Keyword cannibalisation is where multiple pages target the same keywords. This results in them fighting each other for ranking within Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) and can sometimes reduce the authority of all pages involved.
By having multiple pages targeting the same keywords, internal linking can become confused, particularly in terms of horizontal linking. This is because your internal anchor text may match multiple pages but can only link to one, meaning some pages link to one version while other pages link to another. External linking can also be an issue when multiple external sites link to multiple pages on the same topic.
This causes link equity (from both external links and from link equity passed through internal linking) to be spread across multiple pages instead of consolidated at one point, causing all pages targeting the keyword to have reduced authority.
A less useful page could rank higher
Due to the issues determining page authority and the fact multiple pages are targeting the same keywords, search engines could potentially rank a less useful page higher (even one which leads to less conversions). Essentially, the more keyword cannibalisation, the less control you have over what is shown in the SERPs.
Types of keyword cannibalisation
Duplicate (or very similar) content
Sites often have duplicate content which, when not properly handled, can cause keyword cannibalisation issues.
Sometimes a site has multiple pages that are all similar versions of a master version, and must return a 200 status code for users (campaign landing pages are an example of this). In this instance, external links will be split across the multiple versions, meaning link equity is split too.
Canonicalisation can help reduce duplicate content and keyword cannibalisation issues seen as the result of user-focused pages, like unhandled tracking parameters or campaign landing pages. Canonicalising these pages to a master version mean they will still return a 200 status code (and therefore be accessible to users) but will pass link equity to the master version.
A canonical tag should also keep these pages out of the index, although you should bare in mind canonical tags are a hint and not a directive, and may be ignored by search engines.
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Some sites amass a large amount of content that targets the same keywords without realising what they are doing. This can occur when a site has multiple articles around the same topic, often written by different people who did not realise they were repeating content. Both pages have likely already amassed internal and external backlinks, meaning authority is split between them.
These pages could be consolidated to one page which will be stronger and should rank higher than a single page suffering from cannibalisation.
If the page does not need to return a 200 status code, like in the above example, a 301 redirect to the master version of a page would be preferable to a canonical tag. This is because 301 redirects are more definitive than canonical tags and do not leave the decision to the search engine.
To consolidate pages into one, we recommend identifying the strongest page (possibly the page with the most external links) and testing this as a master page. It may need to be updated to contain any relevant content from the other cannibalised pages. These other cannibalised pages should then be 301 redirected to the master page.
If it’s necessary to keep a cannibalised page indexable, we recommend altering the content so that different pages match different search intent, and targeting long-tail queries.
For example if you have two articles on quitting smoking, you could make one about the health risks of smoking and the other about how to stop smoking, this way they’ll no longer be competing. This option should be carefully considered however, since it may mean the page is less relevant to the anchor text linking to it. Internal linking can be updated to reflect changes however external links may be more difficult to change.
Keyword cannibalisation can occur when pages are notably different, but have meta titles (otherwise known as page titles or title tags) targeting the same or similar keywords. Meta titles are a ranking signal, used by search engines to gain context on page content. Keyword cannibalisation in meta titles often occurs when meta titles are too general.
For example, a site may have a page targeting women’s jackets and another page targeting women’s parkas, but both pages have the meta title “Womens Coats”. Not only are the pages cannibalising each other, they are also likely cannibalising the parent category of Women’s Coats.
Meta descriptions may also be affected by keyword cannibalisation. While meta descriptions are not a ranking signal, they may affect your click-through rate (CTR) since they give users an understanding of page context. Cannibalised meta descriptions may look spammy and repetitive and could potentially decrease CTR.
Duplicate metadata can be audited by crawling the site with the Screaming Frog SEO Spider and extracting Page Titles and Meta Descriptions.
To ease this issue, metadata should be updated to be more specific to the page they represent. This will make it easier for both search engines and bots to differentiate between pages, and will reduce keyword competition with less specific pages, (such as the parent category page in the above example).
Sometimes metadata can help uncover other keyword cannibalisation issues such as duplicate content. It is important to investigate any duplicate metadata, seen in the Screaming Frog SEO Spider, that is not properly handled by a canonical tag or other similar method.
Keyword cannibalisation considerations
Cannibalisation issues may not always be seen in content
It is important when auditing for keyword cannibalisation to look not just at the content within the <body> but also the content within the <head> to ensure metadata is not contributing to any cannibalisation issues.
An important thing to consider when creating or auditing content is the search intent the content targets. If two pages target the same or similar search queries, there will likely be cannibalisation issues. Additionally, if two pages offer a user the same experience they should be consolidated to ensure authority is as strong as possible.
Is it important to keep content accessible?
If content must be kept accessible, it will not be possible to consolidate it. If that’s the case, it can either be canonicalised to an appropriate location or updated to target different, more specific queries.
Avoiding keyword cannibalisation in the future
Know your pages
When creating or commissioning content, it is important to know what is already on your site, including knowing the keywords your page’s target. (Don’t worry, guidance on how to identify your site’s keywords is covered in a later module).
Keep duplicate content in check
When creating new pages it is always worth considering if the pages are duplicates of anything else on the site – particularly if the page is user-focused, like a campaign landing page. If the pages are duplicate, they should be properly canonicalised.
To ensure duplicate metadata is not causing a cannibalisation issue, it is important to crawl the site regularly and extract metadata for analysis. When duplicate metadata is found and is not properly handled (by a canonical tag, for example) treat it as a potential issue and investigate!