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I’ve been hearing a lot over the last year or so about long tail searches and all that. So today I wanted to talk briefly about why the long tail is important, but also why it should only be part of your overall search marketing strategy.

Understanding the Keyword Cycle

Let’s briefly discuss what head terms and long tail terms are for those of you that are not familiar with this concept.

People search for things in a variety of different ways, and they generally go through a cycle that looks something like this:

  • A person starts looking for a new laptop, but they don’t really know what’s on the market. So they start their search with a head term like ‘laptop’
  • As the person learns more about the topic, maybe they decide that they are most interested in a ‘Dell laptop’, so they do a search for that short tail phrase hoping to find out more about this brand.
  • Now they’re getting an idea of what the price range is, but they want to see if they can find a better deal. So the person starts using long tail terms like ‘Dell laptops for under $1000’, ‘cheap Dell laptops’, etc.

Does this process sound familiar? It should, because we all do it! The less we know about a topic, the more we tend to use head or short tail phrases. The more familiar we are with a topic, the more likely we are to start searching with medium and long tail phrases.

As you can probably guess, the shorter terms generally get a lot more traffic. But, because they are more general in nature, they tend to not convert very well. The long phrases get fewer searches, but tend to convert better because this type of person has a better idea of what they’re looking for. Here’s a sample of a very common graph showing this relationship:


Benefits of Short and Long Tail

Both short and long tail keywords have their place in your search marketing strategy. One mistake that a lot of companies make is only going after one or the other. But a complete strategy will take advantage of both. Here is a quick summary of things to consider with both of them:

Head and Short Tail Phrases

The lure of traffic is a big reason that companies go after these terms. The truth is that if you can get a good ranking on short terms you will get a lot of traffic for it. Sure, you may not get as many conversions from these terms, but they help to build your brand, which will in turn lead to more sales later.

In summary, head and short tail phrases:

  • Generate a lot of searches
  • Don’t have a high conversion rate
  • Can be good for branding purposes
  • Are generally more competitive

Long Tail Phrases

As you can see from the graph, there are a lot more long tail phrases than there are head and short tail terms. Cumulatively, you can get a lot of traffic this way, even though individual long tail terms may not generate much traffic by themselves. But because they generally convert better, you’ll want to rank well across the board for these phrases.

In summary, head and short tail phrases:

  • Don’t get much traffic individually, but cumulatively can make up a large portion of your site’s traffic
  • Convert better overall
  • It’s estimated that 20% of searches have never happened before, so it’s impossible to optimize for all of them

Use All of the Tails!

By having a good position on shorter terms you are putting your company in front of a shopper while they are at the beginning stages of their search. But don’t stop there! The goal here is to get your site in front of the searcher during all stages of their search cycle.

Let’s look back at the example of the person searching for a laptop. What if your company came up in a majority of the searches they did, both short and long tail? Do you think they’ll notice this and consider your site as one of the more relevant ones for that topic?

This is one reason why it’s important to have a complete keyword strategy. You have to consider both the long and short phrases. You need to get your site in front of as many people as possible to get conversions, and you can do it across the board by incorporating both short and long tail phrases in your optimization efforts.

Optimizing for the Long Tail

The problem with optimizing for the long tail is that there are so many of them. And, being that an estimated 20% of searches are new, you can’t optimize for a majority of them anyway!

So what can you do to incorporate these long tail phrases into your site’s optimization? Here are a few tips:

  • Use a good keyword tool to get an idea of what the known long tail phrases are.
  • Watch your analytics for additional ideas of where you are getting traffic and conversions from.
  • For each optimized page use your 1-3 main phrases in the copy, but also include long tail variations of them.
  • Vary your anchor text when you’re building links with long tail variations.
  • If your site has a blog, write content that is based around long tail phrases. Then link with those long tail phrases back over to the main page of your site that is optimized for the base phrase.

The good news is that ranking for long tail phrases is usually not too hard. Keep an eye on your analytics to see what’s working and tweak it from there. As you do this, you’ll get a better idea of the kinds of terms that are being used in your industry.