Brand cannibalization occurs when a websites’ pages are in conflict with each other to rank for the same keyword on SERPs. This is largely seen as a negative outcome caused by errors within the creative, marketing and development process. This isn’t necessarily the case. Brand cannibalization can also be leveraged to expand a company’s market share, as well as a brand protection tool. However, this strategy must be properly planned and implemented, otherwise it will definitely lead to these negative outcomes.
What Is Brand Cannibalization?
Brand Cannibalization in our context can be described as the conflict between multiple pages on our site competing on the same search engine results pages. This can be done both purposefully or unintentionally. Negative outcomes include when newer versions of product pages on our site, are ranking lower than the older versions. Generally, we want the newer versions of our product to rank higher. Sometimes, this can also occur in a product development context, the introduction of a new low-cost product that eats away sales from already existing products tailored towards a more premium consumer base. This process is a natural one that all growing organizations go through. This term has many other names, such as market cannibalization. As mentioned, although brand cannibalization has a generally negative connotation, it can be leveraged for positive outcomes.
Brand cannibalization can be detrimental to your organic growth, this is how it occurs. Let’s assume you own an online clothing store, with multiple product pages as well as blog posts. What we want is for your product pages to rank higher than your blog posts. This means that if you have a product page targeting the long-tail keyword ‘Summer Collection 2021’, and a blog post that is about this same topic, brand cannibalization would occur if the blog post is ranking higher than your product page. This will affect the purchasing funnel of visitors of your site as you will lose initial traffic on your product page, and in turn likely negatively impact your sales.
We can also look at a case example of how brand cannibalization can be negative in other markets. In the 1990s, Kodak was among the world leaders in sales for photographic products. In 1994, they launched a low-cost product, that they hoped would target a whole new audience; the Funtime film. Their already established consumer base noticed little difference between this newer, low-cost option, and Kodak’s staple and more premium products. The Funtime film sold well, but only because it ate away sales from Kodak’s other products. This dealt a critical blow to the organization’s bottom-line.
These examples illustrate how important it is for organizations to appropriately differentiate their product portfolio, catering towards the appropriate audiences. These lower-cost options often also have lower profit margins than their counterparts, this is what makes them so appealing. Development teams unfortunately often overlook this.
When executed appropriately, net-positive brand cannibalization is the natural progression of a company. Steve Jobs, one of the most influential business leaders ever, famously said “If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will.”. Both the introduction of the iPhone as well as the iPod Touch cannibalized the sales of the previous iPod versions. Although this led to a short-term loss in profit for Apple, it led to their domination of the smartphone industry. This still continuing in 2021.
Cannibalization can also be the ultimate brand protection tool. Companies competing in the same market often have to cannibalize their products to stay ahead of their competitors. These activities can be likened to a heated game of chess. Sometimes, your best move is to sacrifice one of your pieces to gain an advantage over your opponent. The appropriate implementation of these strategies is an indicator that management is staying current when it comes to market developments. This means they are simply doing what they must in order to maintain or improve their market standing. These activities don’t only occur on a product development level, but also on every other tier of the company’s strategy. In the field of SEO, we refer to keyword cannibalization. This is a very similar process and is a factor that all practitioners need to be aware of.
The Impact Of Keyword Cannibalization On SEO
Keyword cannibalization happens when there are too many pages with identical or similar keywords across your site. Google in these cases will sometimes rank pages that are low-preference to you, over ones that are higher-preference. Additionally, these negative outcomes are often a product of keyword stuffing on the site – a tactic which very rarely works. This will undoubtedly lead to a negative reflection of your SERPs.
Marketers and strategists are notorious for wanting to micro-manage every detail of their strategy. The reason for this is to ensure that it has the highest probability of success. Brand cannibalization is another one of these details, we need to measure the probability of a brand cannibalizing itself, this is where cannibalization risk comes in. In terms of SEO, we need to measure the risk of keywords that a brand is ranking for cannibalizing themselves.
How Do We Evaluate Cannibalization Risk?
On the SEO front, there are two main factors that we must consider in terms of the risk of keyword cannibalization; content and the consumer. Therefore, before launching a new product, or webpage, it is very good practice to monitor these factors, to be able to measure the risk of cannibalization. In terms of content, we must ensure that the content we are producing on our site is remaining fresh. Meaning we are not repeating content periodically, or even worse would be stealing content and pasting it on our sites to rank higher on SERPs. Duplicate content with the same keywords will confuse the Google algorithm. This will reduce the chance of your preferred page ranking higher. Understanding our consumers and tailoring our content according to their segmentation is also a good practice. This will minimize keyword cannibalization as it will reduce the chance of consumers going to other sources.
Auditing Keyword Cannibalization
A good way to evaluate the keyword cannibalization on your site is to do an SEO audit. Site audits are done ideally using an SEO crawling tool. These tools will scan your site page by page collecting all the available meta information. The tool will then present this information in the form of a neat and understandable document. Screaming Frog is a tool that is considered to be the industry leader for website crawlers, so it is a great place to start, although there are some other free SEO crawlers that we can use if need be. With the exported data, we can monitor whether the same keywords are being targeted on multiple pages. We can also identify any keywords that have not been mapped to specific URLs.
