How to Identify and Tackle Keyword Cannibalisation in 2019

How to Identify and Tackle Keyword Cannibalisation in 2019

Normally, you can come across two main placements for cannibalisation: 1) At meta data level: When two or more pages have meta data (title tags and headings mainly) which target the same or very similar keywords, cannibalisation occurs. What are the types of cannibalisation in SEO? Scenario 3 In the instances where both pages are ranking in page two or three of the SERP, then it might be the case that your cannibalisation is holding one or both of them back. 2) Two or more landing pages on your website that are flip-flopping for the same keyword It could be the case that, for instance, the keyword “ankle boots” for two of my pages are ranking at different times, as Google seems to have a difficult time deciding which page to choose for the term. If this happens to you, try and find an answer to the following questions:This is a common issue that I am sure many of you have encountered, in which landing pages seem to be very volatile and rank for a group of keywords in a non-consistent manner. How many pages flip-flop between each other for the same keyword? How often do these pages flip-flop? Check if page A has backlinks and, if so, how many keywords it is ranking for (and how well it is ranking for those keywords)What to do: If page A has enough equity and visibility, do a 301 redirect from page B to page A, change all internal links (coming from the site to page B) to page A, and update metadata of page A if necessary (including the reference of 2019 for instance) If not, do the opposite: complete a 301 redirect from page A to page B and change all internal links (coming from the site to page A) to page B. Canonicalisation In case you do need all the pages that are cannibalising for whatever reason (maybe PPC, social, or testing purposes, or maybe it is just because they are still relevant) then canonical tags are your friends. Content consolidation requires you to move the offending content to your primary page in order to stop this problem and improve your rankings. Often, even Google is not sure and will not always get intent right.

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If you read the title of this blog and somehow, even only for a second, thought about the iconic movie “The Silence of the Lambs”, welcome to the club — you are not alone!

Despite the fact that the term “cannibalisation” does not sound very suitable for digital marketing, this core concept has been around for a long time. This term simply identifies the issue of having multiple pages competing for the same (or very similar) keywords/keyword clusters, hence the cannibalisation.

What do we mean by cannibalisation in SEO?

This unfortunate and often unnoticed problem harms the SEO potential of the pages involved. When more than one page has the same/similar keyword target, it creates “confusion” in the eyes of the search engine, resulting in a struggle to decide what page to rank for what term.

For instance, say my imaginary e-commerce website sells shoes online and I have created a dedicated category page that targets the term ‘ankle boots’: www.distilledshoes.com/boots/ankle-boots/

Knowing the importance of editorial content, over time I decide to create two blog posts that cover topics related to ankle boots off the back of a keyword research: one post on how to wear ankle boots and another about the top 10 ways to wear ankle boots in 2019:

One month later, I realise that some of my blog pages are actually ranking for a few key terms that my e-commerce category page was initially visible for.

Now the question is: is this good or bad for my website?

Drum roll, please…and the answer is — It depends on the situation, the exact keywords, and the intent of the user when searching for a particular term.

Keyword cannibalisation is not black or white — there are multiple grey areas and we will try and go though several scenarios in this blog post. I recommend you spend 5 minutes checking this awesome Whiteboard Friday which covers the topic of search intent extremely well.

How serious of a problem is keyword cannibalisation?

Much more than what you might think — almost every website that I have worked on in the past few years have some degree of cannibalisation that needs resolving. It is hard to estimate how much a single page might be held back by this issue, as it involves a group of pages whose potential is being limited. So, my suggestion is to treat this issue by analysing clusters of pages that have some degree of cannibalisation rather than single pages.

Where is most common to find cannibalisation problems in SEO?

Normally, you can come across two main placements for cannibalisation:

1) At meta data level:

When two or more pages have meta data (title tags and headings mainly) which target the same or very similar keywords, cannibalisation occurs. This requires a less labour-intensive type of fix, as only meta data needs adjusting.

For example: my e-commerce site has three boots-related pages, which have the following meta data:

/boots/all /Women’s Boots – Ankle & Chelsea Boots | Distilled Shoes Women’s Ankle & Chelsea Boots
/boots/ankle-boots/ Women’s Ankle Boots | Distilled Shoes Ankle Boots
boots/chelsea-boots/ Women’s Chelsea Boots | Distilled Shoes Chelsea Boots

These types of keyword cannibalisation often occurs on e-commerce sites which have many category (or subcategory) pages with the intention to target specific keywords, such as the example above. Ideally, we would want to have a generic boots page to target generic boots related terms, while the other two pages should be focusing on the specific types of boots we are selling on those pages: ankle and chelsea.

