guide to SEO will talk about how to deal with keyword cannibalization. The problem is, so does every inaccurate article the SEO world has to offer. I'm going to cut right to the chase and tell you what keyword cannibalization is not. 


Sifting Dirt


The Popular Notions of Keyword Cannibalization - Also Known as What Keyword Cannibalization is Not 



Keyword cannibalization is not an inherent evil. It is not the end of your website as you know it. And it has nothing to do with keywords actually eating each other, that's just crazy. 

Oh, and keyword cannibalization is not the idea that if two of your pages rank on the SERP such rankings will be diluted and as such it is better to have just one of those pages ranking. Real keyword cannibalization has pretty much nothing to do with the idea that one of your ranking pages is "eating" the rank of another of your pages, or whatever misconstrued form of "rank devouring" you had in mind. 

In general, if a keyword brings up two (or more) of your pages on the SERP... rejoice! The chances of a user clicking on one of your pages is that much greater. Having more than one of your pages rank on a SERP also makes you look super authoritative, so what are you complaining about? And if Google is alternating between showing two of your pages, there's probably a good reason for it, such as a change in how it understands intent - so be happy you rank for both understandings! 


Why Is Keyword Cannibalization's Lost Rank Juice a Myth? 



I'm a big believer in using logic and sound analysis and applying that to SEO. So often we get caught up in a convoluted web of technicality. Google is not dumb. Google knows it's showing two of your pages and why should it care? Google doesn't care. Google cares about showing the best results to its users. Why would Google shoot itself in the foot and demote the rankings of two pages just because they come from the same site? If those are the two best pages, Google will rank them #1 and #2... if they're the fifth and sixth best pages... Google will rank them 5th and 6th. 

But doesn't having more than one site make Google look like it doesn't have a diverse set of results to offer (hence the search engine will demote sites with multiple pages showing)? No. And even if it did, how would moving a site down from showing in the 3rd position down to #8 help anything? If that were the case then why would Google even show the second (or third, or fourth) page from the site altogether (when indeed both pages show at the same time)? The logic does not stack up. 

Let's ask why Google would show two or more pages from the same site? Probably because each page represents a variation of the same topic. After all, we're not talking about duplicate content here.

Here's an example of where some of the content I wrote appears on the same SERP. For the keyword what is google knowledge panel two pieces of my content show up on page one (at the time of this writing): 


Multiple Pages Ranking


It's easy to see why (at least for me, who created both pieces of content) why both of these pages rank on the same SERP. The first ranking page is an extensive guide that would take some time to read through. The second page is what it says it is, an express guide (the page also includes a video). Same topic, but Google is meeting two different intents. Why would Google want to dilute the ranking of any of these two pages if they're on the SERP for two different reasons? 


Then What IS Keyword Cannibalization?



The myths of keyword cannibalization being debunked, just what is keyword cannibalization and why is it a problem? 

There are instances where legitimate keyword cannibalization exists. Before we get into that, I'm going to define keyword cannibalization a bit broadly. Keyword cannibalization is where ranking multiple times (most likely twice) on the same page (or ranking for one page one day and another the next and the like) negatively impacts your site. In truth, the term 'keyword cannibalization' is not the most accurate term, as you'll soon see. 


Real Keyword Cannibalization #1 - Conversion Collisons 


Collision



Keyword cannibalization comes into play when you have two pages on the same SERP, each representing a different level of the sales funnel. This is even more significant when you have the wrong "funnel level" represented higher up on the SERP (or when Google alternates between showing these two pages at different times). 

In other words, say you have two pages ranking well for the same keyword. One page is the page where you expect users to convert. The other page is meant to whet your users' appetites. Why spend all that time and money on the second page if it ranks below your "conversion" page and no one will ever see it (if Google is oscillating between ranking these two pages at all)? More, way more, are users going to actually convert if the first exposure they have to your site is pushing them to hand over the dollars? Ah, there's the rub (to quote Shakespeare). 

Having multiple pages ranking on the same SERP is great, until it destroys your sales funnel. 

