SEO 101: Defining the long tail

Ian Lurie

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. So I’m going to start working on defining oft-used terms. Starting with The Long Tail.

Here’s my shot at the short version:

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.

Now, for a little more detail.

An example of the long tail in SEO

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.

Long tail: It’s opposite the head

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.

Long tail optimization to-dos

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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  1. You’ve got valid points here. Those who are seriously searching for something will type in more than just a word or two when searching the Web. Long tail is any webpreneur’s best friend, especially when you’re running an eCommerce business. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I’ve been doing online marketing now for about 6 months and have learned the value of long tail in generating traffic to my sites. It seems intuitive that people will type in what they need in their own words and not think about how to say it in 1 or 2 words. However, there does seem to be a focus on finding the head terms in the profession.
    Right now, I am only developing my own campaigns so only have to convince myself of the value of long tail.
    Thanks and best regards!

  3. I have been optimizing websites for many years and have used long tail keywords all of this time with great success. by using a long tail keyword it is more likely that a searcher will find the product they want sooner, therefore they are more likely to buy EG using Sock as a keywords is very competitive and not overly helpful in directing to the right sock— using just 2 words “sports socks” will bring better results and more sales – after all if a searcher enters sports socks into google there is a strong likely hood they will be looking to buy some sports socks

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