Why not try the below instead?

/boots/ankle-boots/ Women’s Ankle Boots | Distilled Shoes Ankle Boots
boots/chelsea-boots/ Women’s Chelsea Boots | Distilled Shoes Chelsea Boots

More often than not, we fail to differentiate our e-commerce site’s meta data to target the very specific subgroup of keywords that we should aim for — after all, this is the main point of having so many category pages, no? If interested in the topic, find here a blog post I wrote on the subject.

The fact that e-commerce pages tend to have very little text on them makes meta data very important, as it will be one of the main elements search engines look at to understand how a page differs from the other.

2) At page content level

When cannibalisation occurs at page content level (meaning two or more pages tend to cover very similar topics in their body content), it normally needs more work than the above example, since it requires the webmaster to first find all the competing pages and then decide on the best approach to tackle the issue.

For example: say my e-commerce has two blog pages which cover the following topics:

/blog/how-to-clean-leather-boots/ Suggests how to take care of leather boots so they last longer
/blog/boots-cleaning-guide-2019/ Shows a 121 guide on how to clean different types of boots

These types of keyword cannibalisation typically occurs on editorial pages, or transactional pages provided with substantial amount of text.

It is fundamental to clarify something: SEO is often not the main driver when producing editorial content, as different teams are involved in producing content for social and engagement reasons, and fairly so. Especially in larger corporations, it is easy to underestimate how complex it is to find a balance between all departments and how easily things can be missed.

From a pure SEO standpoint, I can assure you that the two pages above are very likely to be subject to cannibalisation. Despite the fact they have different editorial angles, they will probably display some degree of duplicated content between them (more on this later).

In the eyes of a search engine, how different are these two blog posts, both of which aim to address a fairly similar intent? That is the main question you should ask yourself when going through this task. My suggestion is the following: Before investing time and resources into creating new pages, make the effort to review your existing content.

What are the types of cannibalisation in SEO?

Simply put, you could come across 2 main types:

1) Two or more landing pages on your website that are competing for the same keywords

For instance, it could be the case that, for the keyword “ankle boots”, two of my pages are ranking at the same time:

Page A: /boots/all Women’s Boots – Ankle & Chelsea Boots | Distilled Shoes Position 8
Pabe B: /boots/ankle-boots/ Women’s Ankle Boots | Distilled Shoes Position 5

Is this a real cannibalisation issue? The answer is both yes and no.

If multiple pages are ranking for the same term, it is because a search engine finds elements of both pages that they think respond to the query in some way — so technically speaking, they are potential ‘cannibals’.

Does it mean you need to panic and change everything on both pages? Surely not. It very much depends on the scenario and your objective.

Scenario 1

In the instances where both pages have really high rankings on the first page of the SERPS, this could work in your advantage: More space occupied means more traffic for your pages, so treat it as “good” cannibalisation.

If this is the case, I recommend you do the following:

  • Consider changing the meta descriptions to make them more enticing and unique from each other. You do not want both pages to show the same message and fail to impress the user.
  • In case you realise that amongst the two pages, the “secondary/non-intended page” is ranking higher (for example: Page A /boots/all ranks higher than Page B /boots/ankle-boots/ for the term ‘ankle boots’), you should check on Google Search Console (GSC) to see which page is getting the most amount of clicks for that single term. Then, decide if it is worth altering other elements of your SEO to better address that particular keyword.

For instance, what would happen if I removed the term ankle boots from my /boots/all (Page A) title tag and page copy? If Google reacts by favouring my /boots/ankle-boots/ page instead (Page B), which may gain higher positions, then great! If not, the worst case scenario is you can revert the changes back and keep enjoying the two results on page one of the SERP.

Scenario 2

In the instances where page A has high rankings page one of the SERPS and page B is nowhere to be seen (beyond the top 15–20 results), it is up to you to decide if this minor cannibalisation is worth your time and resources, as this may not be an urgency.

If you decide that it is worth pursuing, I recommend you do the following:

  • Keep monitoring the keywords for which the two pages seem to show, in case Google might react differently in the future.
  • Come back to this minor cannibalisation point after you have addressed your most important issues.

Scenario 3

In the instances where both pages are ranking in page two or three of the SERP, then it might be the case that your cannibalisation is holding…

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