You probably call it keyword cannibalization. You audit a Website and find 2 or more articles ranking for the same query – or at least targeting the same query in their page titles. According to the latest edition of the SEO Myth Handbook for Beginners, you must immediately panic and find a way to de-optimize one or more of those articles.
The SEO Theory Glossary defines keyword cannibalization this way:
Keyword Cannibalization – Noun phrase. A nonsense expression used to describe the practice of publishing multiple articles targeting the same keyword on a single Website. To cannibalize (Br. sp. cannibalise) something means to reuse it, usually as a replacement for a needed part. A more appropriate, accurate descriptive phrase would be excessive targeting of a single keyword, which explains the problem concisely.
Technically, I’ve read or heard many different definitions for keyword cannibalization. In writing that glossary entry I had to pick one. Some people claim you can’t (or shouldn’t) have 2 or more Websites appearing in the same search result.
So if you publish four affiliate marketing sites (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta) this definition of keyword cannibalization holds that you’ll break the universe or – worse, be expelled (from what – Hogwarts?) if the search engines catch you listing 4 of your own sites in the same search results.
I’ve always wondered how it is that people reach these conclusions when it’s the search engines that decide to list up to 4 (or more) pages from the same site, or 4 or more sites owned by the same registrant, in the same query. You wouldn’t be panicking if you didn’t see these multi-listing search results, right?
And you’ve got no manual action notices in Google Search Console. But there you go, prepping your disavow files, changing page titles and headings, and doing whatever else you think is necessary to correct a non-problem.
Keyword Cannibalization Rule No. 1: Don’t Screw Up Success
If you get lucky and accidentally land 2 pages into your targeted query’s search results, leave them alone.
There is no search engine guideline that forbids anyone from getting 2 or more listings in the search results. Yes, through the years many Web marketers have complained to Bing and Google about competitors being awarded 2 or more listings in search results.
Some people think it’s unfair that ABC Web Spam Company, LLC is able to capture 7 out of 10 search results with 7 domains. “That must be spam!” they cry, stamping their feet and demanding that somebody do something!
Generally speaking, the search engineers agree that if their searchers find 2 or more virtually identical booking or affiliate sites in the top 7-10 search results for a query, that’s not a good search experience. They’ll try to do something about that – they have done things about that.
But if you’re auditing someone else’s Website and 2 of their product pages or blog posts appear in the same search results, they haven’t done anything wrong. The search engine algorithms reward good, diverse content without regard for where it’s published.
Keyword Cannibalization Rule No. 2: Don’t Take It to Excess
Someone once showed me a Website with 200 articles all written about the same exact topic. I mean there was no doubting that every one of those 200 articles was an attempt to explain 1 thing.
That’s a bit excessive. I’m not sure the site was even ranking for the targeted query at the time, much less ranking 200 times.
I have seen search results where the same site’s content appears dozens of times past the 1st page. And I’m not talking about site search queries. I doubt Bing or Google cares if that happens in most queries, as a majority of people change their query instead of digging deeper into the search results.
But by and large, if you’ve already got 4 articles about the same exact topic and you’re stumped for what to do next, that’s probably a good time to think about merging them all into 1 better article. Not if you have the 1st 4 listings in the search results, but if none of these articles is earning any glory for the targeted query.
By the same token, if you’re running 3-10 affiliate sites and a few of them happen to appear in the same search results without you trying to buy your way to the top, middle, and bottom of page 1 – leave them alone. You got lucky. You didn’t break any rules.
And if you wait long enough, you’ll probably see the search results churn a bit. You may not be that blessed for very long – not because you’re going to be penalized, but because search results change over time. Algorithms change. Your competitors get upset when they realize you have 3 sites in the top 10 listings and they decide it’s time they get their fair 50% share.
Keyword Cannibalization Rule No. 3: Prioritize Your Way to the Top
If you’ve got 2 articles that rank somewhere on the 2nd page (for the same targeted query) or lower, you should pick one and work on that.
If the 2 pages say pretty much the same thing, merge them. Don’t make things more difficult for yourself by trying to tackle 2 or more pages at the same time just because it’s not a violation of search engine guidelines.
If you have 1 page in the top 5 and another page in the mid-20s, you’re in a position to think about moving the second page up. But if you’re going to invest that kind of effort in a low-ranking page, give it an edge by investing in a different angle. Don’t fall into the trap of replicating success.
Earlier this week someone said in an online discussion they had run out of ideas for an affiliate site. He couldn’t think of any more profitable, high-volume keywords to target with new content.
