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Should Your SEO Strategy Target the Head or the Long Tail?

Mark Jackson
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There are times when I have to roll my eyes. Usually, it's when prospects tell me they want to hire an SEO firm so their site will get ranked for one highly competitive keyword.

After I take a deep breath, I prepare myself for the discussion that's about to take place. It starts with an explanation of optimizing for "head" queries, or the most popular terms; and "long tail" search optimization, for queries which are less popular, but collectively drive a large amount of traffic.

Certainly, the head of search can really move the needle for some companies. For retailers, the tail of search (people searching for a specific product/product model number, etc.) can effectively drive highly targeted traffic that converts very well. I understand companies want to rank for that one highly competitive keyword -- and there are ways to achieve that ranking.

Here's where search gets really interesting, though.

If you're focused on ranking for that one major keyword, having a deep Web site full of great content is necessary to achieve authority in the eyes of the search engine. So, even if you didn't intend to do it, you'll be optimizing for the tail in order to achieve your goals for the head.

Making Heads and Tails of TripAdvisor

Let's take a look at an example, using a Web site that I often refer to, but have no affiliation with whatsoever, TripAdvisor:

Now, let's take a look at the "tail," using a specific page for a specific hotel.

  • Title tag of a local hotel page: "Hotel Palomar Dallas – a Kimpton Hotel (Dallas, TX) – Hotel Reviews – TripAdvisor." (From this, I assume the most important keyword is "Hotel Palomar Dallas.")
  • Ranking for "Hotel Palomar Dallas": number three on Google, number five on Yahoo.

Certainly, other factors are in play here for TripAdvisor to achieve these rankings. They do an excellent job with internal linking, use of header tags, URL structure and -- just by the nature of the Web site -- people want to naturally link to it. But without the depth of content, the Web site wouldn't be ranking as well as it does for the "head" terms, nor would it have the authority to achieve rankings for the "tail" terms.

So keep in mind that a strategy of targeting the tail can actually help you achieve that elusive, highly competitive "head" ranking on both major keywords and less common queries.

Providing Quality, Unique Content

Web sites can use a number of tactics to build depth. In many cases, the site's owners have figured out a way to create Web pages dynamically. They've figured out a way to build depth to a site, but don't necessarily provide quality, unique content -- essentially, the site is designed for search engines, not users.

One site with quality and depth of content is Topix. Topix has close to 12 million pages indexed in Google. They do this by "aggregating" content from thousands of sources from other places on the Web. For example, let's take a search like "Denver News."

Many sites that show up in the Google search results are specifically related to Denver or Colorado: they cover that area. However, Topix aggregates enough content to make their pages unique: thus the number eight listing on Google for "Denver News." Topix does its share of targeting the long tail of search, by providing content that's constantly updated. A search for an article title, such as "Colorado Lawmaker Wants to Balance Congressional Districts," brings up the Topix site first, along with other news sources.

The Shadier Side of Search

Other sites, such as texasescapes.com, simply "scrape" data from other sites, make unique pages, and allow them to be crawled by the search engines. The strategy of quantity over quality seems to work for them, as a search for [Gun Barrel City Texas”, a local town in Texas, returns their site second in Google.

Another option for creating content calls for writing dynamic scripts that take the site's internal search phrases (phrases that are used to search internally on a site) and automatically building Web pages on the site, as well as creating links to those pages that are crawlable by the search engines.

So, when your boss asks you to develop a strategy for that one major keyword, be sure to keep this column around so you can explain why "proper SEO for the entire Web site" is a sound strategy. The more you build depth into your Web site to target the tail, the more likely it is that you can successfully target the head.

Mark Jackson is off this week. Today's column ran earlier on Search Engine Watch.


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