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Keyword Cannibalization – 5 Options For Ranking The Right Page

Over the last decade, Google’s machine learning based algorithms have gotten substantially better at linking topics and understanding relevancy. That being said, it’s still a computer run algorithm and it’s still far from perfect.

Which is why more often than not, Google won’t be able to tell if one page is more suited to a specific keyword than another on your site. Especially if you’ve been creating content for a number of years, it’s quite likely your site has covered the same topic more than once.

Even on this very site, I’ve actually covered the topic of keyword research using SEMRush twice –

This means I could potentially be hurting my overall keyword ranking, having 2 pages for Google to battle between which one it should rank (And potentially assigning similar ranking values) could cause you from ever getting in to the top 3 at all.

Now, sometimes it is important to have content on your website that covers the same topic, or covers it in a slightly different way or perhaps even in a different year.. But there are ways around “laser focusing” pages to rank even whilst others may be of a similar nature in Google’s eyes but we’ll get on to those at the end.

In this guide, I aim to give you an exact understanding of what keyword cannibalization is, the options you have to deal with it, when to use each specific option to it’s right and how to prioritize one pages rankings over another.

What Is Keyword Cannibalization?

Keyword cannibalization is when the wrong page on your website is ranking within Google’s search engine results pages for the wrong keyword, or keywords or when you have multiple pages ranking for the same keyword when you just want one. 

This is normally due to the website targeting the same (or similar) keywords on multiple pages. Most SEOs believe that this causes Google’s algorithms to become “confused” and thus assign similar ranking values to the page. This is why you’ll often see these 2 pages ranking closely together in the SERPs, but normally not very high up if on page number one.

How To Find Keyword Cannibalization On Your Site

Without manually identifying the cannibalization by seeing pages ranking in the SERPs, identifying keyword cannibalization can be very difficult. You’ll likely need at least one tool (Such as Ahrefs or Moz) to be able to mass scrape Google for you, rather than having rank trackers track every keyword you can find or think of.

If you don’t have one of those tool subscriptions, then we will be covering how to manually scrape cannibalization issues later on in the guide.

Finding Cannibalization With Ahrefs

If you happen to own an Ahrefs subscription (Which most good SEOs in 2020 should have by now) then they’ve put together a 5 step Google sheet that’ll automatically identify any keywords that are potentially cannibalized by multiple pages.

  1. Make a copy of the template sheet here.
  2. Export a FULL REPORT (Not the “quick report”) of your organic positions within Ahrefs.
  3. Select the first tab on sheet #1 of the template, click “File” then “Import” and upload your organic positions report.
  4. When you’re prompted to import the data, simply select the check box “Append to current sheet” and click the big green “Import Data” button – Then wait up to 60 seconds.
  5. Click your “Results” column and you’ll be given a list of every keyword in the report that is cannibalized by multiple pages.

You’ll end up with a report that looks something like this –

Ahrefs has by far the quickest method to identify cannibalized pages using this Google sheet, the other methodology all require manual sifting through data and mostly still need a tool subscription to be able to carry out anyway.


Finding Cannibalization Manually

Unless you have a list of each of your keywords and use a scraper extension, you’ll require a subscription to Ahrefs, Moz or SEMRush and be able to extract the organic position data from one of those tools. So you’re never really manually doing this sort of work anyway.

Note: Some of these tools have different subscription levels which will give you access to more or less data. Make sure to look at how many exports you’re getting on your subscription level so that you have enough data for the size of the site you’re analyzing! 

The 5 Options To Deal With Keyword Cannibalization

The most important thing you can do when trying to carry out a proper re-optimization campaign for keyword cannibalization is choosing the correct option. You don’t want to Noindex a page that has all the link juice, you don’t want to 301 a page that has the most relevant content and you don’t want to delete a page that users use every single day.

There are only really 5 core ways to deal with keyword cannibalization, so I’ll try to best explain which one is used for which specific scenario.. But this one takes some level of your own common sense to understand which is best for your own site. 

Warning: I do not take responsibility for you picking the wrong option on your page! I will try to give explanations around which options are best suited to which scenarios though.

Option #1 – Merge The Pages / Content

If you have a new piece of content but your outdated one is ranking, or if you have 2 pieces of content that target similar things but could be combined to create a much better page for the end user experience then this is the option for you.

The best way to get an understanding of how you need to merge the 2 pages together is by first analyzing your competitors in the SERP for things like word length, image use, backlink count/quality and topical authority around that keyword.

Once you know how long the page needs to be, and how many images you need to insert into it. You can then go through each post combining & stripping content until it is up to date with the latest info, has the relevant optimized headers and imagery used. 

Make sure not to use the same image twice or repeat similar sentences. Remember you can always make small edits to make the entire piece gel together much easier, and it’s always worth doing some competitor analysis to see if you need to add more to the piece to match your competitors average word length.

