Keyword Cannibalization - Are you devouring your own SEO efforts?

Posted on 26 Jun 2013 by Jes Stiles to SEO Guides

Many content marketers have the right idea, a desire to create keyword focused content in order to boost SEO traffic and link worthiness. But sometimes they haven’t really thought the whole ‘implementation’ thing through.

keyword cannibalism

Say you have commercial web page targeting the keyword ‘cookies’. Then you target the exact same keyword phrase with a blog article. The blog article receives lots of social shares, inbound links and onpage metric love (visitors with low bounce rates and high time on page). Chances are with all these SEO signals the blog article will outrank the commercial web page for the keyword (which will be struggling to rank at all since Google values domain diversity in SERPs).

And what if it doesn’t outrank the commercial page. Well, then you have spent time, effort and possibly money on a piece of content that doesn’t perform or add business value. You have split your traffic, page authority, link and other nifty SEO factors across multiple pages. And you have missed out on an opportunity to target a long tail keyword.

Either way, you’re in a world of trouble.

This is the dilemma of keyword cannibalization - when multiple pages on the one site are optimized for the exact same keyword.

Why keyword cannibalization is detrimental

Firstly, Google doesn’t like it. Google bot has a hard time trying to figure out which (if any) page should rank for the duplicated keyword query. That’s reason enough.

keyword cannibalization

Secondly, keyword cannibalization creates confusion for your visitors. How are they to know which page is best for what they are looking for. Also, reason enough. But there is also another important, yet more subtle, reason.

Look at your analytics. Do your blog articles convert nearly as well as your commercial web page? No? You're not alone.

The reason for the lower conversion rate is the search intent. Ideally blog articles should target keywords which are more research oriented with an informational search internet. While commercially driven, transactional intent based keywords are left to category or product pages further down the conversion funnel.


Optimize each piece of content on your site around a primary keyword and 2 - 3 close variants. Then use pages targeted at informational keywords phrases to link back to the money pages of your site with effective anchor text. That is the key to effective keyword usage in information architecture.

How to avoid keyword cannibalization

1. Optimize blog articles for the long tail

Everyone defines ‘long tail’ differently - so let me qualify what I mean in this case. Target keywords which exhibit one or more of the following traits:

  • 3 - 5 word phrases
  • Likely has an informational search intent
  • Competitive enough to require a dedicated page to rank in SERPs
  • Does not warrant optimization on a money page (there is a limit to the number of keywords you can effectively target) but is still relevant
  • Is able to sustain a page by itself. A significant amount of people search for it and you have valuable content to provide to readers

Let me give you an example. Say I have a commercial page making bookings for The Bird Restaurant (my favorite burger place here in Berlin). I could write a blog article targeting the keyword ‘The Bird restaurant Berlin review’. It’s 5 words long, has an informational search intent, the ‘review’ qualifier allows me to be competitive in the SERPs and the chance for conversion is high bringing value.

Your blog articles bring in organic traffic, answering the readers questions and concerns. At the end of the article, link to your commerical page to convert the now qualified leads. Brilliant.

Pro tip: If in doubt whether a keyword needs its own page, save time and effort by running an exact match targeted Adwords campaign sending the traffic to your commercial page. If the bounce rate is high, chances are you need a dedicated page. And as a bonus, you will get accurate search volume data.

2. Understand keyword prominence

I get asked one question a lot:

If I am optimizing for the keyword ‘cookies’ on my commercial page and ‘chocolate cookie brands’ in my blog article, both keyword phrases contain ‘cookies’. Am I keyword cannibalizing?

Short answer: No

It’s all about keyword prominence. Not necessarily if you use a keyword on a page, but where and how you use it.

Not all words on a webpage are marked up equally. Keywords in urls, page titles, header tags, alt image tags, internal links and other powerful on page elements call them out as important to search engines. Use these SEO critical tags to intelligently present your keywords.

A potentially keyword cannibalizing blog article breaks up the keyword phrase, putting the commercial keyword at or near the beginning of critical on page SEO elements:

Page title: Cookie Roundup - Chocolate Cookie Brands of 2013 | CookieMonster
Headline: The Best Cookies in the Chocolate Category Found in our 2013 Roundup
Alt tag: cookie boxes photo
Internal inbound link: cookie roundup

Non-competitive blog article optimization has a strong focus on the keyword as a united phrase at or near the beginning of critical on page SEO elements:

Page title: Chocolate Cookie Brands - A Roundup for 2013 | CookieMonster
Headline: The Best Chocolate Cookie Brands Found in our 2013 Roundup
Alt tag: Chocolate Cookies Brand Boxes Photo
Internal inbound link: chocolate cookie brands roundup

Think about it. Google is pretty smart. It has learnt the difference between broad category pages and more detailed subpages. But you can always help clarify by playing by the SEO rules.

3. Leverage keyword qualifiers

Keyword qualifiers help you understand the users search intent and allocate your keyword to appropriate pages. Often they revolve around common themes.

Theme Qualifier Intent
Quality Best, top, good Transactional
Price Cheap, under $10 Transactional
Type Red, size 6, italian Transactional
Opinion Review, test, survey Informational
Time Tonight, 2013, in May Informational
Location Berlin, local, nearby Informational

When you find a qualifier that works for you, expand on it. For example, if my Bird Restaurant review article performed well, I would write other reviews. Even better, find out what themes your competitors are optimizing around and beat them at their own game. If they blogged about top Berlin restaurants for 2012, create a content piece for 2013 (before they have the chance).

4. Keep a keyword index

No matter what, you should have an index that maps keywords to the SEO pages on your site. Or for larger websites, keyword qualifiers. For example, an ecommerce website might always optimize their product pages for the product name + buy and product name + online. This becomes even more critical for sites with a large content marketing team.

keyword index example

In case you don’t have a keyword index, we have created a template for you to download.

First, check your index to identify any keyword cannibalism. Afterwards, make this information available to all your content creators, taking care to share it with all new team members. That way, no one will unknowingly keyword cannibalise a money page by optimizing for already targeted keywords.

Pro tip: In your index, only include pages where the intent is to rank for a keyword. Mapping your entire site can get a bit out of hand. And if you reach the point where Excel is becoming cumbersome due to a high number of blog articles, you can use the keyword tracking feature in Tailbee - as an extra bonus Tailbee also shows you the performance metrics of your keywords over time.

What to do if you're suffering from keyword cannibalization?

First, assess if it's negatively impacting your site. If the page you want to rank is ranking and your not breaking any cardinal SEO edicts, ask yourself if the effort to optimize past content pieces is worth the reward.

If so, decide what pages you want to rank for which keywords. Then go back and either merge the pages or repurpose the competing pages to target alternate (and unique) keywords. Just watch out if you’re playing around with URLs. Be sure to implement 301 redirects correctly.

Lesson learned about keyword cannibalization

  1. It’s bad, don’t do it
  2. Use blog articles to support your money pages, not challenge them
  3. Focus your blog more on long tail, informational search terms
  4. Understand the importance of onpage SEO elements for keyword prominence
  5. Keep records for keywords your have targeted, especially in large teams

Remember great keyword optimization means looking at the big picture of your site and devising a plan to effectively utilize each piece of content to target the right keywords in a cohesive theme.

Agree? Disagree? Been stalked by keyword Cannibal Lector? Tell me about it with a comment.

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