Including keywords in your website content can help you optimize it for search engine visibility. If you run an ecommerce business, it might seem like good sense to pepper your website with relevant keywords to improve your ranking in search engine results. But without careful planning and execution, this practice can backfire and lead to a problem called keyword cannibalization. Here’s how to recognize, avoid, and remedy keyword cannibalization on your site.
What is keyword cannibalization?
Keyword cannibalization is a search engine optimization (SEO) issue where two or more pages on your site compete for the same or related keywords. The pages effectively cannibalize each other’s traffic, reducing the likelihood that any of them will rank at the top of search engine results pages (SERPs) and lead to conversions.
Keyword cannibalization is likely when two or more pages on your site target the same keywords while satisfying the same search intent—the reason a user makes a search query. When this happens, search engines struggle to determine the more relevant page. You can have multiple pages targeting the same or similar keywords if they provide content crafted to cater to different search intents—like informational, commercial, or navigational searches.
Keyword cannibalization and ecommerce
Keyword cannibalization poses a particular challenge for ecommerce businesses since their websites tend to have more pages than the average site, including many product pages that may target the same keyword and intent.
“Resolving keyword cannibalization is essential for ecommerce success, as it ensures merchants’ products appear in top search results, attracting potential customers and maximizing profits," says Tatiana Tanizaki, senior SEO specialist at Shopify.
Avoiding cannibalization in ecommerce becomes trickier when you offer products with similar names, details, or attributes within the same product category. Cannibalization can also happen at the metadata level and crop up for ecommerce shops when target keywords are repeated in the meta titles or meta descriptions of various pages. Since product pages tend to be much lighter on content, metadata becomes even more important for keywords and SEO ranking.
What causes keyword cannibalization?
Keyword cannibalization causes include:
When you create different paths to the same product category or pages, search engine crawlers may not know which one to prioritize.
Optimizing multiple pages for the same keywords—especially when search intent isn’t sufficiently differentiated by content—can make it unclear which page best serves a user’s needs.
Using the same anchor text to point to two different pages can confuse search engine crawlers—automated bots that index web pages.
Unintentional content duplication
Creating pages with similar target keywords over time without realizing their similarity to old content can result in cannibalization. Publishing a new version of a page without redirecting the original can have the same effect.
Effects of keyword cannibalization
Cannibalization makes it difficult for search engines to determine which page is most relevant for a specific keyword or keyphrase while also negatively impacting a user’s experience with your site. This can ultimately lead to:
- Lower rankings on SERPs
- Lower click-through rates
- Decreased organic traffic
- Lower ecommerce conversion rate
- Decreased page authority
- Diluted link strength
How to detect keyword cannibalization
Identifying the underlying causes of keyword cannibalization may take some effort, but it will lead you to the most appropriate solution. Here are a few simple ways to detect it:
1. Run a basic site search
You can use the site: search operator in Google to search for the keyword you wish to investigate. It would look like this in the search bar:
- site:yourdomain.com ’keyword’
This will display pages on your site that rank for this particular keyword or keyphrase.
2. Create a content spreadsheet
As you publish content to your site, keep a spreadsheet containing each page’s URL, its associated keywords, and its metadata title and description. You can accomplish this time-consuming step more efficiently with various free SEO tools, which also provide insights into keyword ranking and visibility.
3. Use Google Search Console
Google Search Console is a free tool from Google that allows you to monitor, maintain, and troubleshoot the various factors influencing your site’s place in search results. Under the Performance menu of your Console, click the Search Results submenu to find a list of search queries and keywords that have earned your site impressions and clicks. You can use the +New followed by Query filters to check a group of related keywords. This data can also be pulled from Google Search Console into Google Sheets.
How to fix keyword cannibalization
- Merge content
- Refine keywords and intent
- Clean up your site structure
- Use canonical tags
- Use noindex tags
Once you’ve completed an audit and identified instances of keyword cannibalization and their causes, it’s time to fix the problem. There are a few ways you can do this:
1. Merge content
This approach is most relevant to blog posts, articles, and other long-form content on your site. To address cannibalization caused by duplicate or similar content across multiple pages, consider merging and thoroughly editing the content to create a single, comprehensive piece.
Select the better performing URL to house the merged content, redirect old pages to the updated one, and divert any internal links from old pages to the new one. Finally, remove the redirected URLs from your sitemap.
2. Refine keywords and intent
If two pages are cannibalizing one another, but both need to stay on your site, consider revising the keyword strategy and content on one of the pages to differentiate it. Specify the precise search intent each page satisfies. For products, this could mean creating more robust and detailed product descriptions.
3. Clean up your site structure
The way you organize your site helps search engines understand how to prioritize your content. For instance, when structuring similar product pages for your store, you could link them all back to a category page optimized for the broadest keyword. You could then optimize each product page for long-tail keywords—more specific keyword phrases. For old or outdated product pages, redirect them to a new or relevant replacement page. You may also want to request backlinks to outdated pages be updated.
4. Use canonical tags
If one of the cannibalizing pages isn’t designed to show up in search results (for instance, if you create a landing page to link to from pay-per-click ads), you can add a canonical tag to direct crawlers to the proper page. A canonical tag is an HTML element that can be useful when the same product exists on multiple URLs or your site uses faceted/filtered navigation.
5. Use noindex tags
You may elect to remove the page from the search engine’s index of pages on your site by adding a noindex metatag. This removes it from search results.
How to avoid keyword cannibalization
After finding and fixing keyword cannibalization, there are several simple measures you can implement to avoid future cannibalization, such as:
- Conducting comprehensive keyword research
- Planning your website’s content structure and strategy in advance
- Developing a thoughtful internal linking strategy
- Optimizing your pages’ metadata, including the title tags and meta descriptions
- Periodically conducting audits of your site’s content and keyword performance
Keyword cannibalization FAQ
How do I fix keyword cannibalization?
How you fix keyword cannibalization depends on the cause. If it’s content duplication, for example, merging the content onto the better performing URL and redirecting the old page could solve the issue. If an old product page is cannibalizing a newer, more relevant product page, a simple redirect may be sufficient.
Can keyword cannibalization negatively impact my website’s SEO?
Yes. Keyword cannibalization can cause pages to underperform through decreased organic traffic, lower click-through rates, diminished page authority, and fewer conversions.
Is keyword cannibalization always bad for SEO?
Not necessarily. Sometimes, two pages may perform well while targeting the same keywords. If, for example, the cannibalizing pages are both on the first page of the SERP, you may want to maintain your prime search engine real estate rather than removing one of the pages.
How can I prevent keyword cannibalization from occurring in the first place?
Among other strategies, you can avoid keyword cannibalization by ensuring you have complementary content and keyword strategies in place. Monitor your use of metadata (title and descriptions), and conduct content and keyword audits periodically to aid in identifying keyword cannibalization.