Is URL cannibalisation killing your ranking potential?

Pac ManAvoid the common pitfalls of poor on-page optimisation

Whether you own a modest sized website or a directory containing thousands of pages, the most common problem we see with poor quality on-page optimisation is URL cannibalisation, which in most cases is easily avoided yet created through bad practices or simple, plain ignorance.

But firstly for those not in-the-know, let’s just clear up exactly what URL cannibalisation is.

In simple terms, URL cannibalisation is when one page or more on your website is optimised for the same keyword. Now, you may think that’s a good thing right? Well, think again!

When this happens, Google simply gets confused and is unsure which page to display in search results accordingly for that key phrase. The net result is a tendency to find pages from your site jumping in and out of search results, doing the classic Google dance, or chopping and changing between each other with annoying regularity.

It’s a very common pitfall of owning a site. You build it and in your haste and quite often ignorance, stuff keywords in the titles, descriptions and content of the page that in actual fact, doesn’t bare any true reflection of what the actual page subject is about. Or as many site owners do, copy and paste the exact same page titles across their entire website. Sound familiar?

Well, you’ll be relieved to hear you’re in good company. The problem is, it could be costing you a ton of good quality traffic!

So what can you do to prevent URL cannibalisation from occurring on your site and ensure, only the relevant single pages rank for a particular keyword?

Well, for the novices out there, assuming you own a small to modest sized website, here’s a few fundamental areas to address:

1) Page titles

Countless times do we see page titles that contain both a brief description of the page content, followed by a few ‘usual suspects’ of keywords thrown in for good measure. Lets imagine you own a business that offers plumbing and electrical work…

A classic example applied to pages we see are things such as a homepage title of “ABC123 Ltd – Plumbing & Electrical Specialists” only to then find that the company’s about pages is entitled “About ABC123 Ltd – Plumbing & Electrical Specialists” plus countless other pages across the board. In fact, the entire site uses the same keywords in the titles, when they should only apply to the page that specifically goes into detail about this service offering.

If your ‘about’ page is simply an introduction to who you are, then stop confusing Google by correctly using a title that reflects this. A good example title would be “Learn more about our company ABC123 Ltd”

2) Description tags

Even worse is poor use of description tags that are either stuffed with keywords or are simply duplicated across the entire site.

The whole point of the description tag is to make Google’s life easier and help describe what the page contains. The description tag also displays in search results below your website page titles so if you’ve written a description that is either aimed at keyword stuffing or is an exact duplicate of every other page on your website, how on earth is Google supposed to know what each page on your website is about or for that matter, the visitor?

If you’ve done this, it will come as little surprise to learn your site ranks poorly and traffic bounces are likely to be high. If you can’t write good quality descriptions in 160 characters or less for each of your web pages, you’re actually better off not bothering at all. Simply let Google decide what the page is about and it will dynamically generate a description in the search results for you.

Poor descriptions will simply hinder your site’s ability to rank well and just makes the user experience all the worse for it. But if you take the time to write them well, Google will reward you for it.

3) On-Page content

Each page on your website should contain unique and well written content but it never ceases to amaze us how often we see content that is either thin, poorly written, clearly designed to keyword stuff or plagiarised from another source. In some cases, we see a combination of these.

Google loves quality content and the way it scores the quality of a page is greatly dependent on all of these factors. In terms of URL cannibalisation, this occurs often when pages on the same or even separate websites contain content about the same subject matter and thus, Google simply doesn’t know which one to rank best. As a result, it ranks all of them yet none of the pages in question will ever rank highly.

Classic examples of where this occurs may be an on-site blog discussing similar subjects, an online store with various pages promoting the same product or a mirrored site using a different domain name which Google treats as a duplicate. If you’re experiencing this with frequent regularity, you may need to start implementing the rel=canonical tag to address the issue and tell Google which page to treat as the unique master.

There are of course, numerous other factors that can affect your site ranking and cause ranking flux for your site pages but as a general rule, we tend to find that the above issues are the main culprits. Other factors such as inbound links, multiple or international site versions and domain harvesting can cause cannibalisation as well. However, as a first rule, these are the areas we check initially.

What cannot be denied is the huge importance of dealing with URL cannibalisation if you suspect it is occurring. Duplicate content is regarded as one of the seven deadly sins of SEO so if you’ve been caught out by this poor practice, it’s time to get your house in order.

Thankfully, most instances of webpage cannibalisation can be dealt with by implementing good practices such as thorough keyword research, creating quality unique content and generally getting to grips with good housekeeping. Google’s artificial intelligence has come a long way over the past ten years and with countless core algorithm updates having been rolled out in recent times, its getting better at identifying on-page subject matter and how to rank it.

So if you want to get the best out of your website, make sure you’ve implemented good practices first and foremost, and make Google’s job simpler!

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