Is keyword cannibalization good or bad for your SEO ranking?

What is keyword cannibalization and how to deal with it? This post will bring you closer to the issue that may be one of the reasons for achieving poor SEO results.

After reading the article, you will be able to identify the threat yourself and apply measures that will reduce or eliminate the phenomenon of keyword cannibalization.

What is keyword cannibalization?

Keyword cannibalization in website positioning is a phenomenon where two or more websites compete for high positions for a given phrase. In most cases, it is harmful and causes a number of consequences that make it difficult or impossible to achieve the desired position in the Top 10. There are also situations when two or even three subpages of the same domain appear in SERPs. This case is extremely beneficial and positively affects the traffic to your website with organic results.

What does Google say?

In 2018, a Reddit user asked John Mueller about keyword cannibalization and its impact on ranking.

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.

The user received the following answer:

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.

John Mueller

As we can rightly guess, the Google algorithm looks unfavorably at all kinds of duplicates or similar content. So let’s look at the causes of cannibalization.

Reasons for keyword cannibalization

As we have already discussed, keyword cannibalization affects websites that offer similar content with a similar intention. Especially when they are optimized for the same keyword, or have duplicate pages – created intentionally or unknowingly by CMS. Cannibalization is also caused by inconsistencies in internal and external linking, technical errors, or an incorrectly designed information structure of the portal or online store. Let’s look at each case separately.

Some time ago, one of the recommendations of SEO specialists was to create subpages with content optimized for the same word. This was because Google sometimes linked subpages within the domain and attached them to the result placed higher in SERPs. 

As you can guess, this attachment could have resulted in increased movement from the organic results. Currently, after several changes in Google algorithms – including Site Diversity Update – such a situation is uncommon, although it does happen.

Duplicate content

The duplication of content is when both analyzed subpages only slightly differ in content. This situation occurs mostly in online stores that offer products in different variants or colors. Creating various subpages for the same product may mean that they will fight for a higher place in search results.

Duplicate title tags

The page title or tag is one of the important ranking factors. In my opinion, it is one of the strongest signals for Google, on which keyword should display a given page. Unfortunately, it is common to create several or a dozen or so pages with the same title within the website. You can even find websites with several thousand pages with duplicate titles!

Could this be the cause of keyword cannibalization? Of course. Although Google takes into account other factors and can change the title granted by the user, if necessary, it is not worth complicating the work of the robots.

Inconsistent internal linking

Another cardinal sin – when it comes to cannibalizing keywords – is the lack of consistency in internal linking. The example is creating links to different pages using the same anchors. Texts in links are a hint for robots on what to expect on the other side of the hyperlink. If we are not consistent and guide the robot to two different pages using the same phrase, we may experience significant fluctuations in the position of the page.

Inconsistent external linking

As in the case of links within the website, also when acquiring backlinks, there may be a situation when the same anchors direct to several subpages. If we want to avoid cannibalization, we should thoroughly analyze the link profile.

There are no canonical tags

Canonical tags point to a representative URL among many similar ones. They should always be used, just to avoid indexing almost identical subpages. This problem is visible in e-commerce, where businesses use sorting or filtering products in a category. As a result, we get several pages with similar content that will compete with each other if they are not marked with a link to the canonical page (rel = canonical).

Cannibalization between subdomains

An interesting type of keyword cannibalization occurs when Google links the domain and subdomain thematically. Not so long ago, creating an online store for a producer’s website on a subdomain resulted in the appearance of both addresses for the same keyword in the search results. 

Image by Alexa from Pixabay

The subdomain and domain were treated as two separate entities. Site Diversity Update and other changes in algorithms meant that now with a strong thematic link, URLs within a subdomain would be considered an integral part of the domain. According to the one-link-per-domain rule, Google will display the better site.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Nevertheless, it will be more advantageous for the website to have one, well-optimized website than a dozen of poor-quality websites.

Incorrect information structure

Much of the cannibalization is caused by inappropriate information structure within the page. Many errors make you fight for high positions with yourself. For example, tags that overlap with categories or with each other. Also similar categories in different areas of the same e-commerce or a large number of tags that return the same results. This situation mainly concerns online stores and extensive blogs.

Effects of keyword cannibalization

We already know why cannibalization may appear on your website. Now let’s take a look at the effects it brings.

  • Weaker positions – if there are several subpages within the domain optimized at a similar level for the same keywords, they will compete with each other. As a result, we may not see any of our pages in the Top 10.
  • Less traffic – since your website will not appear in high positions, organic traffic will be low. It will affect conversion and profits.
  • High position fluctuations – the site will appear in the lead for one day, only to be over the top 100 in a moment. As you can easily guess, organic traffic for such a subpage won´t be satisfying monthly.

Conclusion

Keyword cannibalization within the website is an overwhelmingly negative phenomenon. It contributes to lowering the CTR or achieving lower-than-expected positions. There are cases, however, when having two results in the lead will give you a huge advantage over the competition. Therefore, before proceeding to action, it is extremely important to analyze the phenomenon and see if it is true that the cannibalization of keywords is a problem in our case.

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