If you work in SEO and content marketing, cannibalisation is a term you should be familiar with. Whether you discover that you have multiple URLs ranking for the same keyword using a ranking tool like Stat or you use an all-purpose SEO tool like SEMrush, you will no doubt have spotted the potential issues with cannibalisation and the impact this can have on your rankings.
Before we dive into how you fix issues with cannibalisation, let’s first understand exactly what it is.
What is cannibalisation?
Cannibalisation is a situation whereby you have two or more URLs from the same website competing for a keyword or set of keywords. This will, in most cases, lead to none of those URLs performing as well as if you had one dedicated URL that was targeting the keyword or set of keywords.
Whilst in a very small number of cases, you might find that both (or more) of the URLs can rank on the first page for a given keyword, the most likely scenario is that they end up diluting their overall authority when it comes to ranking for the target keyword and this can be caused by a couple of things:
- Google is confused about which URL to show seeing as they are both targeting the same keyword
- Google may consider then to be duplicate content
Both of these will result in the best opportunity for your content to rank well, certainly not consistently and it could also lead to a confusing experience for users if they see one page ranking one day and another page if they carry out a similar search the next day.
In a recent Whiteboard Friday, Tom Capper of Moz talked about the issues of cannibalisation and provided an excellent example about the potential issues caused by cannibalisation, even if you have URLs that rank in positions #2 and #3.
His example related to a fictional burger brand, however, stripping it back to its raw components, the example centred on a business that was ranking in #2 and #3 for a particular search query. The result in #2 was a commercial page – a product listing for example, whereas the #3 result was an informational page – a blog post.
The site ranking in #1 was displaying a commercial page – a product listing. In his argument, Tom suggested that if the #2 and #3 URLs were combined, then they could realistically have a chance of ranking in the #1 position by providing a single piece of content that meets the needs of the users in a better way than the current site holding that position. Bearing in mind that in most ranking tools (we use Stat), the difference in the expected click-through rate (CTR) from #1 to #1 is around 20% (Stat estimates a CTR of 35% for #1 and 15% for #2), then ranking in position one could make a huge difference, especially for high value, high volume keywords.
Capper does go on to say that there are situations where Google might simply be serving two intents from the same keyword – a commercial intent and an information intent and in fact, the URL ranking in #2 is simply the second best commercial page and the page ranking in #3 is the best informational page about this particular topic.
In this case, we wouldn’t actually be dealing with cannibalisation, and this is where we would need to look at the rest of the SERP to understand more about the types of results Google is serving to searchers.
What does cannibalisation look like?
The most common example of cannibalisation comes when two separate URLs rank on different days for a specific keyword.
They only ever rank separately for the specific keyword and when one ranks, the other URL doesn’t even appear in the top 100. This is a really clear cut case of keyword cannibalisation. Google doesn’t know which page to rank for the particular keyword and it picks a different URL, seemingly at random, every time your site is crawled.
This situation doesn’t always prevent you from ranking well. Sometimes, whichever URL Google chooses to show can still rank in a strong position, even ranking in position one, however, it is still not a great experience, and it is one that could come back to bite you so we would still recommend cleaning this sort of situation up.
In less obvious cases, we might end up with a similar situation to the one above where we have two URLs ranking for the same keyword. Whilst there may be some element of cannibalisation going on, it could also be the case that both URLs meet the needs of the searcher in different ways (e.g. commercial vs informational) and in this case, the next steps are less clear cut.
In this situation, you would need to check organic traffic to these pages to determine if one page is driving a lot more clicks than the other. Whilst the expected CTR from position #2 to position #3 goes from 15% to 9%, you may find that the URL ranking in #3 is actually driving more traffic as the result is more relevant or the Page Title and Meta Description makes it a more appealing URL for the searcher to click on.
In this situation, it is important to understand the SERP as a whole and the type of result Google is serving. SEMrush will analyse the SERP for a specific keyword and show the types of keywords that are ranking (commercial, transactional, informational, navigational). If you find that all of the keywords are commercial and you have both a commercial and an informational page ranking, you might consider whether your commercial page could rank better by combining the page with the information page. Alternatively, if there is a mixture of content ranking, you may find that yours is the best information page as well as being a strong commercial page and it may make sense to keep both.
How to fix issues with cannibalisation?
Once you have identified potential issues with cannibalisation, it’s going to be important to take the steps to fix up the issue and provide clear signals to Google about the page you want to rank for a particular keyword.
The big decision you usually have to make is to differentiate or consolidate.
We can look at the examples provided above when making this decision. In the situation where you have two pages flip-flopping in and out of the results, this is a clear case for consolidating your content. It is obvious that both pages cannot rank at the same time so it makes sense to consolidate those two pages into one super-strong URL that really matches the searcher’s intent.
If we want two pages to continue ranking for a particular keyword because Google values both (we give the example of pages ranking in #2 and #3, however, you might find a situation where one page ranks in #2 and the other in #18 for example), then it is more important to differentiate the content on the two pages you are targeting.
One thing we have found over recent times (and something Tom also picked up on in his Whiteboard Friday), is the move towards including more SEO-focussed content to the bottom of a product page in order to help with SEO. This copy can end up confusing Google in terms of the intent of the page and whether it is a commercial or informational page.
Equally, informational pages like blogs are starting to include more products – maybe they are featured or linked and this can cause similar confusion for Google about the intent of the page. In this case, it’s important to differentiate and keep the intent of the page very separate. Make sure they contain very separate information even though they are targeting the same keywords.
As Tom points out, it’s much easier to avoid getting into a cannibalisation situation in the first place. We know this is not always possible – you might be an agency picking up on where an old agency has left off for example – however, there are some things you can do to check if a new piece of content or a new product release is likely to cause cannibalisation with any other content already on a site.
Simply run a site: search and include the keyword you are looking to target. This will then pull up all the pages on a site that Google thinks is relevant for that particular keyword and you can assess these to ensure your new page will not cannibalise any of your existing content.
You can also run a search in your keyword ranking tool to find out if you already rank for a particular keyword and in what position. If it is a keyword that you are ranking poorly for, you can look at the existing content and see if that could be improved or create a new piece of content and then redirect the existing piece to your new piece in an attempt to improve your rankings.
If you are worried about keyword cannibalisation or any other SEO-related issue, please don’t hesitate to drop us a line and see how Digital Hothouse can help you to drive more organic traffic.