In this article, I thought we'd take a look at an issue that is incredibly easy to miss in many underperforming websites. I recently mentioned it in this video on my new YouTube channel
If your niche website has been around for a while with some pretty decent content yet you find yourself in first gear when it comes to climbing the rankings, content cannibalization is a key diagnosis you want to exclude.
Well, in some ways it is as it can really lay waste to a lot of hard work and decent content.
Plus you may find it takes months for your site to recover from a cannibalization issue.
So I hope you will find this article a useful heads up for how to identify and correct content cannibalization issues in your site.
Firstly, just what is content cannibalization?
Content cannibalization, also known as keyword cannibalization in SEO circles, is a situation that arises where you produce blog posts and articles on your site that all target the same keywords. You may not have deliberately created articles that target similar keywords but to Google and other search engines, you appear to be targeting the same search terms and end up being marked down across all the offending articles.
No body snatchers here, but content cannibalization does mean that perhaps one or none of the articles you have labored on will rank.
If they do rank, you may find that the page that is genuinely targeting the keyword, ranks beneath one of your other articles.
I know it's not duplicate content but…
Perhaps you have seen those page 1 SERPs that are entirely populated from a single website, but you have to admit, that is vanishingly rare.
According to Ahrefs, when Google is faced with the situation of multiple related results from a single domain unless the website is super high authority, only one, or two at most are going to make it through and rank.
If you are owning number one, two, and even three positions for your search terms, you don't want to disturb things, but with lower or absent rankings something may need to be done.
You may call it detail, but creating articles and posts that are too similar are literally eating up your chances of ranking.
With content cannibalization, rather than competing with the millions of other websites on the World Wide Web, you have picked a battle that you cannot win.
A fight against yourself!
Keyword cannibalism wrecks your SEO prospects as it makes it difficult for bots to distinguish between posts and rank them appropriately.
The more I delve into SEO, the more I understand that you have to make things incredibly blatant to search engines and leave nothing to assumptions.
Everything requires its little box or markup. Google is a clever bot but it can still struggle with separating keywords that are very similar too.
Because the search engines cannot separate your posts easily, there are knock-on effects across all the affected articles including dilution of the positive effects of backlinks.
CTR is also weakened as it is spread across more pages than you intended.
What causes content cannibalisation?
As I mentioned above, this phenomenon is not intentional or absent-minded, but simply arises from creating too many posts that target similar keywords. I've found that you can run into this problem by:
- Optimizing posts for focus keywords you have used before. This is not an overnight thing, it most commonly takes place over years, where newer content you are producing on your site starts to disturb, well-aged and ranked content that was pretty staple.
- Writing posts that target very similar but not identical keywords. This is a more subtle problem, where you are targeting keywords that are very similar in the way they read or are interpreted. Yoast gives a great example of two of their posts that had this exact problem with the keywords [does readability rank] and [readability ranking factor].
- Writing posts for keywords that have an alternate search intent. Google is very careful to ensure that its results are well aligned with user intent. Often multiple articles that are targeting a particular niche may be identical in terms of keyword but distinct when it comes to user intent. Unfortunately, it is easy to lose out in this situation.
- eCommerce websites where there are multiple similar product categories and descriptions. If you are selling online you may have multiple product pages all targeting keywords that are similar.
Content cannibalisation is a problem of large and fast-growing sites.
It's easy to formulate long content plans that are primed with loads of relevant keywords that you have scraped from a variety of sources.
Also, it's incredibly easy to write again and again on subjects that you are familiar with.
The bigger your website grows, the more likely it is that you will accidentally run across topics and keywords that you have written about before.
But cannibalization problems point us to the fact that we have to be careful about not writing an article for every single keyword we come across and being attentive to keyword duplication over time.
Recognizing keyword cannibalisation.
Thankfully, spotting content cannibalization is relatively straightforward.
Go to Google and do a site search (site:yourblog.com "suspect keyword") targeting keywords that you suspect have multiple results.
Verify your results and their rankings by searching for the affected keywords and content in a private browser.
This will provide you with a clear indication of their ranking and also guide the strategy you'll use to tackle the problem.
You can also look for duplicate keywords on your site by using Site Explorer.
Type your website into site explorer and get the Organic Keywords report for the site.
You can then export the keywords to Sheets or Excel via CSV and sort your keywords alphabetically, looking for duplicates that can then be investigated further.
An alternative strategy for pinpointing articles that are affected by cannibalisation.
