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The Great Misconception of Long-Tail Keywords and SEO

October 20, 2010

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 image credit: law_keven 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 is the CEO of High Rankings, an SEO Consultant in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalenJill Whalen

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Post Comment

 Linda Wittig said:
Hi Jill,

Thanks for that long-tail explanation. Finally this concept makes sense to me!lol
I just love the way you write. I actually feel like I "get it" after your explanations.
Clear, concise and without egoisms. I'll be sure to retweet & Digg this article.

You can bet if I'm ever in the position for an SEO consultation, you'ill "indeed" be
the one I contact.


 Nick Cassells said:
Really interesting point of view and i can see where both of you are coming from. strangely enough it was only earlier this week I found Ian Laurie on the web and was very impressed with his google analytics training videos. Having read both of your articles on long tail keywords I am beginning to realise it is not always black and white in SEO. There is quite a heavy grey area.

 Jill Whalen said:
@Linda, thank you so much for your kind words! "Clear, concise and without egoisms" is definitely what I'm going for, so it makes my day when I hear that I'm getting it right!

@Nick, it's not gray (or grey!) at all. I think if you brush up on the true meaning of "long-tail" as it applies to other fields in general, you'll agree. The problem is once again a question of semantics. I'd hate to see SEOs port the phrase "long-tail" to mean something other than what it truly means.
 FMJohnson said:
Very good article, thank you. Re your paranthetical comment: (Especially now that Google has basically wiped them out of their keyword research database...but that's a story for another day.) ... please don't let that "another day" be too long from now. Looking forward to your take on that.
 Ian Lurie said:
Hey Jill,

I think we actually are more in agreement than it might seem. I'm not saying you need to insert specific long tail keywords into content. When I say 'optimize', I mean 'make sure your site is crawlable' and 'make sure your pages have the basic structure necessary'. Most companies don't even know how to insert a sensible title tag, and therefore lose out on the long tail: They'll insert things like product SKUs into titles, instead of product names; or, they'll use robots.txt to block some product pages because their IT team says Google is slowing their server down (!!!!).

Then they come to me and say "Just build some links, ok?". But links don't help much with the long tail. Search visibility and basic best practices do. Sadly, very few 'experts' give a hoot about either. Hence my saying 'optimize for the long tail'. If I don't say it, even basic best practices are ignored.

I did put in a better long-tail term than 'red wool socks'. Wasn't thinking there. That's what I get for blogging at the end of the day.


 Jill Whalen said:
Hey Ian...thanks for stopping by and commenting. Sorry for ambushing you!

I figured we probably were mostly on the same page, but I did need something to write about and it's always easy/fun to disagree with a few minor points that people make. I do get worried when SEO articles I read are not extremely precise as that's what causes all those SEO myths which none of us like!
 Ian said:
@Jill No problem - it wasn't an ambush. I'm thrilled you read my stuff :)

I think the debate's essential to clarify stuff like this. One person's red wool socks is another persons' socks with googly eyes...
 Adrian Dunevein said:
Hi Jill,

Love the article. I wholeheartedly agree about the use of keyword gems, but I beg to differ a little as an avid user of 4 and 5 word long tail keywords.

You say a optimizing for long tail keywords with low demand is not an SEO strategy but it could be if you are in a type of business where the aggregate traffic from many such keywords creates high value sales.

Take a machine shop or architect for example. These businesses might only need a few good big orders every year to stay busy. Say they get only 100 visits per month from several long tail keyword focused content pages, that convert at a conservative 1% visits to sales ratio, the resulting business would be enough to keep them solvent.

While Socks might not be a great long tail candidate, I think technical high dollar value sellers could benefit greatly from them.

Keep up the good work though
 Jill Whalen said:
@Adrian, I'm not saying that every site shouldn't try to gain long-tail traffic. They most certainly should.

What I'm saying is that getting long-tail traffic isn't SEO and doesn't take an SEO to implement.

It simply takes content on your site. Words on the page. Lots and lots of it. The more content, the more phrases you'll get found for.

But that's not SEO.

It's just content creation.
 Rob Willox said:
I have to agree with your approach in relation to thematic content creation, and that if done properly, with the right research behind it, it will naturally contain both head and long-tail keyword phrases which will in the long-term attract long-tail searchers.

But, take exception, when after disagreeing with Ian Lurie, you effectively agree with him and conclude that optimising for the long-tail is important but your focus would be on creating good content.

It's semantics as I don't think he was saying that it's not important to create good content. Identifying all the related keywords, phrases and synonyms and working them into a properly themed page will rank for a wider range of keyword combinations and bring more visitors than a page not proprely optimised.

