Last Updated on January 12th, 2021

A while back, I published a blog post about the top 10 most common SEO problems we found with new clients coming to The Search Initiative (TSI).

Afterward, there was an enormous amount of interest in the Facebook groups and Twitter about one particular issue: keyword cannibalization.

Google turned up the volume on this in 2017 and talked about it blatantly in 2019.

Now, that said, there’s also a lot of controversy over this topic (as with many things right now in the search engine optimization industry).

Some people don’t like the term “keyword cannibalization.” Others say they can’t find a Google patent on it, so, therefore, it must not exist.

Others say, “Hey look, here’s one website that can rank two different pages for ‘insert keyword here’ so it’s all hogwash.”

Look, I don’t really care if you believe in it or not.  I’m just here to help you figure out when it’s behind the ranking problems that you can’t seem to solve.

If you need to try something, try this. When the pages that never ranked in the past eventually pop up to page 1, you can thank me.

Here’s my guide on how you can assess keyword cannibalization through tools that we use in our SEO agency, and most importantly, the three most effective ways to fix the problem

What Is Keyword Cannibalization?

Keyword Cannibalization is when different pages on your website target the same keyword, appear for the same searches, and as a result, have difficulty ranking.

Why did this topic become so popular?

Namely, because keyword cannibalization has quickly become an increasingly prevalent SEO issue that can hold back pages from ranking.

If you optimize different pages for similar search queries (intentionally or not), they will likely hurt each other’s chances to rank.

Why Is Keyword Cannibalism Bad For SEO?

Keyword cannibalism is bad for SEO because when multiple pages are fighting for the same keyword, they split up the power you’ve earned, and each page becomes less visible on Google.

keyword cannibalisation

Your goal as an SEO is to make your site as visible as possible for your chosen keywords. If you have two landing pages fighting each on page 2 of results—instead of a single one that appears on page 1—you’ve messed up.

Fortunately, it’s not a problem that’s hard to fix. I’m going to show you how you can diagnose keyword cannibalization using a number of common tools.

How to Diagnose Keyword Cannibalization

Diagnose Keyword Cannibalization

1. Agency Analytics

To illustrate keyword cannibalization with an example, I set up an experiment to track an utterly random website that clearly exhibited keyword cannibalization issues for one keyword across multiple pages.

Agency Analytics is a keyword tracking tool that we use to track day-to-day Google positions of keywords across your core pages. When used correctly, it can serve as a keyword cannibalization tool.

It’s also a great way to track relevant on-page health and (if used correctly) can diagnose a lot more issues too.

Below, you’ll see a screenshot of the average overall Google positions over time for the entire website…

overall rankings with agency analytics

Since the start of tracking, the keywords we chose to track have continued to decline consistently, and on October 23rd, we can see a huge fluctuation. Could it be the result of keyword cannibalization? Let’s look deeper.

One of the great features of this tool is that we can track the progress of a specific keyword over time, not just a net combination of all the keywords. So, let’s dive into the broad term ‘acoustic.’

Since we began tracking this keyword, Google has selectively ranked a total of 3 different pages targeting the same keyword. There’s potentially a 4th page competing if we consider Bing choosing another page.

individual page rankings

This is the first and easiest way to pick up keyword cannibalization—by monitoring one keyword daily and tracking the URL changes.

2. Ahrefs

Ahrefs is by far one of the most versatile and powerful digital marketing and SEO tools available – if you haven’t got a membership, then you should get one.

One of the great features of Ahrefs is its keyword explorer, allowing you to audit your keywords versus your competitors.

ahrefs sidebarYet, an often-overlooked feature is to the right:

When you use the Organic Keywords feature on Ahrefs, you suddenly have access to historical data on all your keywords and instantly spot keyword competition issues.

I only have 6-months of historical data with my plan, so perhaps an upgrade is in order.  *Cough* Tim Soulo?

Click on “Show History Chart” to drop down your ranking graph.

Each color on the graph represents a different URL’s rank in Google (as denoted by the legend in the lower left), so if you see more than one color, you’re cannibalized.

competing urls in ahrefs

Notice how the keyword is constantly dropping out of the index, and there have been multiple pages ranking for this term?

That is keyword cannibalization and what it does to your rankings.

3. SEMRush

One of my favorite keyword cannibalization tools is SEMRush – and it’s about to be clear to you why this tool is kick ass for this task.

To do this, export a large chunk of your keywords, perhaps only including your core pages or keywords with high search volume.

You do that here…

semrush sidebar

Take a sample of the top keywords with the highest search volumes, which will help you get a holistic view of your site.

keyword graph

Throw all of these into a spreadsheet and set it up so that yours looks something like the one below, and if you’re having doubts, you can copy our template here.

template example

Once you have set up your spreadsheet, you will want to sort these five columns by Keyword (column B) in alphabetical order. This will mean that any cannibalized keywords are next to each other and will have a different position and URL.

