Keyword cannibalization is one of the most misunderstood SEO concepts.
In fact, some SEOs even claim that it doesn't exist, further adding to this confusion and resulting in even more myths. But the reality is that keyword cannibalization is an issue for many websites, and it absolutely can hold back your rankings.
It is just probably not what you think it is.
And, with this in mind, let's set the record straight and help you to understand what it is, what itis not and how you can find and fix issues that could be preventing your site from reaching its full potential.
What is Keyword Cannibalization in SEO?
All too often, keyword cannibalization is explained as being something that happens when you have more than one page on your site that target the same keyword — that one page cannibalizes the other's ability to rank and neither perform as well as they should, do.
But this isn't quite the case.
Just because two or more pages on your website are optimized for the same keyword, it doesn't automatically mean that neither can rank.
Keyword Cannibalization is an Issue of Intent
Keyword cannibalization is all about intent.
So much so that the issue could better be referred to as 'keyword intent cannibalization.'
See the SERPs for 'Macbook Pro'?
Apple.com has two different pages ranking in organic positions #1 and #2 for this term. Perhaps not a surprise that they are the top result, but if the assumption that two pages optimized for the same keyword will prevent each other from ranking, surely we should see a different result here?
But let's look at these pages in a little more detail.
Here is the top-ranked page:
We can clearly see that this is Apple's main Macbook Pro page, offering an overview of the product, including a simple model comparison.
The assumed intent of a user browsing this page is that they are looking for more information on the product while they are in the research stage of their purchase journey. It is an informational page.
The other result that ranks just below this is the 'Buy Macbook Pro' page:
This page is more a traditional category page that is targeted at those who have done their research and are considering making a purchase. Therefore, we see further detail on pricing, specs, and more. This page is transactional rather than being informational — it is a clear part of the buying process.
The intent of these two pages is totally different.
The first is to help introduce the Macbook Pro and easily compare the different models available, while the second exists to help someone who is considering buying to find the exact specification that they are looking for, and start making their purchase.
These two pages can exist (and rank) alongside each other without causing any confusion to either users or search engines.
When Multiple Pages Exist With the Same Intent, You Have a Cannibalization Issue
The main thing to remember is that "multiple pages optimized for the same keyword" is not cannibalization unless the intent of these pages is the same.
When this happens, you are essentially competing against yourself.
In fact, Google's John Mueller was asked on a Reddit AMA a couple of years back: "How is keyword cannibalization seen by Google? People believe that having multiple pages about the same topic confuses search engines and that hurts their chances of ranking."
John's response was:
We just rank the content as we get it. If you have a bunch of pages with roughly the same content, it's going to compete with each other, kinda like a bunch of kids wanting to be first in line, and ultimately someone else slips in ahead of them :). Personally, I prefer fewer, stronger pages over lots of weaker ones - don't water your site's value down.
Think about it this way:
If you have two or more pages that target exactly the same intent, which of these should rank? Which one is the most useful for users?
There as a good chance that you wouldn't actually be able to answer these questions, because there likely isn't a right answer. Keyword cannibalization pretty much always happens by accident — when new pages are published over time without consideration of what already exists.
If you can't choose which page is the one that should rank, how can you expect Google to do so?
True keyword cannibalization issues mean that you are effectively asking a search engine's algorithm to choose which one to rank.
While sometimes there are stronger ranking signals pointing to one, often there isn't. In this case, what happens is that neither rank as well as they could have; the pages cannibalize each other's ability to perform.
But, that said, it is a significant issue that affects many websites, and cleaning these up is a key task that should form part of your wider SEO strategy.
Examples of Keyword Cannibalization & How They Can Hinder Your Website's Performance
Keyword cannibalization can cause a number of different issues and can hinder your website's performance in various ways.
Some of the more common cannibalization issues that can happen include:
Ranked URLs Keep Changing in the SERPs
Have you found that a URL that ranks for a particular keyword keeps changing? This is a common sign of keyword cannibalization and typically means that Google isn't able to figure out which page is the one that should rank.
In the example below, you can see this happening, where multiple URLs keep switching in and out for a keyword.
Essentially, there are confusing, and conflicting signals are at play.
