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Duplicate Content and Keyword Cannibalization

August 19th, 2011

duplicate content, keyword cannibalizationIn a prior post, I discussed the practice of article-marketing automation in attempts to rank highly for more-general keywords that have high levels of online traffic. Especially after Google’s Pandora update, such attempts will increasingly have no effect at best or will incur search-engine penalties at worst.

Google, for obvious reasons, wants to return search results that are the most relevant and from websites that are of the highest quality. As a result, sites that seemingly (or actually) churn out repetitive, duplicate content will lose out — and rightly so. However, there is a related issue that many online marketers do not understand: keyword cannibalization.

I once had a client in England who had hired my SEO-consultant services and had included the same keyword as the targeted search-term for every page of his luxury-travel website. (The topic, country, and keyword have been changed to protect the SEM unaware.) In essence, “luxury travel” was the keyword for which every single page of the company’s site was targeting because they had erroneously assumed that targeting the same keyword throughout a website will “tell Google” that the site as a whole is the most-authoritative for that term. When I saw what their marketers had done, I did what the kids today are calling an epic facepalm. (This was all done online via Skype, of course, so I was safe.)

Don’t let keyword cannibalization happen to you.

Here’s the background: Google likes variety. The search engine ideally prefers to have ten different, relevant, authoritative websites appear in a page of results for a given term. What Google does not want, for example, is for pages from a single website like the New York Times or Fox News to appear in all of the top ten search results for “news” — that’s not very user-friendly. By listing many various websites in search results, the chances are greater that one of the sites will be what I am looking for.

To avoid a situation like my “news” example, Google uses a type of duplicate-content metric that is generally referred to as filtering. Google generally identifies the one, single page on a given website that is the most targeted, relevant, and authoritative for a given keyword and then lists that page in search results. All other pages that also relate to that term are “filtered,” usually as such:

duplicate content, keyword cannibalization

The website YNetNews here in Israel had many pages that targeted “israel news,” but Google filtered all of them and listed only the page that was viewed as the best one associated with that keyword (in this case, the home page). If you want to see all of the other pages, you need to click on that blue bar — but how many people will do that rather than scan the rest of the results on the first page? Few, I imagine. (By the way, please do not comment about Middle Eastern politics here — I presume all of my readers are marketers like myself. I was merely searching for the latest news here since I had moved from Boston to Israel several years ago.)

In layman’s terms, multiple pages that target the same keyword fight each other to rank in Google — hence the term “keyword cannibalization.” The end result is that one page will rank somewhere — and the others will rank for nothing. Just like all of the pages at the luxury-travel website (except for one) would never have ranked for anything. This is the principle behind the idea that you want every single page of a website to target a different keyword (or set of keywords). This way, every single page has the ability to rank for something and thereby deliver more organic search-engine traffic — and that, of course, comes down to linkbuilding strategies, on-page optimization, social-media marketing strategies, and online SEM.

How Keyword Cannibalization is a Form of Duplicate Content

Essentially, keyword cannibalization is another type of SEO over-optimization. As I wrote in a prior SEO guide, I did an experiment to see what point of on-page optimization would raise a red flag in Google and penalize the ranking of this site. And just as that effort was an example of over-optimization on a single page, so is keyword cannibalization an example of over-optimization throughout an entire website. As I wrote in a recent post for the marketing company for whom I work, the goal is to have a website hierarchy and keyword selection that aims for each page to rank highly for a different search-term. (For additional background, I recommend this post by Ann Smarty.)

Duplicate content is bad whether it pertains to the text of a blog post or the choice of keywords. Before you even start to build or revamp a website, you want to research terms within a platform like the Google external-keyword tool.

Here’s another example. Since I have a day job, I have been building this website as a personal hobby a little bit at a time. Until recently, I had not optimized the blog-post tags that you will see in the bottom right-hand corner of the page and in the image at the top of this article. I had just inserted general, placeholder terms when I started this site last year.

But here was a problem: One of the tags had been “SEO Software.” As a result, both the home page and the page for that tag were “fighting” for a Google ranking for that term. Of course, the main page was the ranking page for that keyword, and the tag page would not rank for anything. Remember: the tag page for a given term is a page on your website unto itself, so it needs to target a keyword that no other page does. (As an example, see the tags page for search-optimization software — no other page on this site is targeting that term.)

I had many keyword tags that were cannibalizing terms that other pages were targeting at the same time. This past week, however, I did additional keyword research and corrected the problem. Your website or blog needs to do the same. Don’t be like my “luxury-travel” client (or, er, me until recently)!

Samuel J. Scott, a former journalist in Boston turned Internet marketer in Israel, is the founder and publisher of My SEO Software and Director of Digital Marketing and Communications and SEO Team Leader at The Cline Group. You can follow him at Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. His views here and elsewhere do not necessarily reflect those of his company and clients.