In both scenarios it revolves around good, relevant and interesting content.
 Lee Jackson said:
I totally agree Jill, rankings for long-tail phrases can only be achieved through writing copy for the user naturally, as if you were having a conversation with them. Naturally written content also adheres to latent semantic indexing methodologies, without you realising! Optimisation should be considered only for the high search volume KW's, strategic content creation will take care of the long tails itself!
 Anthony said:
Hey Jill
Great article I'm looking at long tail keywords in a whole new light.
 Alan Mitchell said:
Hi Jill,

Interesting read. Thought I'd touch on a comment you made about the definition of a long-tail keywords, such as whether a 3 word phrase falls into the short or long-tail category.

I think what's important is the word's length and popularity as a relative measure, as in 'shorter' or 'longer' keywords, or 'popular' and 'less popular' keywords. A 3 word phrase such as 'bingo clothing fashion' might be a long-tail keyword for a clothing retailer, whereas a 4 word phrase such as 'car insurance for women' might be a highly-competitive short-tail keyword for a car insurance broker.

I also agree that longer keyword phrases are generally made by people who have already carried out the large majority of their research and and generally have more buying intent, and in some research I carried out on PPC searches of different word lengths, found longer keywords to have significantly lower CPCs and significantly higher conversion rates ( ) than shorter variations.

There definitely is a value in the long-tail, but whether or not long-tail SEO optimisation should be a conscious effort (Ian) or more of a 'write it and they will come' approach (yourself) is a matter of debate.

 Henri said:
So much beating around the bush. Half of that article is just a page filler. You could have said all that more concisely in a paragraph.Who wants to know you are buying nuts for your husband?
 Jill Whalen said:
Henri, thanks for your feedback. But I find that many of my newsletter subscribers actually do like to hear some personal stuffed mixed in with the articles. So that's what I give them.

I've found that for my stuff as well as for the stuff I read from others, that the more of a personal face you put to it, the more people enjoy reading it and coming back for more.

Your mileage may vary :D
 jimbeetle said:
Good read, Jill, and much needed. One point, though, is that I think you need not make any mention at all as to the length of a query; to me that only adds to the confusion of folks new to the business (or those that have been around for a bit but latch on to the buzzwords of the week without knowing what they actually mean). Better to simply let this sentence stand as your description:

"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."
 Jill said:
Yeah agree, Jim.
 RP_Joe said:
"Because long-tail keywords are so few and far between and can't easily be researched, you can't optimize for them "

I am sorry I disagree. I have tools that identify and quantify multi word searches.
But the very best LT KW's come from careful screening in the stats.
And they are easy to optimize for. Just make a page on those keywords.
Patrick McKenzie has written and given interviews on this topic.
 Marcus Miller said:
I pretty much agree with Jill here.

A keyword or phrase (or gem) is something that the client may search for actively looking for your product but a long tail search term tends to be something that people look when they are really trying to refine the search results and that will not crop up every day or even every week.

If you are thorough when you are researching your keywords and terms and you cover all common variations, synonyms, slang etc of a given word or search term and you work these into your copy in a meaningful and sensible way then the long tail should look after itself to some extent.

If you start to pick up traction and notice some long tail keywords in your analytics you can always give them a little more focus in the copy or create new content to better explore the options.

If you find a term that does little traffic but converts at a better conversion and your obvious competition is not cropping up then... that's a winner in my eyes!
 DSD Marketing said:
Its an interesting read back and forth between you all, My take (and i'm just a small fish seo in a small fish agency) is that it all just goes to show that I really am top notch!! *sarcasm perhaps*. As it happens my latest client is a high end sock manufacturer and retailer which is quite ironic - my seo efforts seem to be perfect according to you all, simply put i target the 'Gems' as Jill calls them via the basic SEO activity and literally insist on content creation targeting the more obscure, less travelled terms that i can find or even come up with. "Socks with skulls on" has been pretty much excellent for us and demonstrates nicely, the optimisation for that term consisted of Ian's definition, crawlability, and legibilty and the fact that the content existed. basically one sentence and a product link.

Seems to me that 'old fashioned' SEO still works, On page optimisation, good content for VISITORS, ensuring crawlability and relevant natural link building seems to bring the success most of my clients need.

I appreciate all you top end SEO's out there writing and promoting yourselves through those writings and link bait ( wish i could be that literate) but sometimes, just sometimes i think that maybe wayy too much is read into what is being written by some - present company excepted of course. I do keep up to date and i have to say for all the changes good basic seo still seems to work.
 Daniel Lofton said:
Long tail keywords are a must for any website. They can bring quite a lot of highly convertible visitors. Which is very important for any successful business. Thanks for this post!
 Jacob Stoops said:
Very interesting read. I find long-tailed keywords to be extremely relevant for e-commerce websites or for sites that have an inventory of things they sell - a car dealer's website is a good example (and definitely 3 words long at the very least). Optimizing these types of pages - which can be deeper into a site - is a must but is often overlooked due to the sometimes low search volume that can be associated with the long-tail. However, in my experience these types of keywords/pages tend to have far better conversion rates than more general keywords which may be higher in the conversion funnel, which is why I am often surprised when I'm handed a large site that hasn't even considered it before...
 Jill Whalen said:
@Jacob, long-tail has nothing to do with the number of words in the search query. It could be 2 words if they were words like "immutable elephant."