While this can mean that positions fluctuate, this can also have a negative impact on your user's experience and conversion path; especially when one page converts users at a much higher rate than the other.
Your Ranking Position Keeps Fluctuating
This ranking fluctuation usually happens alongside URLs changing. You may have spotted that your ranking position for a keyword keeps fluctuating, often excessively.
This can happen as a result of keyword cannibalization when URLs are changing, and conflicting signals mean that the ranking position fluctuates accordingly.
If one page has earned more links than another, yet there is a clear conflict of intent and overall content quality, this can mean that your organic traffic can also fluctuate quite noticeably if one of the URLs ranks in a prominent position for a high-volume term.
You Are Struggling to Increase A Keyword's Ranking
Sometimes you feel like you should see an increase in ranking, yet your site seems to be stuck. Especially when you know you have earned great links and created great content. This can be frustrating but is a common issue caused by keyword cannibalization.
Essentially, what is happening here is that the authority of your pages is being split across two or more, rather than one, and neither page is ranking as strongly as your site should be.
Links are a primary ranking factor, and when link authority is split across multiple URLs, this can cause even further confusion with conflicting signals.
If your rank just isn't increasing, run a check for cannibalization issues.
The Wrong URL Ranks
Sometimes, you will find that the wrong URL ranks for a keyword.
This might be a single product ranking for a keyword that you associate with a category or subcategory, or perhaps simply a different piece of content to the one you think should be ranking — maybe one that was published years ago.
Here is a great example of a blog post from 2011 that ranks in top spots, rather than a recently launched page:
When this happens, it is likely that cannibalization is the cause of the issue and that the 'wrong' URL is deemed to be more relevant than the one that you are trying to rank.
This, in turn, can have a negative impact on conversion rates if it is the wrong page that users are landing on.
Issues That Aren't Actually Keyword Cannibalization
Just as it is important to understand the issues caused by keyword cannibalization, it is equally as important that you know what isn't a problem.
Remember, we used Apple as an example right at the start of this guide?
On a search for 'Macbook Pro,' Apple actually holds the #1 and #2 spots – this isn't keyword cannibalization.
Holding more than one ranking position for a keyword, especially when these are in top spots, isn't cannibalization, and there is nothing to fix here.
After all, occupying multiple positions is a great thing, in this situation.
How to Check for Keyword Cannibalization Issues
There are a few different ways that you can check for cannibalization issues, both with free tools and using SEMrush.
SEMrush's Position Tracking Tool
You will find cannibalization as an option:
There are two options when it comes to using this tool. You can view potential issues either by 'pages' or by 'keyword' to quickly find opportunities to begin fixing.
It makes sense to start by looking at the keyword view, given that you will most commonly be looking at cannibalization on a keyword-by-keyword basis.
You can analyze any given keyword and see where multiple URLs are ranking, and the positions that they are appearing in to prioritize opportunities — considering the search volume, estimated traffic, and current ranking position.
You can also use the position tracking tool to analyze URL fluctuations that could point to a cannibalization issue and can see a keyword's history by expanding out the arrow next to the search term.
Using these features of the tool can help you to identify issues at a top-level and determine when this began and the pages that are cannibalizing one another.
Google Search Console
Google Search Console can be a great tool for finding cannibalization issues.
Head to the performance report, and you will see, by default, a list of queries that your site has earned impressions and clicks from. Click into one of these queries, via the 'pages' tab, and you will see a list of the URLs that rank for it and the associated stats.
Side Note: GSC aggregates data and shows an average; you should pay attention to the location/device/etc. filters and use them to get more accurate results.
If there is more than one URL showing, this could be as a result of keyword cannibalization.
Site: Search Operator
Use the "site:[domain] keyword" search operator straight on Google to find a list of pages that are deemed relevant and optimized for a specific keyword.
If you believe you are suffering from cannibalization, analyze the intent of these pages and roll out fixes where necessary to ensure that only a single page is targeting a specific intent.
How to Fix Keyword Cannibalization on Your Site
Once you have identified that keyword cannibalization issues exist on your site, it is time to fix these.
But first things first, you need to understand that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to do this and that the path you take to fixing the issues very much depends on the individual circumstances.
