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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

SEO 101: Defining the long tail

Just what is the long tail, in SEO?

I do lots of writing about SEO and keywords, and I throw all kinds of terms around. But sometimes I suddenly realize I don't define them. I'm building a glossary for The Fat Free Guide - one of the first terms I'm working on is the long tail.

Here's my shot at the short version:

The Long TailSpecific, niche search phrases, usually more than 2 words in length, that offer a low competition, low search volume and high searcher intent.Now, for a little more detail.

This example is from real data, with the terms and business changed.

Say you sell socks. You obviously would love to rank #1 for 'socks'. So you hire an SEO professional, and they go to work. After spending a ton of money, you still aren't ranking #1 for 'socks' - you're #3. That ain't bad.

So you look at your data, and sure enough, 'socks' is by far your biggest traffic generator:

socks is clearly a 'head' term

Socks is your 'head' term. After that, there are hundreds of other phrases that generate little dribs and drabs of traffic. Examples might include:

'red wool socks'
'socks with dogs on them'
'socks with cats on them'
'socks that knock my socks off'

Jill Whalen rightly pointed out that 'red wool socks' is not a long tail term in any universe. So I inserted a better one.

At first, it seems like you should dismiss them. But when you add them all up, they're generating as much traffic as 'socks':

long tail terms generate as much traffic as the 'head' term

And they convert better, because the people searching on them know just what they want:

the long tail generates a higher conversion rate

The end result is that all those long tail phrases actually generate more revenue:

the long tail can be a better revenue source


In this example, 'red wool socks' and the other lesser phrases are the long tail.

SEOMOZ has collected some great data about the long tail, so I'll just summarize:

'Long tail' terms comprise 70% of all search queries;The top 1000 terms searched only comprise 10% of all search queries.The long tail is where it happens. No one long tail phrase will show up in an SEO's portfolio - getting a high ranking for 'socks that are blue with spots' is far less sexy than ranking #3 for 'socks'. But they do the work, because folks who search for them are more likely to buy/become leads, and because the vast majority of searches are long tail.

Long tail phrases are the blue collar workers of the search world. They make it happen. Ignore them and your whole internet marketing economy may fall apart.

I'm not saying you should ignore head terms. Just understand that they're only half the picture, at most.

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.

Another point of clarification, thanks to Jill: When I say 'optimized' I mean 'written so that search engines can categorize it' and 'delivered so that search engines can find it'. You don't necessarily have to insert specific keywords in specific places to grab the long tail.

Also, learn to make your site 100% visible to search crawlers. Content can't be indexed if it never gets crawled, right?

Most important, don't forget about the long tail in your pursuit of high rankings for high-traffic 'head' phrases. Your boss wants the head rankings. Your sales team wants the head rankings. But your business wants the long tail as well.

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