Defining the Long Tail for SEO

Apparently some SEOs believe that optimising a site for long tail traffic is not really SEO. I disagree, and below I will explain why.

First of all, let’s define what we mean by ‘long tail traffic’. It’s one of those often bandied phrases that tends to mean slightly different things for different people. Wikipedia isn’t much help here: “The long tail in keyword research is basically an expansion of a core, generic, high volume keyword phrase to include numerous combinations and permutations of the keywords and their associated or relevant phrases.”

Not sure I agree with that entirely. Another popular definition of long tail traffic is any search engine traffic that arrives on your site using 4 or more keywords. That too doesn’t sit well with me, as many 4+ keyword phrases are actually very popular and can generate substantial volumes of traffic.

Long tail traffic seems to have two characteristics:

1. It needs to be a fairly long keyword, at least 3 words or more.
2. It needs to be a low-volume keyword that doesn’t often get typed in to Google.

Personally I want to add a third characteristic to that, one that makes all the difference:

3. It needs to be a specific query fulfilling a specific informational requirement.

There are large online corporations that exists solely to fulfil the need specified in the third characteristic (Demand Media for one), and some SEOs argue that what these companies do doesn’t amount to SEO. I would agree with that. Churning out massive amounts of content just to satisfy long tail queries is not what good SEO makes.

But that’s just one interpretation of long tail. For many other businesses, the long tail means something else entirely.

The Long Tail
Image Credit: SEOMoz

Take an online business that sells white goods electronics. The fat head keywords for this type of business would be generic phrases like ‘dishwasher’, ‘washing machine’, and ‘vacuum cleaner’. The keywords in the chunky middle are often those that include brand names: ‘Bosch dishwasher’, ‘Zanussi washing machine’, ‘Dyson vacuum cleaner’.

But the real money for this site is in the long tail. Take a keyword like ‘bosch avantixx wae24366’. The person who types that in to Google knows exactly what they’re looking for – a Bosch Avantixx washing machine, model number WAE24366.

This person is probably looking for the best possible deal on that one specific item. If you can rank for that keyword and offer that great deal – for example with a low price, free shipping or extra warranty – you are likely to convert that person in to a paying customer.

And that is the real value of the long tail. It’s not about capturing all the possible traffic you can. No, it’s about capturing the traffic that is specifically looking for what you are selling.

Ranking for those type of specific long tail terms is not a straightforward task. It’s not just simply about throwing up product pages on your site. You need to think long and hard about your site’s information architecture, about semantic signals like tags, breadcrumb links, and the proper taxonomy. And most of all you need to ensure your site channels its crawl budget to those specific product pages.

That takes skill and effort, which pays off in more traffic and more conversions. And that’s why it is SEO.

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About Barry Adams

Barry Adams is one of the chief editors of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant delivering specialised technical SEO services to clients worldwide.