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SEO for Longtail

John Doherty —  January 3, 2012
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Oftentimes in SEO, people hear about “head terms” and the value of doing keyword research to try to capture large search terms that will bring lots and lots of traffic to your site. While I do not wish to give the impression that this is not a valuable endeavour (it definitely it), there is much more to SEO than just head terms. Let me tell you from personal experience, there is nothing worse than having a boss who thinks that getting the #1 ranking for that one term is going to win them the Internet, and that is all they want to focus on.

A lot of value exists in the longtail of traffic, those 3+ word terms that drive a lot of traffic to your site through fairly unique queries. Let’s look at some numbers, graphs, and statistics from different sites around the web that hopefully will show you the value of longtail traffic.

Let me also point out that SEO for the longtail has changed since the Panda update and since Google started hiding our search referrer data for logged-in users. While these have changed HOW we go about our work a bit, they have not changed the WHY or the importance of it.

What NOT to do

First let me give you a few considerations to keep in mind before you begin.

No Doorway Pages

It is no longer possible to simply spin up pages based on different permutations and longtail keywords and keep them ranking for any period of time. Sure, you can do it short term to find longtail keywords that convert (caution: not whitehat content in that article), especially if you do this at scale, but for long-term businesses, this is not possible. You also might get one of these:

Not a message you want to receive

Pages must have VALUABLE content

In a post Panda update world, we also have to be careful to only build pages that add value to the user experience. I’m not just talking about not overloading pages with ads (even though Google seems to be allowed to do it), but also the types of media that you use on your pages. Can you use video? Use it! Images work well also.

Have an Indexation Plan

Also, before you create a lot of useful content, have a plan for your information architecture (aka, how will your content be indexed by the search engines). It’s not enough to simply have a sitemap submitted to the engines, because your indexation plan is also your user’s way to navigate your site.

I also think that bad indexation is a determining factor in the Panda algorithm. As I have said a few times, and as Brett Snyder pointed out in this post on SEER Interactive’s blog:

Clean site architecture [appropriately] highlights the pages providing the most value-add to the user.

So where do I start?

Think about it. If you want to rank for a lot of terms, and a lot of permutations of terms, you need to have a lot of content. You also have to ask yourself if you are doing research to find new head terms or if you want to rank for a lot of terms. The two are quite different.

Doing Longtail Research

Longtail research has gotten harder, or maybe just less precise since the Panda update, but it is by no means impossible. Here are some places I recommend going when doing longtail keyword research:

Google Analytics

In spite of the fact that we lost access to all of our search referrers back in October, we can still use Google Analytics for longtail keyword research to see what people are already using to find us, and if potential exists there to write new, or update old, content to capture these searchers.

You should put this Google Analytics Advanced Segment into your Analytics, which will show you only the search terms with 3+ words in it:

^\s*[^\s]+(\s+[^\s]+){2,}\s*$

Then export to CSV, sort by visits, group by similar words, and run some of those through the Google Adwords Tool. You might be surprised at what you can find…

Quora & Yahoo Answers

Guess what? With the power of a few high powered Google queries, you can start getting ideas for content to create based off of questions that people are already asking. Kate Morris talked about using eHow for this at ProSEO Boston, but you can use other sites such as Quora and Yahoo Answers as well.

Try this query:

“(term)” site:quora.com

Or this one:

“(term)” “term” site:answers.yahoo.com

You just might end up finding stuff like this:

Oooooh. Traffic I can steal....

Pro tip: Make a copy of Kate’s spreadsheet and kick it into overdrive.

Ranking For Many Terms

In order to rank for many terms, you have to have a lot of content. And by a lot of content, I mean a looooot of content, a la big publications with millions of pages. Now, unless you have a huge budget and a staff of quality writers behind you, this will be impossible to do on your own. If you do have a huge budget and a staff of quality writers, then remember to archive your information in such a way that is is still indexable. If you publish updated content on an old post, link from old to new. And please, keep an eye on pages that are no longer receiving traffic and either get them ranking again or use a canonical or 301 redirect to pass the link juice elsewhere.

Forums and Q/A Sites

You don’t have to start one of these, and they are by no means the only sites that rank well for many longtail terms, but they do. Sites like Quora and Yahoo Answers (at least used to) rank well for a lot of terms (pre-Panda). They got hit because of a lot of ads and not a whole lot of quality content. But do it right, and there is a lot of potential to be had here.

Resource Sites

How do sites like Yelp rank for a lot of terms? This way:

Reviews (aka UGC) FTW!

User generated content is a HUGE win for longtail rankings. If you can allow your users/customers/patrons to leave reviews on your site, you are going to capture a lot more search traffic, I guarantee it.

Also, UGC is a smart brand play. Like I tell some clients (the ones who need to hear it), “If you’re not involved in the conversation, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It’s just happening without you.” If you listen to users and make changes into what they want, then you win brand loyalty. And you win links. And better reviews. It just makes sense.

Sites in New Niches

Say you have a site that is in a niche that hasn’t been created yet. That is, you are the first or second player in your space and there’s not a whole lot of search traffic around it. Why not create content around questions? This is something Tom Critchlow mentioned to me, and I think it’s genius. People ask a lot of questions. Give them answers. And make sure you’re asking the questions so that you get that search traffic :-)


I hope this has been helpful. I’d love to hear other ideas you have.

John Doherty

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I'm the Senior Marketing Manager of HotPads.com, based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

9 responses to SEO for Longtail

  1. In terms of images and video adding to Google viewing the page as quality content it would be interesting to see if that can be isolated as a ranking factor in non-vertical search. Is it the length in pixels? Length of the code? Alt tags? Diversity? Or it merely the user factors being taken into account like increased time on page and reduced bounce rate that are creating a correlation rather than a causation.

    • Hi John, another good post. Long-tail traffic can be very beneficial for the small businesses who can’t always compete for the major terms, so this post is helpful for them.

      Also, if you’re a business that runs a PPC campaign, some of your Adwords data can help your SEO efforts…

      Run the search query report for your PPC campaign, which will tell you the actual queries people used to trigger your keywords. Not only will this help make your PPC campaign more efficient, by eliminating unwanted terms through the use of negatives, but sometimes you will find some great tail terms in this report to target. So this can be another source for tail-term research.

      And of course, don’t forget to consider those tail terms for your PPC account as well. You might be surprised by the ROI for these longer queries.

      • Mark –
        Thanks for the comment. I totally agree with you. The PPC/SEO connection is a very important one that we all need to remember. In fact I’m getting PPC data from a coworker for an SEO campaign I am starting this month. Hopefully it proves helpful.

  2. Great Post John – and duly taken the RSS.

    I completely agree with you regarding creating content around questions being asked.

    1. You will often find that (at the moment) there aren’t that many sites that actually answer these questions (certainly only a handful compared to basic search term competition)
    2. I would add that EVERY QUESTION YOU GET ASKED as a business owner becomes your next page / new content / new blog post – and use you mobile phone etc to record those questions or (old fashioned) an ideas note pad that you carry around with you at all times. You already have an audience of 1 from the person that asked the question – send them an email – “remember we spoke about , I know I answered it but it got me thinking and I have added more detail etc etc….”

    Keep up the good work.

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