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BACK TO BASICS: The Importance of "The Long Tail" in SEO

by Fernando Chavez, December 14, 2007

One of the most commonly discussed subjects in search engine optimization is "The Long Tail." Every Web site's goal should be to maximize long tail traffic. But what is "The Long Tail" as it relates to search engine optimization? And how do you optimize your site with it in mind?

Generally speaking, the long tail refers to a common feature in several statistical distributions. These distributions begin with high-frequency population followed by a lower-frequency population that appears to "tail off" (hence the name). In search engine optimization, the concept can be represented graphically as follows:

In this graph, the horizontal axis represents each potential keyword phrase, and the vertical axis represents the search activity of every potential keyword. Even though the keyword phrases that make up the "tail" in the graph do not have a considerable amount of search activity individually, the summation of potential traffic from all of these long tail keywords (represented by the green area underneath the line in the graph) is quite significant. Obviously, it would be a mistake not to make some effort to target so many potentially good keywords.

So why should you focus on increasing long tail traffic?

There are many reasons to focus on long tail keywords. First, there is only so much that can be done to optimize any given keyword. Let's assume you already had very good rankings across the board for your highest priority keywords. Should you stop your SEO campaign simply because you achieved your initial set of goals? Of course not; there's almost always room for improvement on your Web site. The odds are that there are many keyword phrases, though not searched as often, that you could optimize to increase organic search traffic.

In addition to more traffic, long tail content also makes a site more relevant for its higher priority keywords. The assumption we made above was that the site already had good rankings for every high traffic keyword in all the search engines. But as we all know, standing pat is not always a good idea when it comes to SEO. Competing sites are doing everything they can to take away your good rankings. The additional content to target long tail keywords will generally make the site stronger for its shorter, higher traffic keywords. Let's consider an example to illustrate how this can be the case.

How do you optimize for long tail keywords?

Imagine you own a site about the Los Angeles Lakers. The site has thousands of pages about the Lakers, player bios, pictures, message boards, among many other things. It ranks really well for the most searched Lakers-related terms. What types of pages could your site add to increase organic traffic? Well, there may be some guys out there who are wondering, for no good reason whatsoever, if Slava Medvedenko was on the Lakers during their championship run in the 2000 2001 season (he was, by the way). Why not add a section on the site that shows the Lakers roster for every season in its history? Creating a different page for every season that lists all the players on the team and a summary of the season would potentially bring in traffic if someone searched "Lakers 2002 2003 season", "Lakers roster 2001 2002", and so on.

Even though this example seems rather silly, it proves a point. None of the keywords that those pages could potentially rank for have a high search volume. But if you add up every possible variation of years and players that someone might search you'll end up with a large number. As a matter of fact, if you search one of the keywords listed above you'll see that there are sites that have created pages to target them. I'm sure that they did it to target those long tail keywords and that those pages are driving traffic to the sites.

Coming up with ideas for new pages is not always easy. It may not be necessary to create an entirely new section on the site with an entirely different type of content. Sometimes simply writing more content is enough to increase long tail traffic. That is, of course, assuming that the new content is completely unique and your site has enough link popularity for the new pages to be in Google's main index. Having more pages in the search engines' indexes increases the likelihood that you'll rank for a seemingly random string of words related to your site's overall theme. You can confirm this if you have access to organic traffic data for your Web site. Take a look at the keywords that have sent only 1 or 2 visitors during any given month. The odds are that they are keywords that would never show up in a keyword selection tool because they have so little activity. But if you add them all up, you'll see that it is a lot of traffic. So what's the point? The more pages you have on your site, the more of those 1 and 2 visit keywords you can potentially rank for and the more traffic you can get.

Set Achievable Goals and Meet Them

Rather than halting your SEO efforts completely when your initial goals are reached, continue to spend at least half the time you were spending on SEO before your goals were met. Add new pages to the site frequently to target more keywords. Depending on the size of your site and long term goals, two new pages a month may be enough to keep the ball rolling. But more pages might be necessary for other sites. Your goal should be as many new pages you can reasonably create in a month.

Remember, the more content that you have, the more long tail traffic you can potentially bring to your site. The first priority should be to create pages for long tail keywords that have some traffic based on various keyword tools. But after those are all done (and it will happen at some point if you only focus on relevant keywords), the next goal should simply be to create useful information for your site's visitors.

If most of your visitors would find the additional content useful, then the odds are that someone might search for it. There are an infinite number of keyword variations that people can search. And the more content you have, the more likely your site will rank for something you never would have considered a keyword possibility.

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