SEO

Should You Let Your Website Eat Itself? A Reflection On Keyword Cannibalization

a reflection on keyword cannibalization

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Keyword cannibalization. A rather colorful (a little sick too) SEO term that confuses even SEO specialists.

And it is normal for this topic to be confusing because how you view SEO influences if you see this as an advantage or a disadvantage.

The truth is, keyword cannibalization is completely normal, and it is usually something you should not worry about too much. However, this does not mean that you can completely neglect it. Just like a real cannibal, it can be dangerous.

When you try to neglect a co-worker that keeps talking to you when you work, ignorance does not work. He/she will keep coming back and slowly eat your nerves on a path to a guaranteed migraine. Similarly, neglecting keyword cannibalization can lead to lost opportunities and even lower rankings.

You do not want that, do you?

So, let’s reflect a little on keyword cannibalization, without going too technical. I will let others take care of that. (Ahrefs has a pretty sweet guide HERE)

So What Is Keyword Cannibalization?

Here’s the simplest possible definition:

Keyword cannibalization appears when you have different articles/blog posts/pages that rank in Google for the same keyword.

So, someone looks for keyword X, and they see two results from your site. I say two because Google will only show a maximum of two results from one domain. Only sites with massive authority, like Wikipedia, MIGHT get three.

Is that really bad for your site?

Here’s where subjectivity creeps its way into the answer. Some SEO specialists will say yes, while others will say no.

The REAL answer is:

It depends!

When we do SEO work on eCommerce websites at Digital Muscle, we often see keyword cannibalization. And it is usually a bad thing. BUT sometimes it is actually helpful. This is what I would like people to understand.

Let’s Take A Look At Keyword Cannibalization Examples

I will not give you exact examples since it would not be ethical for me to share such details, but let’s put things into perspective.

  • Let’s say you rank with two pages for “ground coffee”. One article is about the best ground coffee you can buy, and the second one is about how to grind coffee. Is this bad?

As I said before, it depends. What is your goal with the pages? Do you monetize with AdSense? Do you sell ground coffee? These are the types of questions that will help you get the correct answer.

  • Now let’s say you run an eCommerce website that sells coffee. And you rank high with two pages for “buy Death Wish coffee” (I like the brand name, do not throw stones at me). One of the pages is a list of all the Death Wish coffee you have available and the second one is a specific product from the list. Is this bad?

In this case, keyword cannibalization is most likely bad. Usually, you would want the page with all the Death Wish coffee to rank higher for a keyword that has such a high buying intent.

  • Another one. Let’s say you run a blog about coffee. And you have two pages that rank high for “how to grind coffee”. One of the blog posts explains how to grind coffee, and the other one is actually a list of the best ground coffee products and has a section in it that talks about the basics of grinding content. Is this bad?

Well, kind of, if the top-ranking page is the one with the best coffee products. If the best rank is for the guide on how to grind coffee, it is most likely not a problem.  But keyword cannibalization did appear. Is this normal?

Yep, it is.

Google Offers Results Based On Perceived Relevance

Here’s something that way too many SEO “specialists” do not take into account. Google wants to offer the best possible results for the user based on search intent. If a user wants to find a guide about how to grind coffee, Google wants to present results that show how to grind coffee, not pages that sell ground coffee.

All pages that rank well on your site do so for some specific keywords. People that use those keywords have something in mind when they press Enter.

If you have two pages that rank for a keyword, usually the one considered to be the most relevant for the search intent is presented higher. Obviously, Google does make mistakes, and sometimes the least relevant page is presented higher in rankings. When this happens, keyword cannibalization hurt your site and you need to take steps to improve the right page.

Where You Might Have Made A Big Mistake

Let’s push eCommerce sites to the side since they should be analyzed differently. Let’s just talk about how most sites are structured, a bunch of articles listed in some categories.

Because the best ranking pages for most keywords have a really high word count, many webmasters feel pressured into writing a lot when they publish articles. But for some topics, you cannot write that much.

Can you write 4,000 words about how to grind coffee with a blender? Not really. As a result, you might feel pressured into also writing about how to grind coffee without a blender, how to clean your blender, and other topics that are not useful based on the search intent of someone looking for how to grind coffee without a blender. You might even end up with a higher bounce rate than what it could be.

If you purposefully wrote longer articles with many extra “how to” content sections included, you actually hurt your main keyword, the one that you wanted to rank for when you first thought about the article.

But

Maybe now your “how to grind coffee without a blender” article ranks high in search engines for something else. And perhaps that part of the article is valuable for the user and Google decided that it is.

As you can see, things are complicated. However, you should never just write content to reach a specific word count dictated by SurferSEO or another SEO tool. Also, there is no reason why you should not extend the content on a page IF the text added is RELEVANT.

When Is Keyword Cannibalization Bad?

This is where I talk a little about eCommerce sites as an example. Keyword cannibalization can be very bad when:

  • A page you do not want ranks higher than the page you want.
  • It drags down the ranking for both pages.

The second situation is self-explanatory. The other one is not.

With eCommerce websites, there are always many additional metrics that have to be taken into account. For instance, when one page generates higher conversion rates and higher profit margins than the other one, you want it ranking higher. That better-converting page is not necessarily the one that sells better. It is just the one that Google thinks is better, based on search intent.

Let’s also think about an example. Let’s say you rank at position 2 and 3 for a keyword like “abs workouts”. In both of them, you present great workouts, but page A generates more profits than page B. The fact that both of them rank very high would not be a problem if you were not selling, for instance, video workout packages. But because you want the pages to generate income, when page B ranks higher than page A, you lose money.

Solving Keyword Cannibalization Issues

I do not want to go too much into details with this, but I feel it is worth mentioning some ways in which you can solve keyword cannibalization problems.

IF you determine that the keyword cannibalization that happens is a problem, based on my experience, the best ways to solve the problem are:

  • Canonicals

Do not replicate one keyword on many pages. Optimize the content and the on-site SEO for each page with a keyword variation of the main one. Then, link the pages with the variations to the main page, the one you optimized for the main keyword. Google then quickly sees that the main page is the most relevant for the query.

  • 301 Redirects

Not really recommended but very useful if you cannot further optimize some of the pages with long-tail versions of the main keyword. In this case, you do want to seriously consider a 301 redirect since the solution is swift.

  • Combine Or Merge Articles

When you find two articles that say a similar story and attract the same exact audience, just combine them. Rewrite both into ONE post that will surely have even better overall content quality. This does involve deleting an article and adapting the other article. Also, redirect the old post to the new post you create since you do not want to lose any of the link juice you surely worked hard to get.

  • Internal Linking

Give Google a hand. Help the search engine understand the most important article/page on your site. Internal linking helps with this. Link from those posts that are not so important to those that are very important for you and for the goals you have. Google follows links, so it gets the hint that a specific page might be more valuable.

Final Thoughts

Keyword cannibalization is NOT necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in most cases, it is a good thing since there are many other keywords that each of the pages ranks for, each with different associated search intents.

But I cannot deny the fact that in some cases it is a bad thing.

So, use your common sense and analyze each case without subjectivity. Use data to make a final decision. Just never think that keyword cannibalization automatically means you have a problem.

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