Successful search marketing is about getting more visibility on the web, and that requires a careful balance between points: finding opportunities that have the greatest visibility and finding opportunities that require the least amount of effort (or spending). For conventional SEO, that means having a profile of keywords that give you a nice blend of highly searched-for terms and terms that are easy to rank for.
Long-tail keywords arose as a strategy in partial response to this outlook, serving as keywords that were easy to rank for. However, as we enter a new era of search marketing, researching and optimizing for long-tail keywords has become somewhat obsolete.
There are different definitions for what constitutes a “long-tail” keyword, but the simplest is this: long-tail keywords are keyword phrases more than a few words long. There’s no strict definition for the minimum or maximum length, nor is there a definition for how they appear in context. Generally, these long-tail keywords take the form of sentences, such as “the best steak house in southern California” rather than the simpler keyword phrase “steak house California.”
Long-tail keywords are advantageous over shorter keyword phrases because there’s much less competition clamoring for them. While a phrase like “steak house California” might get thousands of regular searches, it’s also being sought after by thousands of businesses. On the other hand, “the best steak house in southern California” might only get a few dozen regular searches, but it would be a much easier keyword to rank for. Under these circumstances, most businesses would rather have a sure shot at visibility for a few dozen searchers than a small possibility after months of hard work for a few thousand searchers.
To use long-tail keyword phrases properly, most businesses conduct research, brainstorming about the potential long-tail phrases their customers might search for and comparing them against each other in terms of search volume and competition. Then, these keyword phrases would be carefully and precisely implanted into recurring content, usually somewhere in the title. Within a short span of time, the business would rank for the keyword phrase in question, and new long-tail phrases would be supplemented in its place.
This has been a sound strategy for years, but the changing landscape of keywords has put a wrinkle in the otherwise valuable opportunity.
Keywords are waning in importance. Users are still relying on specific phrases in order to accomplish their searches, but the way Google views and analyzes keywords has been rebuilt from the ground up, and that change has compromised the traditional methods of long-tail keyword research and implementation.
Starting with the Hummingbird update in 2013, Google has been making steady changes to its algorithm to incorporate a function known as “semantic search.” In the old way of searching, Google would break down user queries into shorter segments known as keywords and keyword phrases. It would then compare those keywords to keywords as they exist on the web, searching for sites that used those verbatim phrases the greatest number of times and in the most relevant places.
Semantic search changed everything. Rather than analyzing user queries based on the keywords that make them up, Google’s algorithm is now sophisticated enough to analyze the intent behind each user query. In essence, when you search for “the best steak house in southern California,” Google isn’t examining your phrase and finding matching instances of that phrase throughout the web. Instead, it’s analyzing the fact that you are looking for the greatest steak restaurants in southern California, and attempting to give you the most relevant results.
The traditional long-tail keyword approach relied on the search engine looking for instances of an exact phrase. For example, even if you include the phrase “the best steak house in southern California” all over your site and blog, Google may still not consider you a candidate for the best steak house in California if it knows your business is located in Nevada, or if negative customer reviews have compromised your candidacy for being the “best.”
As a result, long-tail keyword research is meaningless—finding long-tail phrases that are commonly searched for and using them word-for-word on your site will no longer get you the results you’re accustomed to.
While the traditional use of long-tail keyword phrases is dying, long-tail phrases themselves are still important. Instead of using your long-tail research to uncover phrases to use in your content directly, you can use your research to uncover topics that need to be addressed. For example, if you see a high volume of search queries for “how to build panpipes out of PVC pipe,” a long-tail keyword phrase, you would no longer need to worry about including that exact keyword phrase two to three times in the body of your blog posts. Instead, you would need to make sure you write the best, most detailed, most accurate article about building panpipes from PVC pipe on the web. Doing so, and building your overall domain authority over time, will increase the likelihood of you ranking for such a phrase.
Essentially, you’ll be using long-tail keyword research as a platform for uncovering subjects to write about. It’s still a good idea to keep your titles accurate to your subject matter, but the exact phrasing of your keywords doesn’t matter nearly as much as it used to.
Long-tail keyword strategies were all about finding words that nobody was competing for, and claiming them as your territory. It was an easy way to get a small amount of visibility, and when done enough, could generate a substantial amount of traffic to your site.
The new way of using long-tail keywords is fundamentally similar. Instead of finding long keywords that nobody is ranking for, you’ll be finding niche topics that nobody is writing about. Instead of striking the balance between keywords that carry a large search volume and keywords with minimal competition, you’ll be striking a balance between content that appeals to the greatest number of readers and content that hasn’t been covered in detail.
Finding those niche topics can be daunting, especially if you’re new to the world of content marketing, but there are several paths that can lead you to this goal. In addition to using traditional long-tail keyword research to find potential topics, one of the best ways to generate ideas is to simply ask your readers directly. Conduct surveys or focus groups with some of your most avid readers and most loyal customers to hear what they’d like to read in a blog, and what they’re currently missing from their regular material. These conversations can guide you in the right direction when it comes to seldom-written, highly-valued content opportunities.
Remember, the long-tail keyword strategy isn’t totally extinct—it has just evolved into something simpler. You no longer have to worry about precise phrase inclusion or hitting a target number of keyword phrases. Instead, your focus belongs on your main priority—your users. Write the content that your users need, and the content that your competitors aren’t already covering. In time, that will be sufficient to build your audience and capitalize on the search traffic that comes from those highly-specific, long-term keyword phrases.