As a business owner relying on your website to sell and advertise products or services, you probably know a thing or two about search engine optimisation (SEO). Using the right keywords on your web pages can attract new customers and increase your chances of making sales. But watch out! There’s a sneaky pitfall that can undo all your hard work: keyword cannibalisation.
What is keyword cannibalisation?
Keyword cannibalisation is kind of like a metaphorical self-cannibalisation for websites. You’re probably familiar with the concept of true cannibalisation — think the TV series Hannibal on Hulu. Keyword cannibalisation is similar, but it happens when a website ‘eats’ itself by ranking for the same keywords on multiple pages. It’s a problem because search engines (Google in particular) don’t tend to show more than one piece of content from the same website in any given page of search results. Even if they do, searchers are only likely to click on one piece of content.
Usually, keyword cannibalisation occurs when a website publishes two very similar pages or posts. These two posts end up competing with each other in search engine results. The result? The potential ranking of each piece of content is halved, often resulting in much more than a 50% decrease in total web traffic (the impact depends on where in the search results the pages ‘should’ be ranking — the impact is far higher for first page content than content on subsequent pages of the search results).
Examples of keyword cannibalisation
Let’s say a small gym’s website has multiple blog posts starting with the keyword phrase ‘Fitness tips for beginners’. For instance, they might have two articles called ‘Fitness tips for beginners starting aerobics’ and ‘Fitness tips for beginners wanting to gain muscle’. If someone searches for ‘fitness tips for beginners’, Google won’t know which piece of content to show.
Another example could be a website that includes the name of its product in the titles of most of its pages. Imagine a product called ‘The Amazing XYZ’. Pages like ‘About The Amazing XYZ’, ‘The history of The Amazing XYZ’, and ‘Where to get The Amazing XYZ’ would all compete against each other in search engine results for the keyword ‘The Amazing XYZ’.
How to identify cannibalised keywords
Although it can be time-consuming, identifying cannibalised keywords on your website isn’t too difficult. The best way to do this is by searching for keywords you think might be overused on your site in a search engine. Narrow down your search to just your website by adding the tag ‘site:xyz.com’ in front of your search query, replacing ‘xyz.com’ with your domain name. E.g. The gym owner might search ‘fitness tips for beginners site:GarrysFitnessGym.com’.
As you search, note down the site pages and posts that show up in the results with the same keywords in their titles. These are your competing pages, and you’ll want to fix them, if possible.
Ways to prevent keyword cannibalisation
As with most things, prevention is the best medicine. So, try implementing these best practices in your business.
Switch your focus from keywords to content
A great way to prevent keyword cannibalisation is to prioritise content quality and let keywords appear naturally. Avoid writing posts centred around a single keyword or phrase; instead, focus on topics your customers and clients are interested in.
When you’re not trying to stuff keywords into your content, it’s easier to read, and you’ll avoid cannibalisation.
Create in-depth pages instead of short blog posts
A great SEO strategy is to opt for comprehensive, content-rich pages over short blog posts that barely scratch the surface. Doing this also prevents multiple similar blog posts from overlapping in search results. If we take the above example of the fitness articles, one article on ‘Fitness tips for beginners — from aerobics to building muscle and beyond’ would be more comprehensive and would rank better than either of the individual articles. And if if ‘fitness tips for beginners starting aerobics’ is a good keyword too, Google will pick that up in a level 2 heading within the article. It’s not necessary to have that keyword in the article title to rank for it.
Research and plan your keywords carefully
Content research is essential for a website’s long-term success. One of the best ways to avoid keyword cannibalisation is to map out the keywords you want to target in a mind map, showing how they’re all connected. Then you can write a single piece of detailed content on each keyword and you’ll know how to link each piece to the content you’ve previously published. Then whenever you want to add new keywords, you can add them to your mind map.
How to fix cannibalisation if your site is affected
If you’ve already been accidentally breeding a cannibal site, you’ve got several options for remedying the situation.
Remove or substitute cannibalised keywords
If you notice several pages or posts using the same keywords, consider rewriting them so the keywords are siloed in single pieces of content. In some cases, there might be related keywords you could substitute in to help you rank for additional keywords. The example above of several pages with the product name in them is a good example of when this works well. In such instances, it’s best to use the product name on the product purchase page, and then target other keywords on the related pages. A great option is to write pages on the various pain points that are resolved by the product.
Combine posts with overused keywords
This is my favourite way to fix cannibalised keywords. If you find two or more pieces of content on your site that rank for the same keywords, combine them into a single piece of content. If you’re a little tech savvy or have the right tools to do it automatically, you can also tell search engines to redirect traffic intent on the original content pieces, so visitors end up on the new combined piece. (This also means you won’t lose your existing rankings for the original content pieces.)
When doing this, it’s also a great idea to take the opportunity to see if your audience wants to know anything else about the topic. If so, expand the combined piece even further for better results.
Delete some posts
As a last resort, you might need to delete a blog post or two that competes with another on your website. This will definitely eliminate keyword cannibalisation, but only do it if the keywords can’t be substituted or there’s no value in combining the pieces of content. This is usually only necessary if content creators have accidentally created content for identical keywords — e.g. if you forget you’ve already got content on a topic. But even then, there’s usually something of value in each piece of content, even if it’s only a heading or paragraph that’s better worded in one of the duplicate content pieces.
In a nutshell: conquer keyword cannibalisation and boost your website’s success
Keyword cannibalisation can wreak havoc on your website and, in turn, your online business. It occurs when a website competes with itself in search engine results, vying for the attention of potential readers. But don’t worry, there are several simple strategies you can use to both prevent keyword cannibalisation and treat the problem if you accidentally promote it on your site.
All it takes is careful planning, a focus on high-quality content, and using keywords judiciously in comprehensive pages rather than short posts. So, get your website in tip-top shape and watch your online presence flourish!