You can then scan from top to bottom to determine which keywords have multiple pages competing.  But who wants to waste time scanning?

If you use a little bit of spreadsheet magic and use the following formula:

=IF(B2=B3,”Cannibalized”,IF(B1=B2,”Cannibalized”,”Unique”))

If you use this formula correctly, you should easily duplicate the cell and turn Column A into a long list of automated checks – without the work!

finalized chart

This means you just checked 10,000+ keywords in less than 2 minutes.

Win.

4. SerpLab

Edit: Late suggestion from Prince Olalekan Akinyemi [thanks for the contribution].

SerpLab is one of the few SEO rank trackers out there with a freemium plan. One of the features of Serplab is that it tracks which actual URL of your pages in Google SERPs has the top rank, and as such, it is excellent for diagnosing keyword cannibalism.

To use Serplab for a cannibalism diagnosis of your pages, here are the steps to follow:

1. log in to your Serplab account and select the project you want to diagnose

serplab12. On the page that opens, click on any of your keywords that have been experiencing wild fluctuations.

3. Then Click on ‘’View Full Keyword Details’’ as shown below

serplab2

4. On the page, you will see a graph showing the SERP overview of the keyword in view. When you notice too many fluctuations time and time again (as shown in the image below), then your pages are probably cannibalized in Google.

serplab3

5. Scroll down a bit to the bottom of the page, and you’ll see a list of URLs that have once ranked for that keyword and the positions they occupied.  In my case, I discovered three different pages of my website that were trying to rank for the same keyword.

serplab4

The only issue with this method is that it might be time-consuming as you have to go over each of your keywords one after the other.

Aside from that, you need to have been tracking your keywords for a considerable amount of time before you can use it to identify keyword cannibalization.

5. Google Search Console (GSC)

Edit: Late suggestion from Joe Kizlauskas [thanks for the contribution].

For the most observant search engine junkies, you will notice that all four tools (Agency Analytics, Ahrefs, Semrush, SerpLab) are focused on the top 100 positions. They only and report on detected cannibalization within these positions.

Using GSC (formerly Google Webmaster Tools) to diagnose this issue will give you access to the top 300 search positions

Google Search Console

GSC provides a far larger data set to work with than most SEO tools. It’s also based on all queries that your pages are returned for within Google’s search results, so you aren’t likely to miss anything.

Plus, it’s free.

Here’s how you get started:

1) Login at https://www.google.com/webmasters

2) Choose your website from the right-hand side

3) Select the options below:

console screen

4) Filter by keyword to narrow down the results:

filtered results

5) Enter your keyword as an exact match:

exact match6) View the Pages that are being returned for the filtered keyword:view pages7) Scroll down and you can see all of the pages that rank for this keyword

multiple pages shown

You’ll see that the one I’ve highlighted in red is indeed outside the top 100.

6. Google Search Operators

For proactive SEO, there’s a sixth technique that can also reach outside the top 100 positions.

It takes time, but you can check the entire Google index to find duplicate pages by using Google site operators.  Using search operators, you can track down multiple pages that have any duplicate content.

For example, take a look at some keyword duplication on Diggity Marketing.  Here are some duplicate keywords on my own site…

site on diggity

If I wanted to rank for “pbn link,” I have 17 pages that all include this term. I can cross-reference this with AHREFS and see that this is indeed one page that has been cannibalizing in Google.

ahrefs on diggity

So if I wanted to reduce cannibalization here, I could use the information from this site search to deoptimize pages ranking for exact match keywords.

It’s time-consuming, but Google uses algorithms similar to TF-IDF to understand relevance. If the term shows up more frequently elsewhere on your website, it could contribute to keyword cannibalization.

The downside to this technique is that it will only really work for medium to long-tail keywords. Therefore broad terms, such as “pbn link,” that naturally show up quite often throughout a website can’t really be de-optimized.

However, this is still a great trick to use if you get stuck for ideas on reducing keyword cannibalization of pages.

At this point, I am guessing you want to know how to fix this, right?

How to Fix Keyword Cannibalization

fix keyword cannibalization

Now that you’ve learned how to diagnose the issue, I’m guessing that you’re heading off to diagnose all of your sites and pages that could potentially be having this issue.

But hold up!

I need to first start with the fact that…

Keyword cannibalization isn’t always bad.

When you see multiple blogs or landing pages targeting the same term, all appear on the first page—that’s not SEO cannibalization. It’s actually good and likely to increase your chance of getting clicks.

The issue with keyword cannibalization is when it stops you from getting onto the first page, so you need to consider whether you’re really stuck because of it or not.

For those of you that are struggling with keyword cannibalization holding you back from rankings, here’s how to fix it.