I'm using an e-commerce example because it's the easiest to see the impact of multiple ranking pages, but there are endless cases where having one page rank above another on the same SERP could foul up your "processes." 

[Now you see why calling this 'keyword cannibalization' is a misnomer. One page isn't eating the other page, one page is not being devalued. Rather, one page is interfering with the process in which you engage your users.]


Real Keyword Cannibalization #2 - Watered Down Link Juice 




Last Thread


This theory goes as follows: Your page is link-worthy. People want to link to it, and that's great for so many reasons. However, if you have two pages that discuss the same topic (and hence rank for the same keywords) some sites will link to one page, and some sites the other page.

Think about it like this: Some great content writer is doing their research via Google search. They enter a query and see both of your pages on the SERP. They click one, love it, and link to it. The same thing happens with another wonderful content creator, except they click on the second page and link to that page. Now instead of having one powerfully linked page, you have two pages with some of that power, or, as the header here says, watered down link juice. 

I need to say something about this. While there is something to the reasoning, I'm not the biggest fan of this cannibalization theory (though, here too, the term keyword cannibalization is a bit bizarre). All things being equal, while your content may be similar, you wrote it for two different reasons. The intent behind the content's writing is most likely manifest. That means the reason why each page got a link is because of the unique take on the topic represented on it. Working under such auspices, had each content creator seen the "other" page you wrote, you may have walked away with zero links. (Which is why this theory is a bit more applicable when Google goes back and forth between ranking two of your pages for a given keyword.)  

Take my content on Knowledge Panels as an example (shown earlier). Someone may be trying to offer their users access to a quick look at the Knowledge Panel. Should they had only seen my souped-up comprehensive guide, they may not have linked to that. 

My point is, there is something to this watered down link juice theory, it just works both ways in certain instances. 



How to Find Keyword Cannibalization 



In the past, this process has been anything from daunting to complex to downright annoying (export something to a CSV, copy this, paste that, etc.). I'm going to show you how you can do this in seconds and in two easy steps. 

The obvious first step is identifying those keywords that put two (or more, but unless your site is a juggernaut who are you kidding) of your pages on the same SERP. 

You're going to need a tool for this. I mean you could plug in every single one of your keywords into Google and scroll through each and every page, but that's silly. I'm going to use our Rank Insights Fluctuations Report that includes a segment of keywords that have been potentially cannibalized, not just because it's our own tool, but because it doesn't require you to export anything into a CSV and sift through hundreds of rows of data, etc., etc., etc. 

In specific, I'm going to use the report to pull up the number of possible keyword cannibalization instances as well as the keywords and pages that might be impacted:


Possible Keyword Cannibalization Instances


So right away you can see we have three keywords here that are "cannibalized' (in potential). Next, we need to see to what extent are these pages being 'cannibalized'. Are these pages ranking on the same SERP every day or is this a one-time aberration? Should it be the latter, it's not really a concern and I can't imagine it's worth your time to deal with it (because as we'll see fixing this issue is not a matter of flipping a switch). Scratch that, it's not a matter of having the time to employ a fix, if you see a one-time instance of cannibalization and act on it, you could end up doing more harm than good. 

Below (and using another one of our reports, the Landing Page Monitor) is a great example of why you need to track the trends of both pages to see how the two pages are "interacting" on the SERP. Jaguar, the car manufacturer, offers the US market models that run on diesel fuel. They have a page dedicated to these models. Yet, on one fine September day, a page that showed all models appeared on the SERP for the keyword diesel luxury sedan. Of course, Jaguar, would not want a user to visit this page if they are specifically looking for a diesel model, especially since the page does not prominently indicate the fuel type for each model. Jaguar should optimize this, and change that, and redirect here... right? Hold on a second, let's take a look at the trends: 


One Time Ranking of Multiple Pages


This is a one-off instance. Google goofed, Google was testing something, whatever. That this page appeared instead of the dedicated page (which did not rank at all on September the 20th in the year of 2018) is an aberration. Why would you change anything (from a cannibalization perspective)? In fact, and as I mentioned, you could change something on the desired page that could do more harm than good. 