Put simply, the way to resolve one cannibalization issue probably won't be the same as another. There are common fixes for you to turn to when it is the right time to do so. These include...
Remove and Redirect Cannibalized Pages
If you find that your site has multiple pages that are targeting the same intent, but that you only need to keep one of these live, the best way to clean up the problems is usually by putting in place 301 redirects.
Once you have identified the strongest of the pages that are cannibalizing (consider inbound links pointing to the pages, organic visibility across other terms, and historic traffic as signals to help make your decision), simply remove the others and 301 redirect their URLs to the page that is remaining.
This is usually the simplest way to fix cannibalization issues.
Be sure to also update any internal links that pointed to the pages that you remove, but aside from that, you should see the removed URLs drop out of Google's index over a period of a few weeks.
Sometimes, you don't have the ability to remove the cannibalized pages and keep just the one. This might be a page that is a dedicated PPC landing page, is simply a great piece of content from a user-experience perspective, or the CMS restrictions are causing page duplication or another reason entirely.
But, when this is the case, consider using canonicalization to help you sort the problems out.
Doing so will mean that you are able to select one page as the primary one, therefore indicating that as the one that should rank on the SERP, as well as ensuring that ranking signals, such as link equity, are attributed to the canonical page.
None of the pages will need to be removed, and they can still all be accessed by users.
Just like with using canonicalization, if, for whatever reason, you are unable to delete and redirect the problematic pages, implementing rel="noindex" tags (or an HTTP Response Header) on all but the page you have chosen as your primary page can often be just as effective.
Taking this approach means that all pages can still exist on the site, yet all except one page will be de-indexed — therefore resolving the cannibalization issues.
That said, canonicalization should be used in preference over noindex given that ranking signals are attributed to the canonical, whereas they otherwise won't be.
Use this approach with caution.
Don't make a mistake and combine canonicalization and noindex, given that the two signals are contradictory pieces of information, as stated by John Mueller:
Noindex (alone) & robots.txt disallow (in general) are not clear signs for canonicalization. Just having a noindex on a page doesn't tell us that you want to have it combined with something else, and that signals should be forwarded.
This is also where the guide that you shouldn't mix noindex & rel=canonical comes from: they're very contradictory pieces of information for us. We'll generally pick the rel=canonical and use that over the noindex, but any time you rely on interpretation by a computer script, you reduce the weight of your input :) (and SEO is to a large part all about telling computer scripts your preferences).
If you aren't careful, you will end up sending conflicting signals and potentially risk attributing ranking signals to your primary page.
Noindex can be useful when you need to resolve cannibalization issues caused by thin content that has no links pointing to it and doesn't receive any organic traffic; think tag pages on your blog, as an example.
Often, you find that you have inadvertently caused cannibalization at the metadata level simply by not optimizing for keyword variations.
As an example, let's say you run an eCommerce store and sell a product in three different colors.
Time and time again, it is common to see product variations on unique URLs but with the same title tag, H1 tag, and no clear differentiation between the variants except the image.
In this instance, you can re-optimize the pages to target clear variations and resolve cannibalization issues.
Reworking Your Internal Linking Structure
In some instances, you can contribute to fixing cannibalization issues by reworking your internal linking structure, especially when you are using exact match anchor text that points to different pages.
Reworking internal links to ensure that these are set up correctly to point to the right page (not a cannibalized version) can help to clean up issues. However, on its own, it is usually not enough to fix the issue outright.
Take this approach in conjunction with cleaning up pages that compete for intent to see better success.
Merging and Consolidating Pages
In cases when you find that you have two (or more) weaker pages that are cannibalizing one another due to competing on intent, it makes sense to merge and consolidate these into a single page. Essentially, you are creating one stronger page from multiple weaker ones.
Whereas when you have one clear primary page, due to one piece of content being a standout, having links pointing to it, or already receiving traffic when you can't identify a primary page, this is usually the best approach to take.
It may also mean that you need to add fresh content to improve the final page, and you need to make sure that 301 redirects are put in place for any pages that are deleted or URLs that are changed to pass over any ranking signals.
Creating New Intent-Focused Content
One common cannibalization issue seen with ecommerce stores is that a single product page ranks for search terms relating to their product range.
