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Long Tail Keywords: Win at SEO and Acquire More Qualified Leads

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Would you like a way to drastically reduce the amount of search engine optimization (SEO) work you have to do, remove most of your competition, and find traffic that converts 2.5 times better than the average searcher?

Sure you would. And that means you need to know about long tail keywords. They are today’s secret sauce of successful SEO. Find the right long tail keywords, and you’ll gain a serious advantage over your competitors.

A long tail keyword is any search phrase that has three or four words in it – or more. The term was made popular by the book “The Long Tail” by Chris Anderson, which held that mass-market popularity wasn’t the only way to be successful; the strategy of selling a large number of unique items with relatively small quantities sold of each was the future. The book was in its heyday about a decade ago, but the principle behind it has only become more important in the days of increased SEO competition.

The essential value of a long tail keyword is this: It is much more specifically meaningful. This in turn means two things: there are fewer searches for that term, and the searcher who uses one is displaying more intent. They tend to be used more by people who have a good idea of what they’re looking for, as opposed to someone doing general research. And that often means someone closer to making a purchase.

The heads and tails of keywords

Compare long tail keywords to head keywords. Head keywords, as you’ve probably guessed, are two words or less. Here are a few examples of head keywords:

  • “business software” (1.67 billion results returned)
  • “office furniture” (85,200,000 results returned)
  • “paragliding classes” (396,000 results returned)

And here are a few examples of long tail keywords:

  • “business accounting software” (69,600,000 results returned)
  • “office furniture stores Albuquerque” (220,000 results returned)
  • “beginner paragliding classes Utah” (168,000 results returned)

There are three key reasons long tail keywords are so powerful.

  1. There’s less competition to rank for them.
  2. The higher your page ranks in the search results, the more traffic you’ll get (by a lot).
  3. Long tail keywords convert at a higher rate than more general keywords.

Let’s walk through the details of each of those points and look at some ways you can take advantage of long tail keywords to improve your search results as well as your ROI.

Reason #1: There’s less competition to rank for them.

To say that the competition to get a page ranked is fierce barely addresses what you’re up against in search engine optimization. Even with a low number of pages that could rank for a low-volume keyword search, you’ve still got millions of other pages competing against yours.

Now add the fact that there are only about seven organic listings on the first page of Google search results. This count can vary depending on AdWords ads, local listings and other factors. It’s often even less than seven organic listings.

If we exclude everything else for a moment, and just assume all those 1,000,000 pages are equal, that’s a one-in-a-million chance of being in the first position of the search results.

You have about as much of a chance of ranking for that keyword as you do of finding a bag of diamonds, getting struck by lightning, and then being swallowed by a whale – all in one day.

Now, I’m not saying that can’t happen. It’s just highly unlikely. This is why we do SEO. We need to improve our chances, diamonds and lightning aside.

Long tail keywords leverage this issue in your favor. The more specific the search terms you optimize for are, the less competition you’ll have. Really granular long tail keywords can sometimes have fewer than 10,000 competing pages. Compare that to head terms, which often have billions of competing pages.

Reason #2: The higher your page ranks, the more traffic you’ll get – by a lot.

SEO is a winner-take-all game. The first position in organic listings gets about a third of all the clicks. Second position gets roughly half of that – 15%. By the time you’re down to position 5, you’re getting 5.5% or less of the available organic clicks.

But even position five will look like a flood of traffic compared to what you’ll get if your organic listing is on the second page. Even optimistic studies have said less than 75% of users ever click past the first page of results. A 2014 study by Advanced Web Ranking found that all the listings on the second page combined get only a hair more clicks than positions six to ten on the first page.

This means any listing that’s not on page one is picking up leftover crumbs of traffic. Not scraps, mind you – the pages in positions six to ten are getting scraps. Meanwhile, the lucky page in first position is getting as much traffic as everything from position three down combined.

That’s winner take all.

Long tail keywords leverage this because you are far more likely to get your pages ranked higher. And getting ranked higher makes a big difference.

Here’s an example of how many more clicks you can get to your site, based just on what position your page comes in at for a search term that gets 10,000 searches per month:

Position Click-through rate Clicks
1 31.24% 3,124
2 14.04% 1,404
3 9.85% 985
4 6.97% 697
5 5.5% 550
6 to 10 3.73% 373
Second page 3.99% 399

Reason #3: Long tail keywords convert at a higher rate than more general keywords.

Long tail keywords are used after someone has refined their search down from a more general keyword and has a pretty good idea of what they’re looking for.