Here's a case where seeing the trends over time is all but a call to action. Have a look at Easy Jet's performance for the keyword europe flights


Easy Jet Keyword Cannibalization


Google goes back and forth on a very consistent basis between showing the site's page for US flights and a page for cheap flights. They don't show at the same time, but that's a serious cannibalization problem right there. Why would you want your US flights showing up for a keyword trying to target "Europe flights?"

[Here's a video for a visual look at how to find cases of keyword cannibalization.]




How to Fix Keyword Cannibalization




Digital Wrench


There are a few ways to go about effectively dealing with keyword cannibalization. The option you choose often depends on the issue at hand, i.e., why you consider multiple ranking pages to be "cannibalization" and not a benefit. It should go without saying that what I present is not every imaginable fix possible, but some of the more common and most effective methods.


Content Alterations: The most obvious way to deal with keyword cannibalization is to change your content around so that one of the pages no longer ranks for the keyword. You'd obviously have to determine which page you want ranking on the SERP and which page you don't. The general idea here is to change the content focus so that it's no longer applicable for that keyword (pay attention to your headers, keyword usage, 'semantic SEO', that sort of thing). 

I have two words for you here - unintended consequences. There's always the chance that when you deoptimize a page for a given keyword you will lose ranking for another keyword the page ranked for. Of course, you also have to consider what it takes to rank for the new keyword you're targeting. It pays to keep a close eye on your page's rankings after such an undertaking. 


301 Redirects: It's possible that the pages are too similar. That is, what are you going to do if the content on both pages is just too similar? How can you revise the content? Take the case of my Knowledge Panel articles. What else am I going to rank for other than Knowledge Panel keywords? No amount of content alteration is going to change anything most likely. 

In such instances going with a 301 redirect and "combining" the pages might be a good option. Going with a 301 redirect is the perfect solution if you're worried about the "link juice dilution" issue that we discussed above, as the redirect passes along the "link power" from one page to the other. 

This option, of course, would be a terrible idea if the cannibalization issue you're facing revolved around a conversion page ranking above or instead of a top funnel page when the latter is the page you want ranking for the keyword. The last thing you want to do is merge these two pages. 


Canonical Tags: This is for instances where the pages are just the same thing regurgitated in different ways (or not). By applying the tag to a page you're telling Google which of the two pages a user is meant to see. You're not merging the two pages as you are with a 301, but more telling Google which page is more important and as such which one should and should not rank. 


Deindexation: Lastly, you can remove one of the "competing" pages from Google's index. This is a bit of an extreme measure that makes no sense for a page that has some power to it in that it ranks well and is something you want users to find. However, should this competing page not be as such you could simply choose to deindex it. For example, if the competing page is one that users only access as result of completing a transaction or something similar, and as such would have no use for it if found via search, deindexing it might be a good idea. (In most instances, it would probably have been a good idea never to have indexed it to begin with.) That would pretty much take care of any chance it would have to rank. 



With Keyword Cannibalization... Chew Slowly 




Eating Ice Cream


Should two or more of your pages rank for a keyword, either simultaneously or alternatingly, don't jump to conclusions. Chances are, and this considers the advancements Google has made in meeting user intent, your multiple appearances are a good thing. When it's not, there are fixes and as I've shown you, finding these instances doesn't have to be a hurdle towards making improvements. We've made great strides in keyword cannibalization identification. But with all of that advancement, I think it's important to make sure you don't overlook the opportunity that keyword cannibalization offers you... an inside look into how Google understands intent

Whether your multiple appearances are or are not problematic, the most important thing may very well be the taking advantage of intent insights. Google is showing that second page for a reason. That reason most likely relates to how the search engine understands intent for the keyword. Take advantage of that. Analyze why Google showed that second page and capitalize on that knowledge. In other words... consume and digest the intent insights Google is offering you when keyword cannibalization presents itself to you! 




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