Understanding the Longtail of Keywords

This is part one of our longtail SEO series, describing the importance of longtail. Part two discusses how to optimize for longtail.

Within the SEO world we talk about longtail keywords a lot, but I think that sometimes we don’t do a good job of communicating how important they are — and the longtail is hugely important. Part of the lack of understanding comes from the longtail graphs we always use: the graphs don’t do a good job of showing just how long that longtail is. We always end up cutting off the right end of the graphs in order to keep them readable.

So today I thought we’d take a look at a real example to demonstrate the importance of the longtail, and then tomorrow we’ll get into exactly how to optimize for that long tail.

Longtail Definition

But first, let’s define what we’re talking about.

A longtail keyword is a keyword phrase that has very low search volume. Exactly what is considered low depends on your particular site and niche. I work with sites that consider anything over a dozen visits a month to be pretty darned good for one keyword, and a site that scoffs at anything below 1,000 visits a month. It all depends on your niche.

One thing that’s important to remember is that a longtail keyword isn’t necessarily defined by the amount of traffic it brings you; but rather the amount of searches for the keyword. You might be getting low traffic just because you rank very poorly, for example, and that does not make a keyword longtail.

It’s worth stressing that longtail keyword has nothing to do with the number of words in the keyword phrase — this is a sometimes used but wholly unhelpful and inaccurate definition. Longtail keywords can be any number of words. For example a search for “funniest lolcat picture ever” is a 4-word phrase that might be fairly competitive, while a search for “serendipitous taco” is two words but with very little search volume, thus making it longtail.

The word longtail comes from the traffic distribution graph for the keywords, so let’s take a look at the graphs.

Longtail in Action

This information is taken from an actual website that I manage. It is one month’s worth of data with all branded keywords removed (variations on the name of the site, etc) so this is all legitimate keyword traffic that anyone in the niche is competing for. This site is a particularly good example because it gets a high volume of traffic, and also ranks well for keywords across the niche — so what we’re seeing is very indicative of search volume, rather than rankings artifacts.

Here is a look at the keyword distribution. The Y axis shows the number of visits for any given keyword, while the X axis is the keywords.

Longtail keyword graph
The keyword longtail -- it keeps going to the right for pages more.

This is a very common keyword distribution graph. We can see on the left where we have the big spike of the high search volume keywords in the “head” and then the huge and fast dropoff to the long tail of keywords trailing off to the right. Like all longtail graphs, this one is cut off on the right — that long tail keep going and going and going for pages and pages.

Here’s the thing about the longtail: it’s bigger than the head. A lot bigger. If we plotted the area of the head it would be far, far smaller than the area of that long tail. Let’s take a look at some actual numbers here:

  • I consider the head here to be the keywords receiving over 200 visits a month. That is 78 different keywords in the head. Those 78 keywords brought in 31,848 visits that month… which is only a measly 10.31% of the total visits the site received.
  • If you consider the head to be keywords that brought over 100 visits, you’d then have 238 keywords bringing 53,892 visits — a total of 17.45% of the total visits.
  • If you take all the keywords bringing 50 visits or more — going almost to the end of this graph, you have a whopping 699 keywords bringing 78,189 visits, which is still just 25.32% of the traffic the site received.
  • This happens because the longtail is very, very long

Here’s another graph of the same information for the same site, but plotting the tail out about four times farther:

Longtail keyword graph 2
A wider look at the keyword longtail -- and this is still looking at just 4.5% of the total keywords.

This helps you to get an inkling of how long the longtail is, but this is just 4.5% of the keywords — only the first 4,500 of about 100,000 different keywords that drove traffic to the site. That line stretches on and on and on and if we tried to show a graph of all of it, it would just be a one pixel line with a wee spike on the left side.

The Problem with Longtail

Most of the longtail for this site — a site that ranks very well for all the key terms — are keyword phrases that are bringing in just one or two visits. But there are tens of thousands of those keywords. And this brings up the problem with longtail, from a SEO perspective:

There is no way to optimize for a hundred thousand different keywords. There is on way you could go to a page of the site for each of those keywords, and tweak and twiddle and build relevant links. There’s a reason that when we do keyword research and following rankings that we’re mostly looking at those head terms — we just don’t have the bandwidth to look at all of them.

But at the same time, the longtail is incredibly important — more important even than those big money head terms. So how do we go about ranking for the longtail? Well, that will be the subject of part 2: optimizing for longtail.