While the practice of search engine optimization (SEO) is constantly evolving, one thing remains unchanged: clients always want to rank for a priority list of marquee, highly competitive terms. That's understandable. What is problematic is that they usually base their conclusions around how successful their SEO program is by how well they rank for those highly competitive terms.
While it should be the goal of any website to rank highly for competitive terms, the real gauge of targeted SEO success is overall/total search traffic. Some would argue success is determined by conversions and revenue, but many of the factors that contribute to conversions fall outside the scope of SEO (messaging, competitive pricing, page design, and layout, etc.).
One interesting thing that I have seen working with enterprise companies, usually the lion's share of search traffic comes from "long tail" traffic and not from "fat head" keywords. This is true even when the company ranks well for the “fat head” terms. Therefore, I thought it would be valuable to briefly define what long tail traffic is, explain why it is so important, and detail a couple techniques that may help you increase your long tail traffic.
What is Long Tail Search Traffic?
Rather than beat a dead horse, let me quote Ian Lurie, who offers a good, succinct definition of long tail search traffic:
"Specific, niche search phrases, usually more than 2 words in length, that offer a low competition, low search volume and high searcher intent."
Lurie’s article goes into a lot of detail about what the long tail is.
Why is Long Tail Search Traffic so Important
My favorite story that illustrates the concept is about one of the sub-brands of a former clients. This client sold software. They had a well-recognized name for their software that was different than their company name (for the purposes of this article, we’ll call it Dive Bomber Software).
This Dive Bomber software was one of many different software products they produced. So in evaluating which software titles were receiving the most traffic and should be prioritized within the context of our campaign, we analyzed the total monthly traffic generated by each of the software titles.
The phrase “Dive Bomber software” only generated about 300 users a month. Not very impressive compared to other titles. However, when we analyzed the long tail permutations of Dive Bomber software, (e.g., “Dive Bomber software version 1.3”), we found that there were more than 20,000 related searches a month! That obviously changed our perspective on how important Dive Bomber software was.
The same trend is evident when analyzing the traffic patterns of our other enterprise clients, many of whom have significant rankings for highly competitive words. Even with the advent of instant search, auto-fill, spell correction, and other mechanisms that had an effect on reducing the number of long tail searches, the majority of keyword traffic for most of my clients (for both brand and non-brand related searches) are based on long tail permutations of their targeted keywords. This is why targeting long tail traffic is so important.
So with that understanding, let's discuss some SEO practices that can effectively help target the long tail.
1. Understand the Keyword Landscape
Be aware of the common long tail permutations. Understanding the most popular permutations of your competitive keywords, as well as common patterns people use, helps you to optimize around those keywords and patterns.
Using your own analytics data, PPC data, internal search data, competitive intelligence and tools like Google AdWords Keyword Tool and Wordtracker to define your keyword landscape is a good first step. Understanding patterns can be important.
For example, if you sell T-Shirts and you see that there is some search traffic around "red t shirts", it stands to reason that you would also optimize around all of the other colors that you sell. It may warrant creating a page about “Red T Shirts” if you have the inventory to support that kind of a page.
Alternatively, you may find that just adding the different color names to your high ranking page about T-shirts does the trick. In many cases, adding long tail keyword permutations to body copy of a page that ranks highly for a fat head term can produce significant results. It just depends on how competitive the long tail permutations are.
2. Create Meaningful, Descriptive Page Titles
I have never been a fan of page titles that are limited to 65 characters in length. While it's true that only the first 65 characters will be displayed in search results, it is equally true that keywords found after the 65th character will be recognized and counted in the ranking algorithms of major search engines.
Therefore, if I place less important words (long tail permutations for example) after the 65th character with the understanding that I need to capture the users attention in those first 65 characters, I am able to target more keyword permutations as well as give the search engines more information about what the page is really about.
As long as the page titles read well and convey appropriate and relevant information, they are useful for both users and engines. I typically make my page titles about 8 to 13 words, ensure that they read intelligently and rarely ever use the same word more than once. Using this method, I have never been flagged in Google Webmaster Tools for having too long of a title (nor I have been flagged for having too short of a title).
Here are some more tips on how to write title tags.
3. Infuse Your Content & Internal Links With Keyword Variations
Whatever long tail keyword permutations you want to target need to exist in the content of the page that you want ranked for those permutations. Additionally, it's wise to vary the internal link text that points to any given page.
Including a variety of internal site links with different long tail keywords pointing to the page that targets those keywords is good practice. They should be linked from other pages on your site that are relevant to those specific long tail keywords.
Keep in mind that only the link text from the first link found in source code between any two pages is counted in Google's algorithm. Any pages that are linked to from your global navigation template won't benefit from these variations found in content because the global navigation links will usually be found first in the source code. It may still be worth doing however from a user experience perspective.
4. Leverage User Generated Content
Find creative ways to infuse your pages with user-generated content (comments, reviews, etc.). This type of content naturally targets long tail keyword permutations. Users typically will include many long tail variations as they make relevant comments about your page content.
User-generated content can be an amazing source of long tail keywords including model numbers, color variations, specific applications, or problem issues. And it helps to distinguish your content and makes it more valuable to users and engines.
These are some of the tactics that can help you successfully target long tail traffic. Hopefully they provide you with some actionable recommendations that will help you increase the amount of total targeted, organic search traffic to your projects.
Make sure that you are measuring both the amount of traffic and the number of keywords referring that traffic and that you are using those metrics as a barometer for your SEO health.
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