Keyword Cannibalization: Top 5 Ways to Diagnose and Fix it

A few months ago I published an article about the top 10 most common SEO problems that we found with new clients coming to The Search Initiative (TSI).

Afterwards there was an enormous amount of interest in the Facebook groups and forums about a particular issue: keyword cannibalization.

What is keyword cannibalization?  Also known as topic duplication, its when you have two pages on your website competing for the same keywords, and as a result, these pages find difficulty ranking.

Why was this topic become so popular?

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

Google really turned up the volume on this in 2017.

Now, that said, there’s also a lot of controversy over this topic as with many things right now in SEO (LSI much?).

Some people don’t like the term “keyword cannibalization”.  Others say they can’t find a patent on it, so it must not exist.  Some say “Hey look, here’s a website ranking 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 you’re suffering from it, and when your pages that never ranked pop up to page 1, you can thank me then.

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

How to Diagnose Keyword Cannibalization

1) Agency Analytics

To illustrate keyword cannibalization with an example, I set up an experiment to track a completely random website that clearly exhibited keyword cannibalization issues.

Agency Analytics is a keyword tracking tool that we use to track day-to-day rankings of keywords across your core pages. It’s also a great way to track the health of a page and individual rankings, but if used correctly can diagnose a lot more issues too.

Below, you’ll see a screenshot for the overall rankings 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.

One of the great features in this tool is that we can track individual keyword progress, 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, and 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 your keywords daily and tracking the URL changes.

2) AHREFs

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

One of the great features about Ahrefs is their keyword explorer, allowing you to look at 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 can instantly spot keyword cannibalization.

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 ranking (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 tools for checking keyword cannibalization 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 volumes.

You do that here…

semrush sidebar

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

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 keywords that are cannibalized 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 two URLs 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 be able to easily duplicate the cell and turn Column A into a long list of keyword cannibalization 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 rank trackers out there with a freemium plan. One of the features of Serplab is that it tracks the URL of your pages in SERP and as such, it is excellent for diagnosing keyword cannibalism.

To use Serplab for cannibalism diagnosis, here are the steps to follow:

1) Login to your Serplab account and select the project  you want to diagnose

serplab12) On the new 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 new page, you will see a graph showing the SERP overview of the keyword in view. When you notice too many ups and downs as shown in the image below, then your pages are probably cannibalized.

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 3 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 detect cannibalism.

5) Google Search Console

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

For the most observant SEOs, 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 Google Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools) to diagnose keyword cannibalization, will give you access to the top 300 search positions.

GSC provides a far larger data set to work with than than most tools. It’s also based on all queries that your pages are returned for in the SERPS, 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

pages shown

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

6) Google Search Operators

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

By using Google site operators, you can check the entire Google index to find duplicate pages. Here’s an example of duplicate keywords on my own website:Google Search operators, you can find pages that have any duplicate content. For example, take a look at some keyword duplication on Diggity Marketing.

site on diggity

If you haven’t noticed already, I’m not trying to rank this site for anything (for perhaps obvious reasons), but here’s a solid example.

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 a page that has been cannibalizing.

ahrefs on diggity

So if I wanted to reduce cannibalization here, I could use this site search to deoptimize pages for exact match keywords. It’s time consuming, but Google uses TF-IDF to understand relevance, and if the term shows up more frequently elsewhere on your website, it could be contributing towards cannibalization.

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

However, this is still a great trick to use if you get stuck for ideas on reducing cannibalisation.

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

How to 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 that could potentially be having this problem.

But hold up!

Before you go flying to the comments section for help on every single keyword – I need to first start with the fact that…

Keyword cannibalization isn’t always bad.

When you see two pages competing for the same term but both on the first page – that’s actually good and going 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 actually stuck because of cannibalization, or not.

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

deoptimizedPage De-Optimization

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

Google is primarily a web crawler that wants to understand your page, so when two pieces of content are similar – it causes confusion.

On top of that, they want to prevent naughty SEOs like you and I from taking over page 1 with URLs from a single website.

The easy solution for this problem is to check your SEO title tags (set in Yoast or All-In-One).

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

Since SEO titles are one of the strongest ways for conveying 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, making sure that you’ve sculpted a page that is truly unique in content and headings.

But is that all?

Guess what… offsite optimization also shapes the topic of a page.  

Let’s pretend you have two pages “Acoustic Guitars” and “6 String Acoustic Guitars”.

If you end up sending too many anchors with “acoustic guitars” to the “6 String Acoustic Guitar” page, you’re setting yourself up to telling Google that the 6-string page wants to rank for “acoustic guitar” as well.

Instead, build more links that target variations of the longtail keyword, such as “6 string acoustic guitars” and “acoustic guitars that are 6-strings”, while avoiding or removing the anchors targeted at the broad term.

Page Removal and 301’s

After de-optimizing a page as best you can, then you may wish to ask yourself if the two pages actually address the same concept.

Topical relevancy is something that Google is looking for, and if multiple sections of your site are topically the same, then you may wish to remove some pages.

My tip for when you remove pages 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 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.

For example, let’s say you have a page “Best Laptops of 2018” and which is cannibalizing with a page “Best Laptops of 2018 under $1000”.

Take the content from the “under $1000” page and create it as a subsection of the “Best Laptops of 2018” page.  That way you can continue to rank for the terms related to the discount on your main page.

Simply removing the page from your website isn’t enough, you will also want to remove them using the URL Removal Tool to quickly clear up the index.

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’s (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 de-optimization.

But when they work, they work.

Here’s an example of a member of The Lab using 301’s 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 website. However, when used properly, a canonical tag can be a great way of reducing keyword cannibalization.

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

By creating a canonical tag from your less-important page to the other, you’re telling Google that while some duplication and similarity exists 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 pages’ content, a canonical tag will show preference to the money page of your choice.

Here’s the results we gained from this:

cannonical fix

Conclusion

So there you have it…

Here are five great ways to find cannibalization issues with your website, and three great ways on how 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.

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.

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