How to Identify and Tackle Keyword Cannibalisation in 2019

Posted by SamuelMangialavori

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:

Page URL Title tag Header 1
/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?

Page URL New Title Tag New Header 1
/boots/all Women’s Boots – All Types of Winter Boots | Distilled
Shoes
Women’s Winter Boots
/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:

Page URL Objective of the article
/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 URL Title tag Ranking for the keyword “ankle boots”
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.

Page URL Title tag Ranking for the keyword “ankle boots”
Page A: /boots/all Women’s Boots – Chelsea Boots & many more types |
Distilled Shoes
Test and decide

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 one or both of them back.

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

  • Check on GSC to see which of your pages is getting the most
    amount of clicks for that single keyword. You should also check on
    similar terms, since keywords on page two or three of the SERP will
    show very low clicks in GSC. Then, decide which page should be your
    primary focus — the one that is better suited from a content
    perspective — and be open to test changes for on-page SEO
    elements of both pages.
  • Review your title tags, headings, and page copies and try to
    find instances where both pages seem to overlap. If the degree of
    duplication between them is really high, it might be worth
    consolidating/canonicalising/redirecting one to the other (I’ll
    touch on this below).

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.

Page URL Ranking for the keyword “ankle boots” on 1st of
January
Ranking for the keyword “ankle boots” on 5th of
January
Page A: /boots/all Position 6 Not ranking
Pabe B: /boots/ankle-boots/ Not ranking Position 8

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.

When did this flip-flopping start?

Pinpointing the right moment in time where this all began might
help you understand how the problem originated in the first place.
Maybe a canonical tag occurred or went missing, maybe some changes
to your on-page elements or an algorithm update mixed things
up?

How many pages flip-flop between each other for the same keyword?

The fewer pages subject to volatility, the better and easier to
address. Try to identify which pages are involved and inspect all
elements that might have triggered this instability.

How often do these pages flip-flop?

Try and find out how often the ranking page for a keyword has
changed: the fewer times, the better. Cross reference the time of
the changes with your knowledge of the site in case it might have
been caused by other adjustments.

If the flip-flop has occurred only once and seems to have
stopped, there is probably nothing to worry about, as it’s likely a
one-off volatility in the SERP. At the end of the day, we need to
remember that Google runs test and changes almost everyday.

How to identify which pages are victims of cannibalisation

I will explain what tools I normally use to detect major
cannibalisation fluxes, but I am sure there are several ways to
reach the same results — if you want to share your tips, please
do comment below!

Tools to deploy for type 1 of cannibalisation: When two of more
landing pages are competing for the same keyword

I know we all love tools that help you speed up long tasks, and
one of my favourites is Ahrefs. I recommend using
their fantastic method which will find your ‘cannibals’ in
minutes.

Watch their five minute video here to see how
to do it.

I am certain SEMrush, SEOMonitor, and other similar tools offer
the same ability to retrieve that kind of data, maybe just not as
fast as Ahrefs’ method listed above. If you do not have any tools
at your disposal, Google Search Console and Google Sheets will be
your friends, but it will be more of a manual process.

Tools to deploy for Type 2 of cannibalisation: When two or more
landing pages are flip-flopping for the same keyword

Ideally, most rank tracking tools will be able to do this
functionally discover when a keyword has changed ranking URL over
time. Back in the day I used tracking tools like Linkdex and Pi Datametrics to do just
this.

At Distilled, we use STAT,
which displays this data under History, within the main Keyword tab
— see screenshot below as example.

One caveat of these kinds of ranking tools is that this data is
often accessible only by keyword and will require data analysis.
This means it may take a bit of time to check all keywords involved
in this cannibalisation, but the insights you’ll glean are well
worth the effort.

Google Data Studio Dashboard

If you’re looking for a speedier approach, you can build a
Google Data Studio dashboard that connects to your GSC to provide
data in real time, so you don’t have to check on your reports
when you think there is a cannibalisation issue (credit to my
colleague Dom).

Our example of a dashboard comprises two tables (see screenshots
below):

The table above captures the full list of keyword offenders for
the period of time selected. For instance, keyword ‘X’ at the top
of the table has generated 13 organic clicks (total_clicks) from
GSC over the period considered and changed ranking URL
approximately 24 times (num_of_pages).

The second table (shown above) indicates the individual pages
that have ranked for each keyword for the period of time selected.
In this particular example, for our keyword X (which, as we know,
has changed URLs 24 times in the period of time selected) the
column path would show the list of individual URLs that have been
flip flopping.

