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The long tail of keyword research (and why single keywords are for losers)

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In one month, a small website about management and leadership received 95,036 visits from search engines via 44,655 thousand different keywords. That’s a lot of keywords for a little site; and it’s a glimpse into the long tail of keyword research. For most websites, how to make a profit from the long tail is the same as how to make a profit.

Here’s a grab of the report showing those figures from our example site:

Thinking Managers 44000 keywords

Here’s another from a busier site on which we see 379,243 keyword (search engine) visits from 210,441 different keywords.

Thinking Managers 21000 keywords

Single keywords are for losers

It is clearly impossible to specifically target 44,000 single keywords. Or as I like to put it more rhetorically:

Single keywords are for losers

And yet SEO advice and professional services are almost all about single keywords.

Clearly we must choose our SEO help wisely and make our return on investment calculations carefully.

The insignificant top 10

When looking at a site’s stats, we often look at the top 10 keywords. For example, for that management and leadership site we see this:

Thinking Managers top 10

Those top 10 keywords (I’ll call these the ‘head’ keywords) bring 9,400 visits between them which is less than 10% of the site’s keyword (i.e. search engine) traffic.

If we have a look into our example site’s long tail - the other 44,645 keywords – we find that only the top 900 bring more than 10 visits a month.

I clearly don’t have time to even look at all these long tail keywords. And if I spent time targeting any of them, how much response would I get from 10 visits? How much money would I make? Not enough to make it worth my while.

Let’s go deeper still...

Only 8,135 out of the 44,645 keywords (less than 20%) bring more than 1 visit a month. That means over 80% bring just one visit. And those single-visit keywords make up approx 40% of the site’s total keyword (search engine) traffic.

Targeting single keywords is starting to look daft.

We have a dilemma. Just targeting head terms leaves the big money on the table but it is clearly not profitable to target single keywords in the long tail. The answer is simple:

Target groups of keywords

Which as it happens is quite easy. But before we look at how to do it, let’s look beyond our little example website...

The long tail is very long

Bill Tancer in his now seminal post, Sizing Up the Long Tail of Search, looked at 14 million searches and concluded that the long tail is so long that the head is of no significance. As Bill puts it:

“If search were represented by a tiny lizard with a one-inch head, the tail of that lizard would stretch for 221 miles.”

Here’s Bill’s graph of the top 10,000 search terms from his sample (the y-axis shows the % of all searches for each keyword on the x-axis):

Long tail graph

The significant thing here is that the head terms shown in that graph above make up a miniscule % of all searches in the sample.

Some figures illustrate this further. In Bill’s sample, the:

  • Top 100 terms bring 5.7% of searches
  • Top 500 terms bring 8.9% of searches
  • Top 1,000 terms bring 10.6% of searches
  • Top 10,000 terms bring 18.5% of searches

But the long tail is even longer than this. Bill Tancer’s figures amaze but they greatly underestimate the size of the long tail because he used just 14 million searches and, in July 2009 alone, 113 billion searches were made on search engines.

So Bill’s sample was about 0.01% of the number of searches made in a month.

I can’t do better than quote Bill again: “There’s so much traffic in the tail it is hard to even comprehend”.

Another thing about head keywords

Head keywords remain irresistible to many SEOs and website owners. They want to see their site top of Google’s results pages for them. They become trophy keywords.

Plus, few people want to go through the learning curve required to start thinking about groups of keywords (keyword niches).

But as well as ignoring most searches, head keywords are very competitive. Increasingly, despite Google’s fight against paid links, to get top of Google for the big money keywords you need to pay for your site’s inbound link power. Which we don’t want to do, so...

So let’s learn how to play with the long tail...

How to make a profit in the long tail

How do you make a profit from keywords that bring just one visit a month? Easy, you target lots of them at once – you target groups of keywords (keyword niches). Here’s how...

Let’s start simply with one page. Your SEO might focus on one or two keywords but you’re really targeting those keywords and their long tails. And the more relevant and related words on your page, the more of that tail you can get results for. I love 2,000 word articles. Let’s look at an example...

The following image is from a Google Analytics report for a page from thinkingmanagers.com about swot analysis and strengths and weaknesses. We can see it gets results for up to 10,000 different keywords.

This long tail tactic is so effective that you can get great results from a page without getting anything from its primary target keyword. E.g. the page mentioned above doesn’t get a top 10 ranking for either swot analysis or strengths and weaknesses. I summarize this tactic as ...

Target the head and exploit the tail

This does not mean that you should spend hours stuffing (or just adding) relevant keywords to your pages. That spoils your copy and usually takes too long to be profitable. It means that you:

  • Plan the structure of your site’s content, organizing it into categories, e.g. sports cars and family cars for a car site.
  • Allocate (e.g.‘tag’) existing content to relevant categories.
  • Each category has a category home page, e.g. a sports car page, that lists links to relevant pages on your site.
  • For each category, find target keywords (of course I really mean keyword niches). E.g. italian sports cars, sports car insurance.
  • If a keyword niche is big then make it a category. E.g. italian sports cars might become a category. Planning a site’s structure can be a big job.
  • For each target keyword, commission or write a long article with lots of words.
  • Don’t sweat on the individual keywords within your articles. Leaving that copy natural will target 1000s (sometimes 10s of thousands) of keywords. The big job is the initial keyword research and subsequent site planning.
  • Analyze results. Which keyword niches bring the most response? Continue your keyword research - looking for more keyword niches to target.

I explore this in more detail in Adventures in (long tail keyword) Wonderland.

Also, the following resources may help you:

About Mark Nunney

has been a successful professional SEO since 2000. He is CEO of The Website Marketing Company and he publishes Leadership & Management Review from ThinkingManagers.com, the business management website.

Mark wrote SEO for Profit, Wordtracker Masterclass: Keyword Research book and co-wrote Wordtracker Masterclass: Link Building with Ken McGaffin. He is also the founder and project manager of Wordtracker Strategizer.

You can follow Mark Nunney's SEO on Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ and read a Q&A here.