When we start our search, we use general keywords (“head keywords”) like, say, “Business software.” As we learn more about the topic, we start using more refined keywords like “business accounting software When we’re in the last stages of our research we’ll use laser-targeted terms like “small business accounting software for macs.”

There’s an added advantage to this, and it makes up for the lower traffic volume long tail keywords can bring to your site. Because long tail keywords convert at higher rates than more general keywords, that means you can have less traffic, and still get as many sales.

Conductor did a study a few years back that found long tail keywords convert at 2.5 times the rate of head keywords.

This can make a huge difference. Here’s how that might look for one set of keywords:

Keyword Average monthly searches (Google Keyword Planner) Conversion rate Conversions
business software 2,900 .4%


business accounting software 1,300 1.0 %


small business accounting software for mac 260 2.5%


In this example, the software company could get itself a solid stream of business by ranking for “small business accounting software for mac.” It won’t get as much as if it ranked for “business accounting software,” but it will have to do dramatically less SEO work to rank for this keyword.

How to find long tail keywords

So if these long tail keywords are so great, how do you find some for your site? There are several ways, from the free and fast to the paid and painful. Let’s start with the free and fast.

Google’s autofill feature

Just type the phrase you are considering into Google’s main search window, and it will give you some options, like this:

Google also gives long tail keyword selections all the way down at the bottom of the page, like this:

This is a decent start, but neither of these methods shows how competitive these keywords are. As you’ll probably remember, this is an important attribute of long tail keywords: They have less (often far less) competition than head keywords.

You can see some information on how competitive a search term is in the Google AdWords Keyword Planner. Just remember that it’s showing you how competitive that term is for paid searches, not for organic results.

Keyword research tools for keyword competitiveness

Most of the major keyword research tools will give you a keyword competitiveness score. Moz has this feature, as does SEMRush. Both services call their keyword competitiveness measurement “keyword difficulty.”

You can use SEMRush’s keyword difficulty tool in the free version. Just register with them and find the “Tools” > “Keyword Difficulty” page from the dashboard of your account.

Google trends for long tail keywords

Google trends can also show you related long tail keywords. But where it shines is how it shows if those other terms are experiencing a spike in searches. Google Trends also lets you compare searches for different terms over the last few years. This can help you determine if you’re optimizing for a term that’s on its way out, or is becoming more popular over time.

Google Webmaster Tools for long tail keywords

At the risk of leaning too heavily on Google tools, I can’t skip telling you about Google Webmaster Tools. Log into your account and go to “Search Traffic > Search Queries” to see which terms you’re getting traffic from. You’ll also see what position your pages are in for those terms.

This will show you long tail keywords you’re already ranking for. It may also reveal some long tail keywords you hadn’t thought of yet, and hadn’t found using other tools. Google Webmaster Tools has so much rich long tail keyword information that there’s a WordPress plugin that can suggest long tail keyword optimizations solely based on your Webmaster Tools data.

WordPress plugins

The WordPress plugin HitTail will analyze your site and your Google Webmaster account and not only recommend long tail keywords for your niche, but suggest long tail keywords your particular site has a good chance of ranking for.

There’s good news and bad news here. The bad news is you really need at least 1,500 unique visitors to your site per month for HitTail to work (and 2,000-3,000 or more to work well). The good news is there’s a 21-day free trial.

The best way to find long tail keywords

All those tools and tricks are good, but unfortunately they’re a little bit like guessing. If you have conversion tracking set up on your site, you don’t have to guess. You’ve got a gold mine of long tail keyword information.

Unfortunately, Google crippled this trick when it removed referring keyword data from Google Analytics. But there are ways to still get this information. You can also choose to invest in AdWords, which will give you detailed information about referring keywords, and which of those keywords convert.

This information alone is worth investing a few thousand dollars in AdWords. All you need to do is to find several keywords that convert at a high rate for you. A “high rate” would be 2% or better, preferably 5-10% or better. It is not unheard of for long tail keywords to convert at more than 10%.

In a well-run AdWords campaign, you will usually find a handful of keywords that convert at 5%, 10%, even 15% or more.

Those are the keywords to focus your SEO efforts on. Rank for those long tail keywords. Let everyone else go after the high volume terms that take an entire SEO department to rank for, and convert for nothing. You’ll save yourself hundreds of hours of work, so you can focus on getting your conversion rate even higher.

Do you have any experience ranking for long tail keywords? Or would you still rather go after the higher volume terms? Tell us about it in the comments.

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