If you target the same keyword or search terms on multiple pages on your website, you create a case of keyword cannibalism. It’s also known as keyword cannibalisation. And it isn’t as gory as it sounds. For starters, we’re talking about digesting words on a computer screen as opposed to actual flesh (ew). Secondly, no one is actually eating anything. It’s more of a metaphor.

In any case, one particular phrase keeps coming to my mind when focusing on this type of spam and it kind of works as an extension of the cannibalism metaphor. “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face”. If you don’t know what this means, Google it.

Although not as aggressive as the name suggests, if you don’t avoid it, keyword cannibalism will come back and bite you. Pun intended.

Why we fall into the trap of keyword cannibalism

What’s the relevance of keyword cannibalism to your SEO campaign? Keyword cannibalism creates similar problems for an SEO campaign as duplicate content. You won’t be penalised for it but you will unravel some of the search engine gains you made with your keyword research and onsite optimisation.

The reason you targeted your keyword (or search term) was to earn your website a high search ranking for that particular search term or variants thereof. As long as the keyword is relevant and informative about your service or product, citing it on your website was a good idea in order to achieve this. But cite it too much and you run the risk of providing a poor user experience and in over optimised cases, flirt with the danger of keyword stuffing, thus  diluting your conscientious SEO efforts. In other words, instead of creating a strong collaborative effort, your trusty keywords are swallowed by each other. They have become keyword cannibals.

Back to basics

It’s called search engine optimisation for a reason. In order for a search engine to be the best possible platform it can be, it needs to do more than just present it’s user with all available information related to their query. To be the best search engine out there, it presents the user with exactly what they’re looking for. And even better? It ranks the information in order of quality and relevance.

Say you’re selling vintage clothes online. When you build your website, you ensure that lots of content includes content that is relevant to “vintage clothes”. Good for you. Here’s the thing – Google’s smart but it isn’t a website psychic. It won’t know which page is the most relevant page on your website to display search queries for ‘vintage clothes’ as a specific search term unless you point it in the right direction. It might choose your “About” page to display to users searching ‘vintage clothes’. Great, the user now knows you’re an independent start up that began as an ebay store. That aint getting them any closer to those retro tees they’re pining for.

If you have really good imagery or a genuinely fascinating story about who you are and how your business began, users might stick around long enough to read the entire page and go on to make a purchase. Unlikely – no offense. But if you don’t, they’ll probably scan the top of the page, see it’s not what they’re after then return to the Google search and click on the link below. Those fashionistas and shopaholics don’t have time to waste! What if, when people search for vintage clothes, Google brings up your product page? Well readers, that customer journey may have been short. But it has been sweet.

How to avoid keyword cannibalism

Applying SEO got you into this trap – here’s how it can get you out of it. Avoiding keyword cannibalism is about Onsite Optimisation. The search engine wants to know which page to rank for which keyword. It’s about quality, not quantity. If your content is good, the information it provides is relevant to what the user is looking for and when they’re looking for it. If your website is good, the user (and the search engine) will navigate around it with ease. They’ll know where to go for each service at each stage of their search journey. In order to maximise the value that your content brings to your business, be specific with each page and the search terms it is targeting.

DO NOT use the same keywords on all of your website pages. Start with keyword research and allocate each of the most useful keywords to one specific page. Target each page and individual keyword to a specific stage in the sales funnel. Don’t worry, you don’t need to restrict your citing of a keyword 100% to one page. Words and topics are related, so chances are even if you’ve allocated a keyword to a particular page, you’ll want to mention it on other pages. Use anchor text to avoid duplicate content by letting Google know that a specific keyword is the focus of a different page. Think title tags, heading tags, alt tags and meta descriptions. Also invest in a thesaurus – Google’s Rankbrain is clever enough to understand the intent behind content rather than the somewhat archaic method of targeting exact keywords.

DO be specific with your Canonical tags. To web crawlers, even slight variations in URLs are regarded as a unique page. Avoid duplicate content by telling Google that a specific URL represents the master copy of a page. By looking into canonicalisation you’re refining which URL you want to appear in search results.

There are multiple factors that contribute to successful SEO campaigns. Similarly, there are multiple elements to  onsite optimisation. These factors can be the rise or the fall of the successful SEO campaigner. If you fall down on one, you fall down overall. Just like the GB cycling team in the 2012 Olympics, winning at SEO is all about marginal gains.