A more forensic method involves analysis of the cluster of keywords turned up by your initial Google site search.
Identify all content in your site that includes the keyword(s) you are investigating.
Articles that relate to these keywords no matter how tenuous should be added for review.
You need to work out which of the articles are ranking and the SERP results they occupy so you can take decisive action and prioritize the best performing or most profitable content.
Your next step will be to look at how each piece of content is performing in Google Search Console's Performance Section.
Use the filter function to match all queries that contain your target keywords.
This will provide the exact keywords for which your site had appeared in the search results as well as the clicks that ranked pages were receiving.
In a cannibalization situation, you are likely to find that only one or two pages of an affected cluster are getting any traffic at all.
It is almost inevitable that you are going to have to size up individual posts for the chop.
Using the Page filter in Search Console can help with this, but it really comes down to the traffic and profitability of each page.
Identifying your keeper content is vital.
You don't want to end up cutting or merging pages that convert well and provide you with revenue, even if they are lower in the rankings.
Tackling cannibalized content.
Armed with traffic and financial metrics it's time to decide which of your affected articles are staying or going. You have three options for each post:
- Keep it
- Delete it
- Merge it
Among remaining articles and posts, you should identify core content that can be merged or receive redirects from deleted content.
- Posts that are deleted are redirected to other relevant remaining posts. Before you send articles to the bin, make sure that you are not scrapping decent backlinks that your site benefits from.
- You can also de-optimise posts that aren't performing well, stripping mentions of the problematic keyword and altering the pages links.
- Canonical tags are also a means of directing Google's bots to prioritse material in your site. The rel=“canonical” snippet can be used to markup a primary piece of content that needs to be prioritized.
- No-indexing is also a strategy which allows you to retain content that is useful to your site visitors without frustrating the situation with Google and other search engines. No-indexing is a great preventative strategy for cannibalization too.
Merging multiple related articles into an authoritative skyscraper article is a great way of repurposing cannibalized content.
If you have a cluster of articles looking at a particular keyword or topic they can be combined into a larger, more authoritative piece with the URLs from the original articles redirected to it.
This is a great workaround for not only active keyword cannibalization but refreshing your content long term.
Targeted internal linking can also salvage cannibalized content.
Helping Google work out what you are doing with a cluster of closely related articles may make all the difference to their rankings and performance.
As I mentioned above, making things more than obvious to Google can only help ambiguous situations with keywords and similar search terms.
Why not use internal linking to set up a hierarchy within interrelated posts that makes their order of priority clear. The internal linking structure can be crawled by search engines and used to rank the post in order of importance.
Take one article and make it your headline article.
Use the other, less important articles to link back to the headline article.
This tells google from numerous places in your site that the prioritized article is the one that it should be boosting.
Prevent cannibalisation issues going forwards by using your focus keywords once and once only!
Content cannibalization is often an issue that only crops up when you have made a lot of progress with a blog and some time has passed, which can make it a real headache to unpick all the keyword duplications and clusters that are holding your site back.
For me, prevention is better than cure, and at least going forward, you can put strategies into practice to prevent keyword cannibalization from becoming an issue again.
- Use primary keywords or phrases only once
The ideal solution is that you only take one shot at a target keyword. In reality, that's not so easy as it is common to look at topics and keywords from different angles and user intents. However, sticking to this strategy will mean that you do not create content pieces that have the potential to compete among themselves.
- Choose your keywords and phrases well so that you hit the mark first time.
Finding keywords can be like being a kid in a sweetshop - you just want to use everything thinking that this will inevitably lead to more traffic. However, content cannibalization has shown us otherwise.
If your content plan would put an encyclopedia to shame, you need to think more carefully about refining your selection of keywords and creating stand-out posts and articles, rather than content for every single keyword variant.
- Consider using no-follow and canonical tags for certain planned content pieces.
If you have articles that you want to prioritize or articles you do not need to be crawled, strategic use of canonical tags and no-follow can keep your search engine footprint focused. Reserve the no-follow for the things you want to say to your site visitors, but not the search engine.
- Plugins can alert you to previously used keywords
Many SEO plugins have taken the initiative and will alert you if you are optimizing content for a primary keyword that you have used before.
Remember, serving up content to Google really means that you have to make things more than obvious in many cases!
No one wants to see their website devour itself, but as we can see it is very easy to create content that works against itself online.
By being alert to the potential for cannibalization of your content you can take the steps to diagnose and remedy this issue, and potentially see an uplift in your rankings and traffic.
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