Once we have this data, we can amend any issues on our site. This means that we can merge articles with the same keyword together. We can then set up 301 redirects from the links on the old pages to the new ones. Alternatively, we can use the rel=‘canonical’ in the HTML code of the higher preference pages. This will ensure that they rank higher than the others. Once we have amended these issues on our site, we can now refocus our efforts towards brand protection.
SEO’s Role In Brand Protection
Protecting your brand in the online space is critical to maintaining your market share. This is especially the case if you find yourself in a hyper-competitive market, such as online gaming. These companies have huge budgets and teams of the best minds to create pages that are extremely optimized for search engines, it can be tough to compete with them, this is why protecting your already established brand is so important.
Competitors are constantly seeking out ideas on ways to gain market share. The best place to get these ideas is to copy what is working already. Companies can hijack your brands’ message and use it to boost their own ranking, of course, it is very important that we do not allow them to do this. This is where SEO comes in. SEO’s base function is to simply provide the information that our customers are looking for. We need to make sure that we are providing the most accurate and accessible information about our brands, as if we don’t, competitors will sense the gap in the market and provide it themselves. As these competitors attack us, we need to make sure to defend ourselves, this is where reverse SEO comes in.
Reverse SEO is the method of using SEO practices to instead push down SERP results. We do this to push down pages that negatively impact our brand. These pages include bad reviews or press releases that put the organization in a bad light. As much as possible, we would like to make sure these pages disappear from the first search engine results page. We have a detailed article on our page on how to do this, but here is a rough description.
We start off with detailed keyword research. Through SEO tools like Ahrefs we can understand what keywords our site is ranking for, as well as the keywords that the sites putting our organization in a negative light are ranking for. From this data, we can utilize a variety of techniques to defend our brand positioning. We can use our social media platforms to take up some positions on SERPs, create guest blogs on external sites, influence search trends, leverage Google SERP features, create Microsites, and finally, use keyword cannibalization.
How To Leverage Brand Cannibalization For Brand Protection
So far we have demonized keyword cannibalization as the ultimate threat to your SERPs. This is not entirely the case. In some cases, we can leverage keyword cannibalization, and therefore brand cannibalization to our benefit as a brand protection tool. If the nature of your content, is somewhat repetitive in nature, and you are already in possession of an authoritative site, then you need not worry as much about keyword cannibalization.
Let us assume that you own a recipe-centered website. And you have 2 blog posts that are targeting the keywords ‘cheap and easy meals’, which are ranking #1 and #2 on Google. In this instance, there is absolutely no reason for you to merge these pages together. In reality, these pages competing against each other over the same keyword, are protecting real estate on the Google SERPs from your competitors, defending your market share. With this being said, there are right, as well as wrong ways to do this.
There is only one situation in which you should resort to brand cannibalization as a protection tool. This is when your brand is in a strong, authoritative position, however, there is a gap in the market that may allow weaker competitors to gain an advantage over you. This requires a high level of industry experience to have the ability to sense these slight, yet significant changes within the market. If we do this in inopportune moments, we risk oversaturating the market and causing a net loss within our profit margins, or even worse giving a leg up to our competitors.
A positive example of keyword cannibalization would be having 2 pages on your site that rank first and second for the same keyword with 12,000 and 10,000 traffic per month, whereas your next competitor in position 3 has 9,000 traffic. In this instance, both of your pages are stronger than your competitors’ and so your domain will hold more area on the first SERP. A negative example of this would be having 2 pages on your site with 6,000 traffic each per month, yet your competitor is outranking both of them as it has 10,000 traffic per month. In this instance, it would be ideal to merge the two pages together.
Even if we have identified the perfect moment to capitalize on a situation to gain a competitive advantage, we must still be wary and plan our actions accordingly.
How to sustain it through an appropriate pricing strategy
It is also imperative to monitor your cannibalism rate so that you can appropriately check whether the strategy you are implementing is actually working. To calculate this, we first need, to know the sales of our already existing product, before and after the new product was introduced, we also need to know the sales of the new product. From here we will subtract the new sales of our existing product from those before the new product was introduced, this will give us the lost sales of the existing product. With this, we can simply divide the sales lost by the sales of the new product and multiply by 100.
Of course, this model assumes that the lost sales of the existing product can entirely be attributed to the introduction of the new product, this will unlikely be the case. However, this is a good place to start. It is good practice to monitor the cannibalization rate, and ensure that new products are not eating too heavily into already existing ones. We can use this same method to monitor the traffic of the web pages on your site.
Brand cannibalization can be an extremely useful tool to protect the status and position of your brand. However, to use this tool appropriately the user needs a very high level of knowledge and expertise. As with all other aspects of our strategy, we must monitor this factor to ensure that we are not misusing it.
In terms of the SEO space, purposeful keyword cannibalization is only effective when you are already in a position of authority over your competitors and wish to leverage that power to take up further real estate over the Google SERPs. In these instances, cannibalization is the ultimate tool for brand protection, as well as the natural progression an organization must take for long-term sustainable growth.
Our technical SEO audit services will help you identify and fix any issues on your site that has to with keyword cannibalization, as well as provide key insights on the best ways to protect your brands’ online presence. Get in touch to request a quote.
Jean is an Operations Intern at GainChanger who recently graduated with a Master’s degree in Strategic Management and Digital Marketing.