So I said, if you’re already ranking for no. 1 why not go for no. 2?
My point is, if you don’t have anything ranking in the top 10 results, you only need to invest time and resources into 1 page. You’re not technically cannibalizing anything by splitting your time and resources between two pages that aren’t ranking – but you’re not making good decisions. You need to sort out your priorities, Hermione.
Keyword Cannibalization Rule No. 4: Don’t Reuse Content Across Multiple Pages
Okay, the search engines do tolerate “boilerplate content”. But too many people still ask in online discussions if it’s okay to write 1 really good landing page and then just copy it to 100 or more city names (or whatever).
For the past 20+ years I’ve called this “keyword injection” (spam). But most people call it mad-libbing. And it’s still spam. Search engines don’t like this.
It also happens to be true keyword cannibalization. I intentionally did not bold or italicize the phrase in the last sentence because when it comes down to understanding what’s being cannibalized, most people completely misunderstand the issue.
Sure, you can put your trademark warnings, dire threats about copying content, privacy notification, disclaimers, and whatever on every page of a site. Few people search for “Google AdSense terms of service” (okay, that’s a bad example) – people tend not to search for legalistic boilerplate text very much. You can often get away with replicating this language across every page.
But if you’re trying to optimize 100,000 product pages, or 5,000 city pages, or 200 blog posts about (I dunno – maybe seo theory) – you need to differentiate the content more than just by changing the nouns in the titles and H1 headings.
No one calls this kind of spam what it really is: keyword cannibalization. You’re trying to replicate success using the same content on multiple pages (maybe even across multiple sites). That’s a bit excessive, don’t you think?
Sure, you could make a lot of money if it works – but chances are very good that it won’t work (any more, or for very long).
Keyword Cannibalization Rule No. 5: SEO Tools -SUCK- At Identifying Keyword Cannibalization
The number 1 reason why people worry about keyword cannibalization is they read all about it on SEO blogs that push SEO tools. Some SEO tool vendors LOVE to terrorize their readers with articles about keyword cannibalization.
You don’t have to look very hard (or long) to find dozens of articles about the horrors of keyword cannibalization on many tool vendor sites. Funny, isn’t it, how it’s okay for them to publish virtually the same bullshit warnings about keyword cannibalizaion on their sites but you’re not supposed to do that.
If these tool vendors are such experts at understanding keyword cannibalization, how is it that they’re doing exactly what they’re advising you NOT to do?
And why the hell are you listening to them?
Go Forth, and Multiply
It’s okay to write a few articles about the same topic. If you feel you can do better than what you did before, write something new.
It’s also a good idea to count how many articles you’ve written about a topic. If you’ve got more than 5 using the same queries in the titles and headings, you should ask yourself a few questions:
- Why do you want to cover this topic again?
- Are these older articles ranking for anything they could be better optimized for?
- Would you be okay with redirecting those articles to the new one?
If you’re not happy with what you have, change something. If you’re happy with what you have, justify creating more of the same.
But whatever you do, don’t start babbling on about keyword cannibalization. That isn’t a problem. If you’ve got a problem you should be able to explain it to someone in sufficient detail that anyone can understand the consequences of doing nothing – AND you should also have a working solution in mind.
The best thing you can do with content that’s already published and indexed (in my humble opinion) is change its focus. If you’re working on a page you feel has a better chance of ranking for a preferred query, change the old page to target something else (probably something closely related).
At the very least, devise a consolidation strategy so that you don’t displace good, important talking points with less robust content that ranks better.
None of us are owed any 1st-place positions in the search results. Everyone gets a chance to be king for a day, or a minute. Sooner or later someone will come along and knock you off the top of the search results.
It’s okay if you do that to yourself, either with the same site or another site. But once you realize you’ve earned a solid position in the search results, stop babbling about keyword cannibalization. All you’re really doing is creating seo confusion.
There are times when you do want to cannibalize older pages for good topics and content. There’s nothing wrong with doing that. Take the keywords, take the content, give them a nice new home, and redirect the old URL to the new one.
There are no search engine guidelines that forbid these things. There are only bad SEO ideologies based on ignorance of the search engine guidelines, limited understanding of how the search algorithms work, and opportunistic fear-mongering by companies that only want to sell you tool subscriptions. They’ll always have solutions for non-existent problems. That doesn’t mean you should buy them.
The acid test for any SEO expert is simple: If they are doing what they warn you not to do, you don’t need to heed their warnings.
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