Search engines are one of the most commonly used tech tools in the world, with the vast majority of the global internet-connected population conducting dozens of searches each day. That’s why so many business owners have turned to the power of search engines, with strategies like search engine optimization (SEO) and pay per click (PPC) advertising, to promote their businesses.
But if you’re not careful, your best search-focused efforts can result in redundancies, ultimately costing you time and money without a resulting boost in your bottom-line results.
A key example of this is keyword cannibalization. But what exactly is it, and how can you avoid falling victim to it?
What Is Keyword Cannibalization?
In the digital marketing world, both SEO and PPC advertising strategies rely on keywords and keyword phrases as their foundation. When people conduct searches, they type specific queries into the search bar; targeting the appropriate user queries can help you reach the right audience, avoid competition, and establish greater relevance for specific user intentions simultaneously.
Keyword cannibalization occurs when some aspect of your strategy, such as an ad campaign or a piece of onsite content, encroaches on the keyword territory of another aspect of your strategy. Note that this isn’t an issue with competitors; this is an example of your own content competing with itself.
It’s easiest to understand keyword cannibalization with an SEO example. Let’s say you have a piece of onsite content that’s currently at position 6 for the term “custom skateboard wheels,” and another piece of content is ranking at position 8. Instead of one central, defining piece ranking highly, you’ve effectively split your resources for this keyword term, resulting in two inferior pieces.
In the world of PPC advertising, the concept of keyword cannibalization is similar, but distinct, because there are multiple types of cannibalization that can occur.
- Keyword overlap. If you have multiple sets of ads targeting the same keywords or groups of phrases, neither of those ad groups will reach their maximum efficiency.
- Geographic overlap. You can also run into a problem if you’re running ads for two geographic areas that overlap; for example, you can run an ad in Cincinnati and one in Ohio, but because Cincinnati is a city in Ohio, you may run into some conflicts.
- SEO and PPC overlap. While it’s possible to benefit from having both a dominant piece of organic ranking content and a paid ad on the same page, for the most part, you want to avoid SEO and PPC overlap.
Keyword cannibalization can be a major problem because:
- Detraction from your best pages. If you have an exemplary piece of content you want to show off at the highest rankings, any encroachment from inferior content could detract from it, weakening its potential.
- Ranking loss. You know that rankings matter, but you may not realize just how important it is to reach rank one. If you have a secondary page competing for SERP space with a primary page, neither will be able to reach its full potential; in turn, you’ll likely suffer a loss of organic traffic.
- User confusion. If a user conducts a search and sees two different pieces of content from your site, how should they know which one to choose? At best, you’ll have confused users. At worst, they could end up on a page you don’t want them to see.
- Wasted time, money, and effort. The biggest problem is that keyword cannibalization results in wasted time, money, and effort. Your secondary, encroaching pages won’t hold much value, but you’ll take time and spend money creating them. Similarly, your infringing paid ads won’t provide much value, even though you’re paying full price for them.
Keyword Cannibalization: Is It Always an Issue?
Is keyword cannibalization always a bad thing?
Strictly speaking, no, and we can prove this with a simple thought experiment. If you have two pieces of content ranking at positions 1 and 2 for a given query, they’re not really compromising each other’s ranking or traffic potential. In fact, if the keyword is valuable enough, it might be better to rank at 1 and 2 for that term, rather than trying to reach rank 1 for a separate query.
That said, most cannibalization issues don’t play out this favorably.
Researching and Planning: The Ultimate Way to Prevent Keyword Cannibalization
How do you avoid keyword cannibalization?
The best approach is to be diligent in your research and planning. If you’ve thoroughly researched and organized the keywords and phrases you want to target, you shouldn’t have multiple pieces of content competing for the same terms.
These should be your biggest priorities:
- One keyword or phrase per page. For the most part, you should have one unique target keyword or phrase for each page of your site, and no more than one. It’s fine to work with semantic variations and use multiple pages to boost the relevance of your entire domain for a specific keyword, but you shouldn’t have multiple pages competing for the same terms.
- Quality over quantity. Your content should be focused on quality, rather than quantity. Instead of optimizing many different pages for a single target, you should focus on creating the best possible piece of content (or ad) for each target phrase.
- Carefully balanced SEO and PPC efforts. SEO and PPC are often described as totally separate strategies, but they share some interesting synergies. Try to cover as much SERP ground as possible by making your SEO and PPC targets complementary.
- A deliberately orchestrated PPC strategy. You’ll also need to work hard to plan and balance your PPC strategy. Avoid all forms of overlap to maximize your potential.
Detecting a Keyword Cannibalization Problem
You don’t need any advanced coding skills to detect a keyword cannibalization problem. Instead, you can simply examine your current keyword rankings using a third-party tool. You can discover instances of keyword ranking overlap and identify the pages responsible for the problem.
You can also review your research documentation or your ad campaigns to see if you’ve intentionally targeted the same keyword with multiple pieces of content.
Correcting a Keyword Cannibalization Problem
If you do find a keyword cannibalization issue, there are several options for how you can fix it. Your first goal is to determine which piece of content is your main target and which one is secondary.
Then, you can practice:
- Deletion. Simply delete the secondary page. It’s the simplest option, but potentially the least valuable.
- Noindexing. You can use backend tags to ensure Google doesn’t index your secondary page.
- Reset keyword targeting. Edit or completely rewrite the secondary page so that it targets a different phrase.
- Combination. Combine the competing pieces of content into one comprehensive piece. Your biggest priority here should be ending up with a highly polished, attractive final product.
- Campaign adjustments. Tweak your PPC ad campaign settings to avoid overlap.
The Importance of Regular Audits
No matter what, it’s a good idea to audit your SEO, PPC, and other digital marketing strategies on a regular basis to see if there are any persistent keyword cannibalization or other issues with your website. At least once every few months, take a look at your current rankings, your index of content, and the structure of your site; you can also hire a third party to take care of these responsibilities. It’s an opportunity to refocus your campaign strategy, weed out content that isn’t serving your end goals, and revisit and/or improve the remaining content on your site.
With the help provided in this guide, you should be able to identify and remediate any keyword cannibalization issues currently faced by your website. You should also have no trouble preventing keyword cannibalization from arising in the future. There’s no such thing as a perfect approach, so minor keyword cannibalization issues may continue arising now and then – but it won’t be anything powerful enough to derail your campaign.