The Slow Death of Long Tail SEO?

What is the ‘long tail’? In his book of the same name, economist Chris Anderson defines the relationship between high-volume and low-volume keywords as: “the head of the demand curve” and “the huge number of niches in the tail.” The Internet economy been able to exploit niches, by offering variety where real-life retailers can offer only the most profitable product.

In keyword terms – these are the lengthier and more descriptive keywords (known as the ‘long tail’), that are also less commonly searched for. Google is going in the direction of favoring megabrands in its search results, and is constantly tweaking its search engine to speed up the journey to users’ results.

Google altering its search algorithm for megabrands means these long tail keywords are getting harder to rank for. However, with better content and branding your business can still remain competitive in this area. 

A quick primer on popular and less-popular keywords: keyword research allows you to understand the motivations of your customers. Usually determined through tools like Adwords Keywords tool, it’s the starting point for determining your SEO strategy. Which keywords are people searching for? It makes sense to optimize your content for the most popular keywords that will bring in the most visitors.

However, these ‘popular’ keywords actually make up less than 30% of the total keyword searches out there. The ‘long tail’ of keyword traffic (about 70%) reflects the millions of unique searches that take place. These are the most obscure keywords and the search queries that only ever happen once (that includes the typos that make up an estimated 10% of search queries, the Google whack craze) known as ‘unique queries’.

In the past, it was pretty easy to get a page to rank by optimizing it for the the less-competitive keywords. Google is making it harder, but your strategy can still benefit from the unique search queries that still make up 16% of traffic (compared to 20-25% from a few years ago) and the solution is better branding and better content. But why?

Instant Elimination?

A few things have changed since the introduction of Google Instant (Google say it’s a ‘search enhancement that shows search results as you type’)

1.    Autocorrects your spellings (so you can’t target typo-keywords as often)
2.    You’ve given result predictions, often branded. These funnel a high volume of searches down into a narrow set results leading to a few big websites.
3.    It often mutates the search to a more popular search query. See above.


Localization means that traffic is often split up and searchers are taken direct to their local results. You will find it very difficult to get a blog post containing the keywords ‘hairdressers brighton’ to rank, but a hairdressing business based in Brighton that places a pin on its location in Google maps should have no problem ranking. Another example – if you search SEO London  you will hopefully find a list of relevant agencies.

Hidden keyword searches

When a user is signed into their Google account, they can search with their actual search terms blocked from metrics systems. This means that when logged into your webmaster metrics, you can’t see which keywords people have used to find your website. This is essentially forcing you to buy paid advertising.

The Google updates that are pushing your small business off the top results

Google’s algorithms now favor big brands more than ever before. Here are the changes that have made the most impact.

1.    Mayday update: Google decided that rankings for long tail keywords would be determined by domain authority, giving larger sites even more space on the first results page.
2.    Panda update: Panda update decreed that a website’s brand footprint was as important as the number of pages it had indexed, trying to favor quality content and social media presence vs. spam pages.
3.    Google-owned verticals: Google-owned sites like Youtube are now quite prominent in your search results.
4.    Adwords: paid ads have exploded and are taking up more space on the SERPS.
5.    Query Deserves Freshness: an algorithm update that puts more emphasis on recently updated and added content.
6.    Google-Funded Scapers: these websites pull in content from other websites and use that content to rank higher, and in doing so they are mopping up a lot of the traffic for long tail keyword searches.

What can smaller businesses do to be competitive once more?

To counteract these changes:

1.    Take advantage of social media: brands can make their content visible through broadcasting it via social media. Google especially favour their own social network Google Plus, so getting a brand page up there can really help. Make sure you keep up to date with which networks are partnering with Google (e.g Twitter results appear in the Google search, whilst longtime Google rivals Facebook prefer to share their content with the search engine Bing.)

2.    If you have a physical location, claim it on Google places: this is very easy to do and helps you to rank quickly for local search results.
Don’t panic – you just need to rethink your strategy. The bar for good content has been raised. If you put the right content in the right places, you should be able to remain visible next to the megabrands.

Author: Frank Vitetta runs Orchid Box, an SEO and PPC Agency in London

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