Cannibalization. A horrid human practice prevalent during certain times of historic famine, zombie outbreaks and through tribal ritual. Also a perfectly natural act preformed by certain animal species.
But in 2019, something else entirely seems to practice this deplorable act as well – your keywords!
It all started on a regular day. Your keywords were minding their own business being crawled by Google’s spiders and slowly being noticed by them, getting ranked higher and higher on the SERP. But then it happened, one keyword got a taste of keyword flesh and the outbreak started. Keyword cannibalization. A serious autoimmune SEO disorder which affects many websites and people usually notice when the effects becomes too noticeable and that means the situation has been neglected. A perfectly preventable and fixable situation!
So, what does “keyword cannibalization” even mean in serious industry terms? It basically means your website is hampering its own ranking potential for certain keywords!
How keyword cannibalization happens
The main reason is the outdated SEO practice of having several pages promote the same keyword or even whole keyword clusters. As a result, your own pages might end up competing against one another in addition to other websites. When Google rank websites they determine which pages deserve to rank high based on relevance. Google doesn’t care if their top100 SERP for a certain keyword contains pages from the same website.
For example, let’s say you are promoting a business that provides pest control services in the Queens area in NY. This website has three pages that might be susceptible to cannibalization:
- How to get rid of Rats and Wasps | Jericho’s Pest Control
- How to get rid of rats | Jericho’s Pest Control
- How to get rid of wasps| Jericho’s Pest Control
Page no.1 might be effectively competing against pages 2 & 3. This can either be on the meta level or content level, with 3 pages of content discussing more or less the same topics – getting rid of rats and wasps.
Now you might be thinking, isn’t it good to have several pages from your website featured in Google’s SERP for the same keyword? The answer is ‘it depends’.
The standard practice that is recommended today is that you have one solid page ranked highly per targeted search term, instead of having several pages poorly ranked all over the place for that term. But as with many things, there are exceptions to this guideline as well (which we will discuss shortly).
Unless it’s your intention to be ranked several times for the same keyword (which is very hard to accomplish), this is something you need to look out for, since keyword cannibalization hinders your organic growth. Also, for all we know Google might decide one day on a new guideline that demotes cross rankings.
How to detect cannibalization CORRECTLY with FULL SERPs
We will explain the easiest method there is using Pro Rank Tracker.
If you don’t track your keywords and URL correctly from the start you will simply not discover cannibalization effectively.
In the example above, you will need to track any keyword with the right personalization settings:
Keyword: “Wasp pest control Queens”
Geo-targeted Location: Queens, NY. The only rank that matters in this case is the rank people from the area of service see. It doesn’t matter how that website ranks in L.A. or if pages are competing for spots for L.A.-oriented searches.
Desktop and Mobile ranks: So, both desktop search results and mobile search results differ based on various factors (mobile website compatibility is one of them). You need to track SERP visibility for clients searching pest control from their Desktop PCs as well as from a mobile device.
Mobile OS type rank: Apple users see different search results than Android users. Make sure you are visible for both!
Mobile device type: Smartphones and Tablet searches also give different search results to users. Make sure you track at least one of those!
Google UI language: Search results are also determined by what is the default language the person searching Google has. So, in this case it doesn’t matter as much if you are visible to people with a French UI language. This will matter for example in areas such as Quebec Canada, since there is a significant demographic chunk of French speaking users there. In this case we will choose English.
And if all of that seems confusing, then it means you are not up to date fully on how Google shows search results. Read this guide on Google’s SERP conditions.
So, once you have every keyword tracked correctly, it’s time to use our FULL SERPs tool that will reveal if any of your pages are competing for spots within the top100, for any given search term/condition. FULL SERPS can show you in a single graph the entire top100 search results for any term. Here’s how the top20 look like:
Now all that is left is to explore the keywords that you track with FULL SERPS and see if your URL shows up more than once inside the top100 positions and in which positions. And you’re done.
Other manual and more general approaches exist, but you can simply Google those. This method is faster and easier to implement and will be far more accurate than any manual check that you do.
