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3 tactics for the long tail

June 29, 2010

Last week I promised a whole piece on long-tail keywords. For those unfamiliar with the concept, there is an extensive discussion of long-tail keywords in our book on pages 82 ff. Briefly, long tails are not necessarily longer keyword strings, though they typically are. The long tail refers to the marketing concept in which companies sell small numbers of hard-to-find items to large volumes of users. The example we use in the book is, a site where small craft manufacturers sell their unique creations to customers looking for one-of-kind items. No one item sells in high volume, but the volume of unique items makes the overall site a winning concept.

Long-tail marketing is contrasted with mass marketing, in which the goal is to sell large quantities of generic items to clients all looking for the same thing. Apple does mass marketing as well as anybody. Though iPads and iPhones can be customized by the user, Apple doesn’t sell a lot of varieties of these items. It just sells huge volumes of a few things.

The long tail in search engine optimization refers to potential clients who use unique combinations of words to zero in on pieces of content that are highly relevant to them. A typical use case is a potential client who starts her search with a generic query, then adds keywords to the query to narrow the search results to the exact thing she’s looking for. Because the result of long-tail search queries tend to optimize relevance for the audience, optimizing your pages for long tails is a key digital strategy.

Because most SEO advice amounts to mass marketing, where you want high volumes of potential clients to visit your site using more generic keyword strings, the long tail is under-appreciated. Search campaigns track ranking, traffic and engagement  for high-volume words and often don’t bother to track long-tails. This is a missed opportunity because engagement rates for long-tail queries are typically better than 70 percent, whereas 50 percent engagement rates are a good target for your high-demand keywords.

Independent data from Search Engine Land validates what we publish in the book: Long-tail keyword usage is on the rise. Better than 77 percent of all search queries are three words or longer. Though not all of these are long-tail queries, the vast majority are. So though no one query will drive a lot of engagement, the huge volume of long-tails will drive more engagement than the few high-volume keywords you optimize for. Here are three ways to do a better job with long-tails.

1. Don’t buy long tails. A typical paid search tactic is to buy keywords with a broad scope, meaning you buy all synonyms and long-tail variations of the word. It seems like a good thing to do. After all, you pay by the click, and each long tail has so few clicks, you more than get what you pay for, even if you have meager engagement rates.

But paid search is not effective for the typical long-tail user. Recall the power user, who progressively modifies his query to zero in on the exact content he’s looking for. He is not likely to click paid results. Even if he does click paid results, what kind of landing experience will he get when he clicks your paid listing for a long tail? You don’t create a unique landing experience for every long tail; you create a landing experience for your high-volume word and all the long tails you buy drive traffic to that page. How relevant is the page to any one of the long tails?

If you’re taking a shot-gun approach to long tails, chances are, your landing experience will not be relevant to what the power user is looking for. Not only will he not engage with your page, he’ll be left with a negative impression of your content. He expects a closer match between his query and the content on the landing page because he’s modified the query to fit his needs. If he doesn’t get that match, he’ll be very disappointed.

2. Do long-tail keyword research. This seems like an oxymoron. If no one long tail has much demand, how can you identify long tails for organic optimization? Again, there is an extensive discussion of how to do long-tail keyword research in the book. But briefly, it is not an oxymoron. It’s not as though you are trying to find the hundreds of long tails related to your primary keyword and figuring out a way to incorporate them into your pages. But you can use tools to identify clouds of related keywords, many of which you can incorporate into your pages. Not only does this make for more interesting writing, but it will tend to capture more long-tail keyword searches.

The longer the keyword phrase, the closer you get to writing exactly the way your target audience writes, both in social media and search queries. Extensive long-tail research looks into keyword usage in social settings to see what specific phrases your target audience uses. Again, the more you know about target audience usage, the more likely you will get high engagement and low bounce rates from your SEO efforts. Optimizing for the long tail forces you to learn your audience more deeply.

3. Do measure long-tail traffic and engagement. If you only measure SEO effectiveness for your high-volume words, you are missing a large percentage of the audience with whom you are connecting through long-tail queries. Say you get 70 percent engagement from long tails and some 200 long-tail variations drive traffic to your pages, averaging 2 visits per long tail, or 400 users overall. That’s 280 users engaging with your content through long tail organic search.

Now suppose you get 1000 visits with a 28 percent engagement rate from high-volume query. That’s the same level of engagement as you get from long tails. Of course you want to measure the other half of your search effectiveness, if for no other reason than to report your success to your stakeholders and sponsors. But more importantly, if you find certain long tails performing better than others, you can adjust your content to become more relevant to users with those queries.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 4, 2010 7:43 pm

    Great site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!

  2. July 15, 2010 3:36 pm

    What a great resource!

  3. June 29, 2011 6:54 pm

    Thanks, very much. We are a SEO company from Brazil and it helped us a lot!
    Thank you agan James!


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