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October 27, 2010

The Great Misconception of Long-Tail Keywords and SEO

As I write this, I just came back from a meeting with a potential client with a startup who wants to make sure they bake SEO into their website from the start while also not making any SEO gaffes along the way. They were referred to me from a current client who was in similar shoes about a year ago. I love working with startups who have a well-thought-out business model, which is in part to create a website and business so great that it dominates their space.

During the course of our conversation one of the many things we discussed was the need for a “long-tail keyword strategy.” Which makes sense because part of dominating any niche is showing up in the search results for any and all keyword phrases that relate to the business. We talked about the usual long-tail keyword vehicles…a resource center on the website, a blog, etc., all of which this company was planning to implement down the line.

After the meeting I made a quick stop at Trader Joe’s for nuts and berries for my husband (I think he’s part chimpanzee!). When I got home it was noon so I fired up my “Jill Whalen Daily,” which provides me with great lunchtime reading. The dailies are cool because they provide you with all the links your Twitter followers posted during the last 24 hours. I often use mine to help me find good articles to submit to Sphinn, as well as to keep up with the latest news in the search marketing world and beyond. As I was browsing it today, however, I was thinking that I shouldn’t be reading other people’s articles because I had a newsletter to write and no clue what to write about! My only excuse was that perhaps I would get inspired by something I read.

Thankfully for me (and you, faithful reader), I did! The very first article I read gave me exactly the inspiration I needed.

The article in question was Ian Lurie’s “SEO 101: Defining the long tail.”

If you’d like, go ahead and read it before continuing – I’ll wait. Just be sure to come back because I’m going to tell you why Ian is wrong in his explanation of the long tail for SEO.

Let me start by saying that I have tons of respect for Ian, whom I met this past year at a conference we were both speaking at. He’s wildly intelligent, with the dry sense of humor for which I’m a total sucker. Of the articles he’s written that I’ve read, I mostly agree with him – but not always. Which, of course, is part of what keeps SEO so fun and interesting…we all have our own opinions and definitions of stuff.

With that out of the way, and with you having had enough time to read Ian’s article, here are my thoughts on SEO and long-tail keywords. Let’s start with what I do agree with in Ian’s article.

His definition:

The Long Tail
“Specific, niche search phrases, usually more than 2 words in length, that offer a low competition, low search volume and high searcher intent.”

I mostly agree with that definition, although I’d say usually more than 3 words in length because most 3-word search queries do not have low search volume.

And I suppose that is the crux of my disagreement. He provides 3 made-up examples of long-tail keyword phrases, but in my opinion only 2 of them are truly long tail.

His examples revolve around socks, and he rightfully explains why optimizing and ranking highly for the one word “socks” is not the best SEO strategy. It will provide you with lots of traffic to your site, but it’s untargeted traffic, and therefore less likely to convert for you. That is, the person who comes to your site after typing the one word “socks” into Google is less likely to buy socks from you than the person who
typed “socks with cats on them” (another of Ian’s example phrases). I definitely agree with this. And I also agree that the phrase “socks with cats on them” is likely to be a true long-tail keyword phrase.

Ian also uses “socks that knock my socks off” as a potential long-tail phrase, and goes on to say that these types of phrases, in aggregate, can provide as much traffic to a website as the one word “socks,” while providing the bulk of the sales. Once again, I agree.

Keyword Gems as Opposed to Long-Tail Keywords

Where I start to disagree is with the third keyword phrase that Ian uses as a long-tail keyword: “red wool socks.” While he was obviously just making up examples, “red wool socks” is unlikely to be a long-tail phrase – it’s what I call a “keyword gem.”

There’s a very big difference between keyword gems and long-tail keywords. Keyword gems are those that a lot of people use in the search engines, but they don’t have as much competition as the much more general keyword “socks.” This differs from long-tail keywords, which aren’t used much in the search engines.

Long-tail keywords – in the truest sense of what long-tail means – are those that may get searched for only once a month, once a quarter, or even once a year. Sometimes even just once in a lifetime! In fact, they may never show up in most keyword research tools as viable keywords. (Especially now that Google has basically wiped them out of their keyword research database…but that’s a story for another day.)

You Don’t Optimize for Long Tail

Because long-tail keywords are so few and far between and can’t easily be researched, you can’t optimize for them – not in the traditional SEO sense. But that’s okay, and in fact, it’s the beauty of long-tail keywords. Anybody can receive highly targeted traffic from them, regardless of your level of knowledge of SEO! All you have to do is have content on your website. It doesn’t even have to be good content, although it should be good if you want it to convert for you. The content can even be user-generated, as in a forum, or in blog comments, product reviews, or pretty much anything that puts words on your pages.

If you have words on your pages (and your site is crawler friendly), you will receive traffic that relates to those words whether you mean to or not. You’ve likely seen this yourself if you have a blog or articles on your website and you review your web analytics for the keyword you’re getting found under. It’s really that easy.

But that’s not SEO.

And that’s where I disagree with Ian.

Near the end of his article he writes:

“If you want to capitalize on the long tail, look beyond rabid link grubbing and learn to optimize your pages. Optimized, relevant content is what gets long tail traction.”

Yes, you can look beyond the horribleness of link grubbing. But no, you don’t have to optimize your content for long-tail traction. You simply have to write content.

Sure, you can think about and create a long-tail keyword strategy where you determine specific themes that you want to write about that may capture the most amount of search traffic as well as bring in links. And that’s certainly how I’ll be helping my new startup client as part of my SEO consulting. However, when I write my newsletters I don’t do it with keywords in mind. When we have posts on our forum, we don’t do it with keywords in mind. And yet, that’s where our long tail traffic comes from–with or without a long tail strategy.

Long-Tail Visitors Do Rock

While my long-tail visitors aren’t typically in the market for SEO services at the moment, they are often looking for SEO information and education. The articles and posts they find on my site through their long-tail searching often entice them to sign up for our newsletter, which is a conversion in and of itself. And I know from my data that newsletter subscribers (waving to you!) are, in the long run, the most apt to hire me for SEO consulting services somewhere down the line if or when they’re in the position to do so.

But make no mistake about it – our best short-term lead-converting traffic comes from the keyword gems that are searched upon fairly often. These are the ones that we optimize our sales pages for. They are the keywords that potential clients are using that describe exactly what we offer and how those offerings can benefit them.

When you put those two strategies together – long-tail content designed to make a first impression and a small conversion (newsletter sign-up) plus keyword gem optimization designed to collect leads now – you’ve got yourself some mighty SEO!

Jill Whalen, CEO of High Rankings and co-founder of SEMNE, has been performing
SEO services since 1995. Jill is the host of the High Rankings Advisor newsletter and the High Rankings SEO forum.