How to treat cannibalization and stop the infection from spreading
So, imagine you checked FULL SERPS and have indeed discovered cannibalization. Now what?
Let’s explore a few possible situations:
The ‘Good’ cannibalization – You might have 2 pages of the pest control website ranked on the 1st page of Google, in which case it’s a welcome cannibalization (although rare). If this is the case you just need to make sure that the titles and descriptions shown on the SERP are enticing enough to click, and that each of them looks unique and offering a focus on a different topic and search intent. Having two pages inside the top20 means more traffic in most cases. But this is considering both pages are aimed at conversions. If only the lower ranked page is aimed at conversions, then you will need to consider adjusting the content and titles. The higher ranked result maybe gathers more clicks on the SERP but converts more poorly, for example.
The ‘Bad’ cannibalization – Two pages are ranked close to one another beyond page 2 (below position 20). Effectively these two pages are like two crabs in a bucket, clawing and preventing each other from rising to the top of the bucket.
Another common cannibalization case is when pages alternate top positions for the same search term. For example, page no.1 and 2 are flip flopping for top10 positions. It can either be a symptom of Google’s constant algo updates or of cannibalization. If the two pages rank severely inconsistently and change positions one over the other often, it might be a sign of cannibalization. Especially if you recognize both pages have similar content.
In both cases, it would be wise to consider which page is stronger in CTR and has better backlinks and conversion potential and choosing to boost that one, while the weaker page will get 301 redirected or changed altogether.
You might decide that both pages should be visible to visitors but only one of them favored by search engines. Using canonicalization instead of 301 redirects, transfers the ranking favors to the canonical version while keeping the ‘transferred’ page visible to visitors. If the two competing pages are adequately different this might be a good option. For example, the canonical will be the main landing page discussing the entire subject of pest control, while the other (‘canonically transferred page’) deals with wasp extermination in depth. The main landing page that is designed to convert will remain ranked high, while the other will be accessible to site visitors that come internally or via backlinks/social.
The ‘Ugly’ cannibalization – One page is ranked highly, and another page is ranked somewhere beyond page 2 (below 20). In most cases this is a minor problem, and the stronger page is likely not influenced by this too much. This isn’t ideal but maybe not worth the time to address either. In case you want to solve this issue, one solution is to have the lesser page 301 redirected to the stronger page or explore the canonical option we discussed earlier.
General tips to avoid cannibalization
The best practice is to try and avoid this scenario in the first place. And the best way to avoid cannibalization is just to use a solid content building practice while also considering the latest strategies and guidelines of proper SEO. Here are some quick suggestions:
Focusing on conversion and backlinks quality
Promote one solid page aimed at generating conversions and a high-quality sales funnel for tightly related keywords, instead of creating many pages aimed at the same traffic. Get high quality backlinks and social network referrals that are all targeting the relevant keywords and all point to the same single promoted page. This approach is much stronger than many backlinks pointing at several different pages for the same search terms.
Canonicals are your friends
If you run an eCommerce store, or plan to publish a blog that will on occasion tackle the same search terms and topics, make sure to point any fresh pages to the canonical version that targets those keywords (don’t forget to include internal links to the canonical version as well).
Even if Google considers this as kosher, don’t forget that if those new pages offer little novelty or value, or are too like the source and discuss the same topics, you might lower the general user experience from your content. Plus, why make duplicate content to begin with? It certainly won’t help you rank, since this isn’t 2006 anymore.
Cannibalization is more common than some realize. Cannibalization starts being an issue when a website gets spotted by Google and enters the top100 SERP. Ultimately cannibalization is an unpleasant symptom of a favorable result, which means you did many things correctly.
It’s easy to forget about it because SEO experts are so zoomed in and focused on getting those top10 positions, backlinks and CTRs. Chances are, that if you got ranked high for a certain search term but you have several pages targeting that keyword, there might be cannibalization happening. Be sure you use our FULL SERPs as mentioned above to make sure no cannibal pages lurk behind the second page!
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