What solutions should I implement to tackle cannibalisation?

It is important to distinguish the different types of
cannibalisation you may encounter and try to be flexible with
solutions — not every fix will be the same.

I started touching on possible solutions when I was talking
about the different types of cannibalisation, but let’s take a
more holistic approach and explain what solutions are
available.

301 redirection

Ask yourself this question: do I really need all the pages that
I found cannibalising each other?

In several instances the answer is no, and if that is the case,
301 redirects are your friends.

For instance, you might have created a new (or very similar)
version of the same article your site posted years ago, so you may
consider redirecting one of them — generally speaking, the older
URL might have more equity in the eyes of search engines and
potentially would have attracted some backlinks over time.

Page URL Date of blog post
Page A: blog/how-to-wear-ankle-boots May 2016
Page B: blog/how-to-wear-ankle-boots-in-2019 December 2018

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. The main difference with a 301 redirect is that both
pages will still exist, while the equity from page A will be
transferred to page B.

Let’s say you created a new article that covers a similar topic
to another existing one (but has a different angle) and you find
out that both pages are cannibalising each other. After a quick
analysis, you may decide you want Page B to be your “primary”, so
you can use a canonical tag from page A pointing to page B. You
would want to use canonicalisation if the content of the two pages
is diverse enough that users should see it but not so much that
search engines should think it’s different.

Page URL Date of blog post
Page A: blog/how-to-wear-ankle-boots-with-skinny-jeans December 2017
Page B: blog/how-to-wear-high-ankle-boots January 2019

What to do:

  • Use a canonical tag from page A to page B. As a reinforcement
    to Google, you could also use a self-referencing canonical tag on
    page B.
  • After having assessed accessibility and internal link equity of
    both pages, you may want to change all/some internal links (coming
    from the site to page A) to page B if you deem it useful.

Pages re-optimisation

As already touched on, it primarily involves a metadata type of
cannibalisation, which is what I named as type 1 in this article.
After identifying the pages whose meta data seem to overlap or
somehow target the same/highly similar keywords, you will need to
decide which is your primary page for that keyword/keyword group
and re-optimise the competing pages.

See the example earlier in the blog post to get a better
idea.

Content consolidation

This type of solution involves consolidating a part or the
entire content of a page into another. Once that has happened, it
is down to you to decide if it is worth keeping the page you have
stripped content from or just 301 redirect it to the other.

You would use consolidation as an option if you think the
cannibalisation is a result of similar or duplicated content
between multiple pages, which is more likely to be the type 2 of
cannibalisation, as stated earlier. It is essential to establish
your primary page first so you are able to act on the competing
internal pages. Content consolidation requires you to move the
offending content to your primary page in order to stop this
problem and improve your rankings.

For example, you might have created a new article that falls
under a certain content theme (in this instance, boots cleaning).
You then realise that a paragraph of your new page B touches on
leather boots and how to take care of them, which is something you
have covered in page A. In case both articles respond to similar
intents (one targeting cleaning leather only, the other targeting
cleaning boots in general), then it is worth consolidating the
offending content from page B to page A, and add an internal link
to page A instead of the paragraph that covers leather boots in
page B.

Page URL Date of blog post
Page A: blog/how-to-clean-leather-boots December 2017
Page B: /blog/boots-cleaning-guide-2019/ January 2019

What to do:

  • Find the offending part of content on page B, review it and
    consolidate the most compelling bits to page A
  • Replace the stripped content on page B with a direct internal
    link pointing to page A
  • Often after having consolidated the content of a page to
    another, there is no scope for the page where content has been
    stripped from so it should just be redirected (301).

How can I avoid cannibalisation in the first place?

The best way to prevent cannibalisation from happening is a
simple, yet underrated task, that involves keyword mapping.
Implementing a correct mapping strategy for your site is a key part
of your SEO, as important as your keyword research.

Carson Ward has written an
awesome moz blog post
about the topic, I recommend you have a
look.

Don’t take ‘intent’ for granted

Another way to avoid cannibalisation, and the last tip I want to
share with you, involves something most of you are familiar with:
search intent.

Most of the time, we take things for granted, assuming Google
will behave in a certain way and show certain type of results. What
I mean by this is: When you work on your keyword mapping, don’t
forget to check what kind of results search engines display before
assuming a certain outcome. Often, even Google is not sure and will
not always get intent right.

For instance, when searching for ‘shoes gift ideas’ and
‘gift ideas for shoe lovers’ I get two very..

http://bit.ly/2UUJ4vL