The concept of cannibalisation has been used within SEO for years, something that many marketers overlook – even those who should know better. Within marketing the idea pre-dates SEO; sometimes it is seen as a necessary part of growing a new product line, a brand or more besides. But within digital marketing it is often unintentional and unnoticed – and ultimately a more complex thing to solve because of it.
How can a website’s content turn cannibal? Technically speaking a website doesn’t eat itself, not in any literal way – sorry things just got a little less interesting – but cannibalisation, in the human-eating-human sense, is pretty apt when describing the effects that this can have on your site. From a traffic & rankings perspective a bad case of cannibalisation is effectively like having parts of your website eat each other – you are consuming (or loosing) your own online presence.
A more technical way of looking at this would be to consider cannibalisation as result of Google’s confusion. If Google sees more than one page which has similar (or the same) keyword targeting to another, when it serves those pages within search it has to make a decision as to which is more relevant to the search term. Problem is, dividing Google’s attention like this can mean splitting the authority and relevance between more than one page.
Usually Google doesn’t like ranking more than one page from the same domain within results and therefore what happens in this scenario is that the ranking page will change depending on which is favoured at the time. More significantly the equity or authority of each of those pages, rather than contributing to ranking one page ranking well, is instead lost.
To add another dimension to this, this confusion isn’t just limited to your own website, your subdomains and even sister brands’ websites all have the ability to confuse Google – you don’t want to confuse Google! The costs of this are most keenly demonstrated by Pi-Datametrics, but if you’ve ever noticed your rankings leap about unexpectedly and seemingly recovering and falling off again – this is a hallmark of cannibalisation. What is more disconcerting is when your notice a steady decline overtime, seemingly without explanation, again this could be the cannibals!
This raises multiple questions, 1) how do you fix it? 2) how do you prevent it, but most importantly, 3) how do you identify it? Identification is crucial because without it, you’re going to struggle to make any progress. How you do this will vary, but the most important step is tracking your rankings and the pages that are ranking for those positions over time. Watch for them swapping over, or different landing pages ranking when you expect others to be doing so.
Once you have identified cannibalisation you need to look into the causes – look at the different pages which are competing, their content quantity/quality, internal linking and position within the site hierarchy. Also look at external signals like links, social shares and authority metrics like Page Authority, Trust/Citation flow or similar. When you have all these down on paper, is it obvious which is the more authoritative page? If you don’t have a clear winner or the page your want to rank isn’t stronger or more relevant – that’s likely your problem!
Fixing cannibalisation will vary depending on the situation, but two common examples are 1) thematic duplication and 2) product pages outranking categories. In the example with thematic duplication you probably have multiple pages targeting the same keyword, comparable amounts of content, overlapping use of the same keyword/phrase in places like URL, Title, <h1> or a combination thereof. Usually de-optimisating the page content can help correct the situation, in other cases re-structure parts of the site may be needed.
For products that are competing with their parent category within search (could be ecommerce sites, publishing, travel etc), a category page with little content, or external signals can easily be surpassed by a product which is linked to or shared on social. Ensure you focus on the main on-site factors (structure, keyword use and internal linking) and marketing efforts (outreach and social media) are around those key category pages.
In reality, the best way to deal with cannibalisation is preventing it – this is going to be similar to solving category page cannibalization (above), but you need to; 1) map out your keywords on the site, where your thematic hubs are located and how these will relate to the rest of the site – ensure that you’re not overlapping for your primary terms. 2) Think about internal linking and how your primary pages are referenced across the site, Google will preference those pages that are linked to more. 3) Solid SEO – ensure your keyword optimisation is natural and relevant, stick to your sitemap, a healthy approach to technical SEO goes a long way too. And finally 4) push these key pages in your marketing efforts, email, outreach, paid media, social and more.
Best first step? Identify if you’ve got a problem. Then test a solution, be patient, keep monitoring and give Google time to catch up. At the end of the day, however, prevention is better than a cure – make it your mission to make Google’s life as easy as possible.