And when this happens because no 'range' subcategory exists, fixing the issue is as simple as creating one.
When there isn't a page that matches the intent, you will find 'the next best thing' ranking, so you go ahead and create one. You should then find that the problem disappears due to being able to satisfy this intent.
How Can You Avoid Cannibalization Issues in the Future?
There is no denying the fact that cleaning up keyword cannibalization issues can be time-consuming, especially if you are working on a large site that has built up multiple problems over time, despite it being an essential task to carry out.
However, the best way to fix keyword cannibalization is to stop it from happening in the first place, and it is just as important that the issues you resolve don't occur again in the future.
So what do you need to do to avoid cannibalization from happening? It is actually pretty simple...
Check for content on your site that has the same intent every time you create something new.
It doesn't need to be time-consuming to do this and should be done during keyword research.
Just head to Google and use the 'site: [keyword]' operator to return a list of pages that are deemed relevant for the keyword.
Look through the results from a mindset of intent analysis. Look for content that exists that serves the same purpose, the same intent, as that you are considering creating.
If you see a page with the same intent, consider updating that rather than creating something new and causing cannibalization issues.
Is Your Paid Strategy Cannibalizing Your Organic Traffic?
While keyword cannibalization is usually considered in the context of SEO and organic traffic, have you considered that your paid strategy could be cannibalizing your organic traffic?
There are a few instances when this can happen.
Unnecessary Brand Bidding
Sometimes, it is essential to bid on your brand name, because if you don't, one of your competitors will. And the last thing we want is to be almost giving traffic away to those who we compete against.
But what about when you are running brand bidding, but there is not actually anyone else bidding on your brand terms? When this happens, your paid ads could effectively be stealing your organic traffic.
When it comes to brand searches, lazy searchers often click the first result that they see from your domain.
Be sure to run tests around any brand-bidding activity to determine whether you are unnecessarily paying for traffic that you would have otherwise picked up through organic search.
Bidding on Keyword When You Rank Top
If you already rank in the #1 position for a keyword, should you be bidding on it with your PPC campaign?
Well, it depends. In many cases, you want to do so when the budget allows you to. The more visibility you have, the stronger the chance that a searcher will click on your site — either through your organic listing or paid ad.
But if you are working with a tight paid media budget, you could find that you are spending on clicks that you would have mostly picked up anyway. After all, it is rare that a searcher clicks on only one result, and this is usually a mix of both paid and organic results.
Again, be sure to run proper testing to determine whether you can turn off ads and, in turn, increase the organic traffic. It may even be the case that fewer clicks means more profit, once you have taken ad costs into account.
Are Your Ads Suffering from Keyword Cannibalization?
You could find that your PPC campaigns are cannibalizing themselves, meaning that your ads are effectively competing against themselves. Common ways that this can happen are:
When setting up geo-targeted campaigns, make sure that you are not inadvertently overlapping these. Otherwise, you will be bidding in a common location across different ad groups.
This can easily happen if you are using radius-targeting, and care should be taken to address this and to prevent cannibalization occurring.
Multiple Campaigns Triggering the Same Keyword
Unless you are monitoring your paid media campaigns closely, you may find that multiple campaigns are triggering the same keyword, often as a result of different match types.
When this happens, you can find that your ads are cannibalizing one another, causing internal competition and artificially inflating your bids.
You can learn more about how to prevent ad keyword cannibalization and run an audit to find and fix these issues in this Weekly Wisdom with Joel Bondorowsky and use the PPC Keyword Tool to cross-match negative keywords and avoid competition and cannibalization among your own ads.
Resolving Keyword Cannibalization Issues Can Drive Noticeable Gains
Keyword cannibalization is a common issue in SEO, let's not forget that.
Yet, despite this, it remains an area that causes continued confusion and prevents many websites from performing as well as they could.
By taking a process-driven approach to both find, and fix, cannibalization issues, you can make this a key part of regular site auditing and put in place steps to prevent such problems from happening again.
Larger sites that have built up a wealth of content over time are typically the most likely to face cannibalization issues, but no site is immune from it.
Do yourself a favor and run a cannibalization audit on your site and there is every chance you will find opportunities to push forward your campaign's performance.