Long tail SEO is something that has become more and more relevant to SEOs over the past few years. That’s because the way in which people search is changing. Particularly, voice search is having a significant impact on the way people search. Back in 2021, I came across a fantastic article by Dr Pete Meyers at Moz (or should that be yet another fantastic post?). In his post (April 2021), Dr Pete took a deep dive into the value of the long tail and how we should all be focussing on the long tail in 2021. Whilst we may now be deep into 2022 and heading towards 2023, I wanted to revisit the post as I think there is so much of it that is still relevant today, if not more relevant than it was back in 2021.
This was a topic particularly close to my heart. We spend a lot of time preaching the value of long-tail keywords to our clients. It’s almost a boilerplate line in our monthly reporting.
The problem we face, and I am sure many other SEO agencies are in the same boat, is that our clients aren’t always interested in keywords that have a monthly search volume of 10. And they definitely aren’t interested in hundreds of these keywords.
What they want are the vanity keywords. Those keywords with a monthly search volume of 10,000 – a game-changer when we can start to drive 10,000 visits a month from just one keyword. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that.
The great news for us is that we have some very awesome clients and thankfully they trust us to get the job done for them. Whilst we may still report on the vanity keywords they all love to see (and we achieve some pretty strong vanity rankings let me tell you!), our clients trust us to focus a lot of our efforts on driving more traffic through the seemingly endless supply of long tail keywords.
The end result of this approach?
We drive more organic traffic to their site and because our work focuses on long tail keywords, we often see an uplift in conversions as the longer tail keywords have a greater degree of intent and hence traffic from those keywords is much more conversion-focused. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem to matter as much that a vanity keyword went from #2 to #4 because we drove more traffic, sales and revenue from other keywords.
However, I’m jumping way ahead here. This post is all about the value of long-tail keywords in 2023 and for that, I am going to come back to Dr Pete and share with you some of his fascinating findings and insights from back in 2021
What is the long tail of SEO?
According to Dr Pete, “The long tail of search is the limitless space of low-volume (and often low-competition) keywords. Tactically, long-tail SEO centers on competing for a large number of low-volume keywords instead of focusing on a small set of high-volume keywords.”
Often showcased as a perfectly curving line on a graph (see above), the long tail focuses on low-volume keywords that, on the surface, don’t seem very appealing at all. No matter whether you are working in a well-known sector or a niche, we’ve all been there when carrying out keyword research. All you can find on a particular topic are tens, hundreds or possibly thousands of keywords that carry a search volume of <50. If you work in a niche, most of these will likely be a search volume of 10 which invariably means less than 10.
Whilst individually these keywords don’t seem appealing, the key to the long tail is that there are tens, hundreds or possibly thousands of them. Suddenly, the cumulative volume of those keywords starts to look a lot more appealing, especially when you note the low competition for all of them.
This approach is visualised by the curved graph above, however, Dr Pete has come up with his own way of visualising the true impact of long tail keywords:
This showcases the fact that the cumulative volume of long tail keywords typically far outweighs the volume from a handful of vanity head keywords and the middle (chunky thorax). In honesty, both graphic depictions dramatically underestimate the true scope and value of the long tail.
What are long tail keywords?
We’ve talked about the long tail of SEO, but how exactly do we define keywords that are classified as long tail? It’s a fairly frequent discussion both internally and with our clients, and the truth is that we don’t actually know the exact make-up of a long-tail keyword.
Typically, they are low-volume, multi-word phrases that also have low competition. As people are catching on to the value of the long tail, these keywords are going to grow in value and also, the competition will grow. That is especially true of multi-word phrases that carry strong user intent, particularly if they carry high commercial intent.
Let’s say we sell bathroom products. A head term for us to target might be ‘baths’. In New Zealand, that keyword has a search volume of 2,400 so that’s going to keep a client pretty happy. The trouble is the search intent is not that clear and the competition is high.
Targeting a term like ‘freestanding baths’ narrows search intent, however “where to buy ideal standard freestanding baths’ is laser focussed on your target audience. According to SEMrush, there are just 10 monthly searches for that long tail keyword, however, don’t let that deter you.
As both searchers and SEOs adjust and adapt to natural language search (often seen in voice search), keywords that previously had little to no search volume may become higher volume and higher competition.
But how do we target hundreds or possibly thousands of long tail keywords?
I can hear the big question that is being asked out there. It’s all well and good identifying hundreds of possibly thousands of long-tail keywords, but how the heck am I supposed to write enough content to target all of those keywords? Is this not going back in time to the dark days of creating hundreds of pages on my website?
A valid question and one that Dr Pete thankfully has the answer to.
Natural language processing has evolved significantly in order to better handle search queries made on voice-activated devices. Dr Pete reports that 15% of the searches they see each day are new. This doesn’t mean that we are creating new words every day. It just means that the way people search for the same thing can be very different.
As Google understands context better, the algorithm recognises that many variations of the same phrase or question are essentially the same.
This means we don’t need to create a new piece of content for every potential long tail keyword/phrase. We simply need to trust that Google will understand the similarities between our content and the many different ways in which people search, showing our single piece of content for tens, hundreds or possibly even thousands of keywords that share similar characteristics.
The power of the long tail
Dr Pete goes on to talk about how the long tail has really imploded and this is where his research-based approach really shines through. Whilst we would love to dedicate time to creating original research like this, no one does it better than Dr Pete so we are happy to jump on his coattails and share the findings of his research which really emphasise the power of the long tail.
Dr Pete uses an example of an experiment he ran at MozCon in 2019 for a blog post that targeted questions such as “How do I improve my domain authority?”
You can get a full breakdown of the results over on the Moz blog, however, a summary of his findings shows that there is a lot of similarity between the various ways in which people search and the search results for those corresponding long tail keywords. The graphic below shows how little difference there is between “improve” and “increase” – Google easily equated the two terms. Switching between “How do I” to “How do you” or even “How to” also made relatively little difference. Google even understood that “DA” is frequently substituted for “Domain Authority” in our sector.
This really does showcase the power of the long tail and the fact that a single post can rank for many, many long tail keyword variants without over-optimising that post or trying to target a number of long-tail keywords in one single post.
What does all this mean for you?
Well, hopefully, what you have taken from this post is that a) Dr Pete is the man and b) it doesn’t take 10,000 pieces of content to rank for 10,000 variants of a phrase.
No one wants that much content – certainly not your audience or Google.
Instead, focus your efforts on understanding how your keywords fit into semantic space and focus on delivering content that is in-depth, insightful and most of all, relevant to your audience. Doing this will ensure you are optimising for semantically relevant, topical keywords that cover the core concepts.
At this stage, the tools we use to carry out keyword research are still playing catch up. Dr Pete assures us he is working on this over at Moz and we can expect other leading tools to be doing the same thing.
Until then, your intuition will serve you well. Investigate the SERPs for the keywords you are targeting and identify every possible opportunity and then create content that is better than the content that already ranks for those keywords. You may just find you get more than you bargained for.