Page De-Optimization

One of the most common ways that people cause cannibalization is by creating duplicate content or similar content on their site. I talk about this over-and-over again in The Affiliate Lab.

deoptimized

As with other search engines, Google is primarily a web crawler that travels through the interwebs through links. It wants to understand the information on your page. When two relevant pieces have duplicate content, it gets confused.

On top of that, Google wants to prevent naughty SEOs like you and me from taking over every page 1 search result by copying the most successful content to multiple pages.

The easy solution for this problem is to check all of your SEO title tags in your preferred search engine optimization plugin. Then, address any examples you find of similar content or pages that target the same keyword.

We’ve seen a number of clients join The Search Initiative and target one location or keyword across their entire site, or even just in sections of their site.

Since SEO titles are one of the most important ways to convey content relevancy, it would make sense that the first place you should check is here.

acoustic guitars

Afterward, go through your heading tags (especially H1’s) and keyword density to make sure that you’ve sculpted one page that is truly unique in content and headings.

But is that all?

Guess what… links and anchor text also shape the topic of a page.  

Let’s pretend you have two landing pages targeting similar but distinct topics. One page targets “Acoustic Guitars,” while the other targets “6 String Acoustic Guitars”.

These two pages clearly deal with something different, but it would be easy to get caught in a situation where they’re targeting the same keyword. If that happens, all the juice might go to the wrong page.

One easy mistake to make is sending too many links (internal or external) using the “acoustic guitars” anchor to the “6 String Acoustic Guitar” page.

keyword mistake

The anchor of these links tells Google that you want the 6-string page to rank for “acoustic guitar” as well.

Instead, do more content marketing. Build more links that target variations of the longtail keyword, such as “6 string acoustic guitars” and “acoustic guitars that are 6-strings”.

Do this while avoiding or removing the links and anchor text targeted at the broad term.

And make sure to have a hard look at your internal links and their anchor text.  If you’re sending any number of internal links with target anchors to the wrong page, you’re setting yourself up for a ranking disaster.

Page Removal and 301 Redirects

After de-optimizing one page’s content as best you can, then you may wish to ask yourself if the duplicate pages actually address the same concept.

Topical relevance is something that search engines are looking for. If multiple pages of your site are topically similar, you may wish to remove some pages targeting the same keyword.

When you remove relevant pages, my tip is to create a 301 redirect from your old page to the new page and then fix all your internal links to point to that new page.

This simple step means that you no longer have a 404 page floating around, and all your internal link juice flows naturally.

If the content is good on the page you redirected, consider taking that content and adding it to the page that is receiving the redirect.

matt and pete

For example, let’s say you have a page “Best Laptops of 2021”. Now imagine that this page is currently cannibalizing a page with the content: “Best Laptops of 2021 under $1000”.

You can fix this with a simple surgical maneuver.

Take the content from the “under $1000” page and add it as a subsection of the “Best Laptops of 2021” page.  Now, you no longer have multiple pages, but you can still rank for the terms related to the discount on your main page.

Just make sure to modify the injected content, so you don’t alienate that reader and harm your conversion rate.

Merely removing the page from your site isn’t enough. You will also want to remove any redirected pages using the URL Removal Tool to quickly clean up the index.

google url removal request

301s can be quite drastic of a change for a website’s architecture.  Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, and they usually shake things up for a bit before they settle down again.

Why?

Remember—with 301 redirects (and canonicals, for that matter)—the receiving page inherits the links and anchors of the sending page.

This is why I always recommend starting with page content de-optimization.

But when they work, they work.

And it’s nice because the juice from your old page’s links carries over to the new page.

Here’s one example of a member of The Affiliate Lab using 301 redirects to fix cannibalization.

the lab result

Canonical Tags

Canonical tags are often misunderstood with noindex tags, and so people are scared to use them on their site. However, when used properly, a canonical tag can be a great way of reducing keyword cannibalization issues.

Let’s take two similar money pages on your affiliate site competing for a broad term, just as one example of cannibalization.

By creating a canonical tag from your less-important page to the other, you’re telling Google that while some content duplication and similarity exist between the two, the more important page is the one you selected.

So rank that one, instead.

Where cannibalization exists in some areas of the two different pages’ content, canonical tags will show preference to the money page of your choice.

Here are the results we gained from this:

canonical fix

Conclusion

So there you have it…

In this blog post, we answered the question ‘what is keyword cannibalization,’ reviewed five great ways to find cannibalization issues with your site, and gave you three great ways to fix them.

The important thing is to identify the problem, determine if it is harmful, find the culprit, and then create an appropriate action plan.

Now it’s on you to use this information and put a plan in place to fix your content so you can recover your Google rankings and ultimately conversion rate.

Not every cannibalization issue is caused by the same problem, and not every website will benefit from the same solution – it’s best to consult with an expert if you’re uncertain.

You know where to find us: The Search Initiative.