How To Use Canonical SEO Strategies to Combat Duplicate Content

Imagine how dangerous it would be to run into the kind of savage cannibals that are only real in the sci-fi fantasy worlds of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead or Soylent Green? The scary truth is that you may unknowingly have zombies wandering around in your SEO strategy, ravenously consuming every single one of your content optimization efforts.

If you own a website, there’s a very good chance that you have pages of content which compete against each other for the very same keywords. When this happens, you leave search engines such as Google to make the decision as to which page is most relevant — aka shown first or shown at all. This concept of keyword “infighting” is known as “keyword cannibalization,” and more often than not, the end result is less than desirable.

With a strong canonical SEO strategy you can take control of your search engine optimization strategy away from the search engine. When it comes to website development and search optimizations, a phrase which is often used is “canonicalization.” Put simply, this term refers to taking proactive steps to ensure that each page of a site “owns” a certain keyword theme or phrase so as not to confuse users and search engines alike.

If for example you own an ecommerce website, dedicated to selling (cannibal) hunting gear, it is crucial that you have a single page which owns “hunting vest” and other phrases and search parameters which are similar, for example “men’s hunting vest” and “size large hunting vest.” Without this, you will have cannibals among you if more than one page targets each one of these similar derivations, or if the title tag of each page features “Hunting Vests.” Here is how you can ward these cannibals off:

Design a Canonical Keyword Map

For starters, you have to have a detailed overview of all of the indexed content on your website as well as their respective page titles, headline tags, internal link anchors, meta descriptions, and on-page content. A great tool which only requires a small bit of time to gather all of this information is Screaming Frog. The entire list of your HTML page URLs which can be indexed must be exported. Note: Make sure to filter out all pages that have a server status of 3xx, 4xx, or 5xx, as well as pages which are already marked up with a noindex meta robot tag.

The next step is to design a spreadsheet workbook on which you can paste the raw exported report from Screaming Frog onto the first tab. Make sure to add a column for Canonical Keywords which can later be filtered out. Immediately begin highlighting page URLs where there is an obvious overlap of keywords located in the H1 and page title as these are two sources which tend to be the most obvious indications of its respective page’s target keywords. The best places to begin identifying the areas of cannibalization are these pages and it is here you can craft your canonical strategy and create necessary space in between keywords that overlap.

The third step is to conduct some keyword research using whatever keyword discovery methods that you prefer in order to further create worksheet tabs to store what you find. It is my recommendation that you use a site analytics tool such as Google Analytics to find out which organic keywords are already driving traffic to your site. Additionally, I’d look into which pages of your site people are landing on after clicking these words you show up prominently for. What these two reports will provide you with is greater insight of:

  • Which keyboards you want to hold onto for your canonical strategy
  • Which keywords the search engines believe should be assigned to each page of your site which will help you decide whether or not you should keep these “assignments” in your strategy or attempt to better them

During your process of keyword discovery, you should also take into consideration those keywords which your site is currently ranking in positions 1 – 20 for. On top of this, you may want to keep track of the keywords that your competitors are ranking on the first two search engine results pages (SERPs) which your website is not. Both of these tasks are easily accomplished with a tool like SEMRush.

The final step in your keyword discovery is to use a tool — like Wordtracker, Moz’s Keyword Difficulty Tool or the Google Adwords Keyword Planner — to find the competition, difficulty, as well as the search volume of your Already Ranking, Already Referring and Competitor Opportunity keywords (all defined above). Additionally, you’ll want to use these tools to find suggestions of new and unexplored keywords which you could use in the next step to differentiate your cannibalized content.

The next step is to go to the Canonical Keywords column you created and begin deciding on the keyword phrases which should naturally be owned by each page. Use what you have found out from the reports you’ve gathered so far as to the keywords which are mapped to each landing page at the moment.

Let’s consider the hunting gear ecommerce site for example: If one of your pages is targeting “men’s hunting wear” and the other is targeting “men’s hunting clothing,” those pages will have to be addressed with either a canonical directive or unique keywords to differentiate them to users and search engines.

Time to Make a Decision

Now that the pages which are cannibalizing their keyword phrases have been identified, it is time to make a decision:

If the content on two pages is duplicate or near duplicate — this includes pages with URL parameters and category and tag pages — you have to decide which one of the two is the version that is most optimal (see: canonical). For example, here are a few pointers and scenarios regarding how to make canonical decisions:

  • When doing an advance search command, the page that is ranking is higher is typically your best bet for the canonical page.
  • Aside from rank, checking for page has better Page Authority (a Moz metric) or a better backlink profile will tend to separate the suboptimal page from the optimal page.
  • Other things to take into consideration is which page has a higher conversion rate, has more internal links, etc.

Once the decision is made, you can redirect form the non-optimal version to the canonical one with the use of a 301, the addition of a noindex, follow meta robots tag on the non-optimal page, or a rel=canonical tag which points to the canonical version in the page header of the non-optimal version.

You can rewrite and shore up your page descriptions, titles H1 and H2 tags with the use of the canonical keywords that you have mapped to each page. By making sure that your internal links are pointing to the optimal/canonical version that you chose, you can take this even a step further by using an anchor text which supports its canonical strategy.

Play It Safe

Your best defense against keyword cannibalization is a strong canonical SEO strategy. It provides you with the control over which pages are ranking for certain keywords and phrases; it helps to increase your click-through rates while lowering your bounce rates; it fends off unintentional duplicate content issues;  and it opens a path on which you are able to create deeper and newer content which users will find engaging and relevant instead of thin and replicated.

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