How to Make Hummingbird Your Ally with Long Tail Keywords

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Editor’s note: Savannah Marie is an online marketing enthusiast with particular interest in all things social. She’s taken a close look at how to make Google’s recent changes work in favor of your content, and shares the results with us:

long tail keyword conversion curveHummingbird is a major infrastructure change that incorporates Penguin and Panda, among a flock of other algorithms, and all components continue to evolve. Google makes hundreds of changes to its algorithms yearly. Most are small. Others, obviously, are major. The point is, it’s ongoing and ever-changing. And Google has only one goal with it: make search better for the searcher.

The changes Hummingbird and its cohort imposed wreak havoc on marketers who buy backlinks or haphazardly toss keywords into content, but they can work wonders for you – with just a little tweaking of your game plan.

As Gianluca Fiorelli noted in the Moz blog, “These updates (Panda and Penguin), so effective in what we define as middle- and head-tail queries, were not so effective for a type of query that – mainly because of the fast adoption of mobile search by the users – more and more people have begun to use: conversational long tail queries, or those that Amit Singhal has defined as ‘verbose queries’.”

What are long tail keywords?

In statistics, a long tail is the portion of the distribution having a large number of occurrences far from the “head” or central part of the distribution. Chris Anderson popularized the term by applying it to commerce in an October 2004 Wired magazine article, which he expanded in his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More.

So in keywords, the concept applies like this: “car” is a keyword that could mean you want to buy a car, sell a car, fix a car, paint a car…you get the idea. “Electric car” is a big step away from the head concept. “Electric four-wheel drive, four-door, hatchback car” is long tail not because of its length, but because of its distance from the very broad “car” head concept. The really big deal with long tail keywords is that although they get far fewer searches, the searches are more targeted and the buyer is closer to a decision, so the sales cycle may be shorter. (Bonus: long tail keywords are by definition less competitive, so they cost less in PPC ads.)

What Google wants

From Google’s point of view, the idea is that search results will be directly related to the end user’s query instead of the keywords. Google wants the search engine to be more intelligent and precise, and better able to identify what end users are actually looking for. For example, if someone searches for the “best margarhita pizza in Oakland” Google will now take into account the entire question plus the searcher’s location and search history. Before it would have returned something like the most popular pizza place, or the first link that best matches the phrase “margarhita pizza”. Results returned today will be more tailored to match the user’s location and distance as well as the query, which should result in a better experience for the user.

How to use long tail keywords with content

Since Google’s new emphasis is to help users find more precisely what they’re actually looking for (as opposed to finding instances of a keyword), that should be your new focus as well. You need to provide high quality content that addresses the needs and intent of your visitors. What are they looking for when they browse to your business or brand portal? What advice or answers can you offer them?

The answers to these give you guidance on long tail keywords. And the long tail keywords give you guidance on content. If you create content that naturally answers customer questions in natural language, the long tail keywords should find an organic home in that content. Don’t just lard your copy with keywords, long tail or short. The goal, as Rand Fishkin notes, is to create linkable/shareable content which semantically relates to long-tail keywords. Note also that Hummingbird is about queries, not keywords; that means tracking long-tail rankings as a metric of the impact of Hummingbird isn’t helpful.

How to find relevant long tail keywords and questions

In order to find relevant terms for your business or brand, you should use a combination of tools. The first should be a keyword tool like AdWords or Wordtracker. Just as before, you should research your keywords and find the best that match what you’re looking for in terms of traffic, and exposure. Then, use Google Instant to identify complete phrases and long tail keywords you can incorporate.

When you search on, Google Instant is that feature that completes a query once enough letters or words have been typed in to allow a reasonable narrowing of results. This allows you to see some of the most popular searches out there, and it accurately reflects terms that end users are relying on. Note that when searching in Google using the Google toolbar, Google Instant delivers different results, showing your own most recent searches.

Marry this with a bit of old-fashioned research. Brainstorm questions you can ask yourself, others in your industry, and your customers. If you were looking for the best of a particular product type, what would you search for? What kind of research would you do into a business or brand?

Here are some tactics to help you choose long tail keywords:

  • Figure out what your audience wants most. Ask them how they look for it, and pay very close attention to the words and phrases they use
  • Use Google Instant to find popular search terms and queries. Just start to enter a few keywords in the search field; the phrases that pop up will indicate popular queries
  • Research what competitors are doing with their SEO
  • Include a mixture of popular terms and less trafficked synonyms
  • Encourage user interaction and feedback, tailor content to the results

Google’s also now putting emphasis on resources and community interaction. For example, if your site has a related forum or active Q&A section, then (all other things being equal) you’ll appear higher in search result listings. If your blog or forum is full of constructive and helpful comments, that will also likely result in higher search result listings.

Let’s take a look at CJ Pony Parts’ blog. The blog features relevant news posts, a listing of upcoming car shows, videos, and posts on customers’ Mustang renovations. CJ Pony understands the importance of engaging customers with interesting information about their industry. They offer both broad and narrow content their customers find interesting, and customers return the favor by consistently engaging on the blog, video, and infographic posts. This interaction points the way to more content tailored to customer interests…and contributes to CJ’s page-one Google SERP rankings (as of October 29, 2013).

CJ Pony PartsThe take-away? SEO experts have always advised taking the slow-and-steady route, attracting and holding an audience with great content…but people did indulge in a few black-hat strategies around keywords and linking. Hummingbird makes those much, much less effective and underscores the risks of using them. Taking the long tail mindset leads you to uncover what your audience really wants to know, and helps you build the rich content that will provide satisfaction. Your customers will appreciate it, and Google will reward you for it.

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