Option #2 – Canonical Tag

The canonical tag was introduced by Google as a way to keep pages live on a site for users, but tell search engines to treat a page as if it were another. Sounds confusing, because Google made it quite confusing. 

However, implementing the tag itself couldn’t be simpler.

All you have to do is insert your URL into the example code below and then add it to your cannibalizing problem page – 

<link href=”https://example.com/target-page” rel=”canonical”>

An example would be to add this code into the header of page A that is cannibalizing page B. Make sure you’re always using this rel tag in the header, or Google’s bots won’t be able to detect and utilize it. 

Option #3 – Delete The Page / 404

This option is for the most extreme circumstances. Where you think a page needs removing completely AND it doesn’t offer any relevancy to the page it is currently cannibalizing OR it has bad backlinks and you don’t want to point it at your new page, potentially jeopardizing the new pages rankings.

Most CMSs have a trash can utility for pages that simply allow you to move a page into the trash, however if you’re using a custom made site you made need to delete the page within your hosts FTP or cPanel (or something similar) CMS.

Option #4 – 301 Redirects

One of the easiest methods to fix cannibalization is 301 redirects. If you don’t know what a 301 redirect is, it’s essentially what it says on the tin.. Redirecting one URL to another.

Now, the key issue with 301s is that Google has come out and explicitly said they limit the amount of “link juice” that passes through each 301 redirect. This is why you want to try and make one URL redirect straight to another, and not cause multiple redirects to create what is called a redirect chain. 

Once you’ve identified your pages that are cannibalized and you want to go down the 301 method, we want to ask ourselves a series of questions:

  • Which page has the best URL for the job?
  • Which page has the best OnPage?
  • Which page is the oldest & most established?

And finally, and most importantly, which page has the most (and strongest/best) backlinks. You then want to 301 any other pages at this page, though bear in mind you could potentially lose additional longtail traffic from 301’ing pages with differing content.

How To Do A 301 Redirect

It all depends on your CMS, if you’re using something such as WordPress then they have an extensive range of redirect management plugins like Redirection by John Godley. If you are using an ECommerce based CMS like Shopify or Magento, these will also have a variety of free and paid addons.

Alternatively, you can either use a built in redirect management on the backend of your host like cPanel.. Or you can directly edit your .htaccess file by setting up permanent 301s, though I don’t recommend editing your .htaccess file unless you explicitly know how to configure one.

Option #5 – NoIndex

This is the last option in the list because it’s the most simple option – You want a page still within your website, so users can access it, but you don’t want any search engines crawling or indexing the page.

If you’re looking to NoIndex a page, you need to insert the following meta tag into the specific pages header –

<meta name=”robots” content=”noindex”>

This meta tag will disallow all bots from indexing the page, not just Google, but you can do a simple edit of the meta tag to disallow just Google specifically –

<meta name=”googlebot” content=”noindex”>

Note: You can have both of the above meta tags on a page at once.

How To Prioritize One Page From Being Cannibalized

You might have 2 very similar pages, but want to keep both of them in the SERPs.. For example, I could have a page targeting “SEO Consultant” and “SEO Consultant Firm” – They’re 2 slightly different keywords with 2 slightly different intents. Google can very easily get confused on which one it should rank for what keyword, or just simply prioritize one page and not rank the other at all.

So, how do we go about making sure Google is ranking the right page for the right keyword? We de-optimize the pages for the one variation and internally optimize for the target variation.

To take our Consultant vs Consultant Firm example quite literally, we would remove any mentions of the word “firm” or it’s synonyms from the consultant page –

 

Tip: You can very easily use the tool from the picture above to find synonym variations of the word, and just do a search on the page to remove any mentions of those words.

You also want to make sure you’re optimizing your meta title with the exact match keywords used, and are removing those synonym variants from any other crawlable bit of code like schema or a social meta tag/card.

We are then going to want to internally link the pages between each other with ONE link (It’s extremely important that you only do one link from each page on the other) using the exact match keyword variation. In our example, we would link with the word “SEO Consultant Firm” from our SEO Consultant page.

You can also look for additional internal linking opportunities on the site to use the keywords and it’s variants to internally link to. 

Conclusion

Keyword cannibalization can cause major issues for website owners and SEOs looking to rank for target pages. Luckily, it’s one of the problems that we can fix and can have HUGE changes in traffic for our clients websites and our own sites.

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I hope this guide gave you a complete overview of how to find and fix issues with keyword cannibalization, if you had any questions then drop them in the comments and if you have a spare 30 seconds I’d appreciate you sharing this post amongst your SEO friends!

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Craig Campbell

I am a Glasgow based SEO expert who has been doing SEO for 18 years.

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