Keyword cannibalization: SEO’s biggest challenge

Tom Amitay - co-founder and CEO of Entail AI
By Tom Amitay
Davor Štefanović - Editor
Edited by Davor Štefanović
Romi Hector
Fact-check by Romi Hector

Updated August 3, 2023.

Keyword cannibalization: SEO’s biggest challenge

Key takeaways

  • Keyword cannibalization is the competition between multiple pages for the same keywords.
  • This overlap can negatively impact your site's rankings.
  • Innovative approaches like the topical authority model can help manage keyword overlaps.
  • A well-planned content strategy and merging or adjusting content can prevent cannibalization.
  • AI solutions like Google Bard can potentially solve the problem of keyword cannibalization.

SEO is riddled with complexities and challenges, one of which is keyword cannibalization. This common SEO issue refers to the phenomenon where multiple pages on a website unintentionally compete for the same or very similar keywords. This can hurt a site's SEO performance if not managed correctly.

Understanding keyword cannibalization

Screenshot of SERP for "best VPN" as an example of keyword cannibalization

Keyword cannibalization happens when two or more pages on a website target the same keyword or set of keywords. This problem is especially prevalent on large websites with an abundance of content.

The larger the website and the more pages it has, the higher the likelihood of pages ranking for the same keywords.

The overlap of keywords is almost inevitable because websites typically rank for thousands of them, many of which are similar. Therefore, on any website, multiple pages often end up sharing keywords, especially large ones with lots of content. This is where the challenge lies.

Different sections can rank for different keywords

Usually, the main keywords a page targets are those included in the H1 or title of the page, so it's crucial not to have two pages with titles targeting the same keywords.

For example: Having one page titled "Is keyword cannibalization good for SEO?" and another titled "Is keyword cannibalization bad for SEO?" isn't ideal. These two pages are competing and may confuse both the search engine and the users.

However, when structuring content, you might discuss keyword cannibalization and touch on related topics like content creation or blog writing. These could be topics covered in other articles, but your post may still rank for them. Even if you only mention them briefly, these topics can affect the range of keywords that your page ranks for.

Keep in mind:

Not every instance of multiple pages ranking for the same keyword counts as cannibalization. Sometimes, this overlap might be acceptable or even necessary to establish topical authority.

» Find out how AI-generated content will affect SEO.

The effects of keyword cannibalization

Example of two blogs that could cannibalize each other

Although we often refer to this problem as "keyword cannibalization," it's unclear whether Google uses the same term. That said, Google definitely recognizes and responds to duplicate content. If a website contains multiple posts targeting the same keywords, Google might see this as duplicate content and decide not to index these pages.

Screenshot of Google Search Console's "Duplicate - Google chose different canonical than user" status

Alternatively, Google might index them but divide the traffic between them, diluting their potential reach, or prefer one page over the other and exclusively direct traffic there.

In extreme cases, Google may see some websites with extensive keyword cannibalization as content farms, which can have a negative effect on a site's overall ranking.

» Learn more about how Google will handle content hyperinflation.

Tools and techniques to identify keyword cannibalization

Despite the pressing need for a solution to keyword cannibalization, no straightforward tools are available to tackle this issue effectively. SEO professionals often use a manual approach, examining each page and comparing keywords through tools like Google Search Console, but this can become almost an impossible task.

The complexity of dealing with keyword cannibalization stems from the very nature of how Google works, which is inherently intricate.

One innovative approach is the topical authority model. Rather than focusing on individual keywords, this method centers on broader topics, encompassing multiple keywords with similar intent. By mapping the relationship between these topics and various pages, SEOs can determine when pages compete or complement each other.

Preventing and fixing keyword cannibalization

Preventing keyword cannibalization begins with a well-thought-out content plan. Once you identify keyword cannibalization, steps to resolve it include:

  • Merging competing pages
  • Deleting redundant pages
  • Adjusting the content to target different keywords

This eliminates competition between pages on your website and improves your site's SEO performance.

The future: AI and keyword cannibalization

AI solutions like Google Bard hold great promise for dealing with keyword cannibalization. Unlike traditional search, Bard generates personalized answers to queries.

Screenshot of Google's Search Generative Experience

This opens the door to a new era of conversational searches and long-tail keywords, changing the SEO landscape and potentially solving the problem of keyword cannibalization.

» Make sure your content stays relevant in the AI era.

Mastering the keyword maze

Keyword cannibalization is a complex yet unavoidable aspect of SEO. It presents unique challenges and opportunities for better content organization and search optimization. The potential for more effective solutions grows as we continue to advance in AI and machine learning technologies. Understanding and managing keyword cannibalization will remain essential for SEO professionals as they navigate the ever-evolving landscape of search engine algorithms and user intent.