Long-tail kws are not "sometimes low-volume." By their very nature, they are ALWAYS low-volume.

The whole idea is that in aggregate they can potentially create high volume.
 Pamela Ravenwood said:
Thanks for the clarification on long tail keywords. I have read articles where people say to discount 'stop' words like conjunctions and pronouns as well - but it seems they are even valuable in a long tail keywords - e.g. your example "socks that will knock your socks off".
 Jill Whalen said:
@Pamela, correct. That whole avoid stop words thing was one of the dumbest SEO myths of the 1990's. Are people still propagating that one?
 Pamela Ravenwood said:
Stop words, yes, just read another article on it recently.
 johnh said:
devils in detail. The concept Jill clarified in this article educated me. It makes sense but I did not know the term "kewword gem". When the term was coined?
Through my experience, manytimes, keword gem attracts real buyers. I focused on them for onpage optimization for my company.
 Jill Whalen said:
John, keyword gem is just a phrase I made up many years ago. And yes, their goal is to attract real buyers.
 johnh said:
wow & COOL, I didn't expect that you reply quickly. Anyway, Congrats on 300 issues. I enjoy reading your newsletter. And I like your style and Aaron Wall's because it reflects serious commitment & expertise on the SEO topics. Pickiness is sometimes the trait of the expert. I got a PhD writing in internet ad but I did not expect to work on the behind scene of the webpage for my living. :)

I happened to find too many fake internet marketing experts and they torture me by calling me "would you like on top 10 at Google?" I always ask their company name and what is your company ranking in Google with my keyword, not with their "los angeles seo marketing company" keyword. I know they want to make a living but sometimes, it is sad for them and for me to look at those polluted actions...

PS I tried to register in forum today for the first time but the online format repeatedly asked me to use other email address when I tried to use popular webbased email address. Do I have to use company email address??
 Jill said:
Yeah, sorry, john, we don't allow free email addresses at the forum thanks to the good ole spammers :(
 Ray Litvak said:
Hi Jill,
Well said!
Is there a 'long-tail keyword' suggestion tool that you're aware of? I'd like to expand my search horizons. And would you consider 'geo targeting' i.e. "red wool socks in (your city)" part of the long-tailing process?
 Richard R. said:
Enjoyed the read and your perspective on long-tail keywords Jill. 16 years involved with SEO? That was right around the time Al Gore invented the Internet I think. I've been at it since 1998 and seldom get bored because I feel like I'm a full-time student. You never stop learning...And the game never stops changing.
 Dwayne said:
Well, it's splitting hairs, but I still feel Long Tail Keywords are part of SEO.

While you may be good enough to always know whether a phrase is going to be a "Keyword Gem" or a "Long Tail Keyword", I only suspect that it will fall into one category or the other. Often I'm wrong. Either way, the process of choosing phrases to be sure to include in an article is the same.

While doing the research for the main keywords to use in an article I will also stumble upon a very large number of phrases to be included, some I view will likely be Long tail, others gems and I give them the proper emphasis based on my view on the phrase. At times in my writing I stumble upon phrases that work for long tail (yes, I agree those would not really fall into the SEO category) but many I have added with the idea of attracting the search engines attention make the work SEO.

Later depending on the response I get from the phrase, I may continue to do SEO on a phrase. If it reached the front page of Google maybe one of the top results and only gets a few hits, then it remains long tail. If I get to the front page (fairly low) and it gets a lot of hits, I treat it as a Gem and start doing some more SEO to get it to the top (TItle, Desc, Headings, etc).

Either way I am optimizing the text on the page for the sake of the Search engines and therefore I'm doing SEO.
 Rey Villar said:
Thanks for the insights into long-tail vs keyword gems. I have been writing content for long-tail targeting and general site optimization, but now I'm on the look out for keyword gems that have the traffic but not the competition. Thanks!
 Danny Freeman said:
Hello Jill,

Thank you for the articles you have written concerning the term "long tail" as well as your insight into "seo." This is the first time I have written but I hope to be a regular.
Danny Freeman {Danny}
 James said:
Right with you Jill.

I've always SEOd sites with specific keyphrases in mind and found that long tail results come with the territory. As long as there is content it'll fall into your lap.

Keep up the excellent work.

 Diane said:
Just discovered this post. VERY interested in on-page optimization for long-tail key-phrases -- or, OK, "keyword gems." ;) E.g.: max-support underwire sports bras ... that kind of thing. I'm a copywriter, so of course I focus on the content end. Am not allowed to write bloggy stuff, so must confine my SEO copywriting mainly to product pages. Need tips. Don't want to sound spammy...just want to write content that's about the stuff our customers find most relevant, like full-support sports bras, underwire sports bras, etc. etc. etc. And did I mention that I need tips? And advice. And help. Thanks!!