Imagine you’re trying to rank for a keyword like—let’s say—”Affordable Web Development”. You’re not a rookie, and you know your way around SEO, and you know the best way to get the attention of search engines is to cast a wide net and have the phrase ‘affordable web developer’ on as many of your pages as possible. You direct the content team to include it in blogs, in microcopy, in meta tags. You apply this for months and … get nowhere. What’s going on?
Well, you might be eating yourself. Keyword cannibalisation is when a particular site uses the same keywords on too many of its pages, confusing the crawlers and also spreading your clickthroughs around so much that they dilute your attempts to get up the SERP. If 100 people come to your site looking for Affordable Web Development and come to five different pages,then each page gets 20 hits and none of them end up on page 1.Now, I don’t use the term to refer to get multiple pages to the first SERP—if you’ve managed to do that, then you’ve managed to avoid cannibalising yourself and you’ve doubled your chances. Having a lot of keywords isn’t always bad and is often a huge asset, but if your keywords are spread all over your site you’re having trouble ranking, this might be worth investigating. What can you actually do about cannibalisation?
The Meta Solution
This is all about making sure your site architecture and meta tags are all in order. The usual guides to optimizing your XML sitemap and the like all apply here, but this is a subset of that: make sure your groups and labels don’t overlap and aren’t cannibalising each other.
If you have meta titles like
Affordable Web Development > Affordable PHP Web Development > Affordable Laravel Web Development
then the crawlers are going to have a harder time figuring out which one to put on the first page, and they’re going to spread all your link juice around so nobody gets as much as they need. Same amount of water spread across three cups. If you change it to:
Affordable Web Development > PHP Developers > Laravel Developers
then suddenly the crawlers have a much easier time figuring out which page to rank for which keyword, and your odds of actually ranking skyrocket. There’s a running joke amongst internet users: the best place to hide a dead body is page 2 of Google search results—one link on page 1 is worth 1000 on page 2. If one of your blog posts is keeping another one of your blog posts off page 1, it needs to go.
Learn to Redirect
While there’s some danger in clogging up a site with endless 301 redirects, one in the right place can be an incredibly effective solution to the cannibalisation problem. If you have a 2014 blog post about Affordable Web Development that ranks very highly but isn’t relevant any more and is preventing newer (and/or better) content for getting onto page 1, a redirect can help you retain that vintage link juice (link wine?) while keeping your results relevant and your clickthroughs high.
Keep in mind, if you do this too often it can cause site issues, and doing inappropriately (say, linking a blog post about TF-IDF to one about Affordable Web Development) then you’re liable to get yourself slapped with a Google penalty. Only use a 301 if:
- The new content is very similar to the old content, such as an update or a revision
- The old content has backlinks worth preserving
- You don’t want to keep the old content
Google Penalties don’t need to be the end of the world, but it’s best to avoid them in the first place rather than have to deal with the aftermath.
Bring It All Together
If you have two pages on the same topic … do you need two pages? Finding a way to rework them into a single page will help to concentrate traffic into a single place and give you that much-needed boost. Talk to your teams and figure out if there is an efficient way to consolidate pages that are too similar.
LOAD UP THE CANONS, LADS
You can use rel canonical to direct spiders away from the pages you don’t want to rank and towards the one you do. Like 301s, you should only be doing this if content is very similar, but if you’re running into cannibalization issues then they’ve probably at least got something in common. Abuse of this for purely SEO purposes is another thing that can get you into trouble with Google, and is something you should practice with care and discretion, but accurate use of it can be a huge help in resolving this sort of issue.
Okay, what now?
If it’s still not working, you might want to bring in, well, Affordable Web Developers. The days of keyword stuffing and metadata manipulation are over—SEO in 2019 is an art, and it takes real skill to get yourself onto the first SERP. Keyword cannibalization is just one part of a huge network of factors that are changing every day.
Your job, at the end of the day, is to streamline your site and remove barriers between your content and the SERP. SEO used to be all about the offence, but now we’re making more defensive plays—Google has pushed us back into our own half, and I think it has made us better. You have one major goal as a digital marketer: make your site as good as it can be.
Sometimes that means writing great content, and sometimes that means redirecting rivers so they flow where you want them.