Is Long Tail SEO Really SEO?

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I’ve had many discussions with others in the SEO arena over the years regarding the value of long tail SEO. But until this weekend I’ve never had anyone in our industry tell me that long tail is NOT SEO.  So when I read that, I had a big WTF moment.  The ensuing discussion essentially got nowhere as far as anyone changing their minds.  For me, it’s because I believe there are various forms of long tail, but it’s all SEO nonetheless…

The whole discussion came up in the comment thread of my “JC Penney has bigger SEO problems than paid links” article.  Jill Whalen is the one who brought up the notion.

Jill Whalen says long tail traffic is not SEO

It’s Jill’s position that

“Anyone can get longtail traffic by simply writing lots and lots of content. You don’t need an SEO for that.

SEO is about getting highly searched upon, highly relevant traffic that converts.”

UPDATE 2/15/2011

Jill provided some great clarification this morning.  It’s her opinion that long tail is phrases that are only searched once , or rarely – like maybe up to a few times a year.  You can read her article about this aspect of Long Tail to see where she’s coming from.

And for the record, I think long tail is not just words that generate one or three searches a year.  I think it is that for sure, but it’s also just phrases that you might consider middle tail – phrases Jill might consider “keyword gems”.  Phrases that are four or five words, sometimes three even, and of course, even longer phrases… But that’s just my opinion.


Some people actually agree with Jill on this.

I’m not one of them. And for the those who chimed in agreeing with Jill, others agreed with me.  Here’s why…

SEO is about getting highly relevant traffic that converts. It’s NOT all about only focusing on highly searched upon phrases.  Here’s an example of why I believe that.

Chart showing Revenue goes up with Long Tail SEO

Note how the best practices SEO implemented on this particular site resulted in an increase in organic visits, and total number of keywords the site was found by.  That’s a huge jump.

And sure, the revenue from long tail decreased as more people found the site through those higher value, higher searched phrases.  Yet the work I tasked out on this site was intentionally crafted to go after both short and long tail.  Both.

And to discount the revenue value from the long tail is, in my opinion, a serious disregard for a significant portion of revenue.

Aiming For Short And Long Tail

The fact is that on this site, I refined the focus – narrowed it down dramatically.  So instead of five or six phrases being stuffed in the titles, and eight or ten phrases being seeded on the pages, it became two phrases per title, and primary seeding.  And only two or three longer tail phrases in the content.

Well written content mind you.  The kind you’re supposed to be crafting when writing content for SEO.  Because it’s well crafted for users.  Yet with SEO in mind.

So by reducing the total number of phrases seeded across the site, everything important went up.

Long Tail Is Inevitable – Resistance Is Futile

Now here’s the thing.  No matter how much you focus on short tail phrases, you need to write quality content right?  Unless you’re JC Penney.  But that’s another matter.  If you perform Best Practices SEO on sites, you need quality content.

So if you already know you need quality content, why would you NOT ensure that you go after long tail?

I’m not saying it should be the primary focus.  Just that it’s worth the minimal amount of time involved when done properly.

The “it’s just content writing” Argument

So let’s say you’re not an SEO professional.  You just know “Write good content. Lots of it”. If you do that, sure, you’ll stumble into lots of long tail.  Some of it might even be accurately relevant to your offerings.  But if you intentionally integrate SEO into your writing, and do so in an elegant way, you will inevitably increase the likelihood that whatever long tail you get will be much more relevant long tail.

The Long Tail Bonus

The best part of integrating long tail into your plan, it reinforces the short tail.  So it’s not irrelevant or “not SEO” at all.  It’s IMPORTANT to SEO.  Because search engines read the content and say “this content is truly relevant to the primary topical focus, and has all this supporting content that’s really closely related.  So it’s strong in the relevance aspects.

Update – Another case for why Long Tail is important

An article that Barry Adams wrote over on State of Search defining Long Tail, advocates why Long Tail should be part of your SEO regimen more clearly explains both why it’s valuable and that it’s not just about content, but about good Information Architecture, tags, breadcrumbs, and even taxonomy…


No – I don’t know about you – if you want to ignore the long tail, you’re free to do so.  And if you think long tail is only some extra bonus that you stumble on by having well written content, that’s okay.

Me, I’m going to continue focusing primarily on the short tail and secondarily on the long tail.  At least until my clients tell me the major growth they see as a result of my recommendations is something they don’t care about.

Before SEOAfter SEO
Organic Visits 355,530 518,548
Revenue from Long Tail48%40%
Alan Bleiweiss
Alan Bleiweiss is a Forensic SEO audit consultant with audit client sites consisting of upwards of 50 million pages and tens of millions of visitors... Read Full Bio
Alan Bleiweiss
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  • Adam Marsh

    good stuff… i always focus “primarily on the short tail and secondarily on the long tail.”

  • Jill Kocher

    Agreed, long tail is about architectural and structural SEO. Doesn’t matter what you write it your site doesn’t get crawled, doesn’t pass link juice effectively to content that attracts the tail or doesn’t make the phrases that are more likely to attract the tail prominent.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    I agree that long tail keywords are a part of good SEO. Long tail keywords are going to deliver a more targeted consumer to your site. Most likely they are at the end of their buying cycle and looking to make a purchase. Why wouldn’t you want to incorporate those keywords into your content? Delivering traffic to your site is good, pushing visitors to action is better.

  • Kevin Mullett

    Great article Alan. Long tail is an art unto itself in that you are trying to help the user by figuring out what they are exactly looking for and then writing too it. That is far different then just writing tons of content as you point out. I also agree that it helps with “short tail” as “long tail” terms clearly can and should have short tails in them. It seems far to many miss the value of long tail and short tail strategy.

  • internet boss

    Long tail traffic is how my main sites operate and make money. Our company’s main site gets 5k uniques a week from ‘long tail phrases’. Granted we have a content strategy to support this, but we still actively build links in the ‘long tail space’. It’s not as simple as writing a whole hell ton of content and reaping the reward. It is absurd to say long tail is not ‘SEO’. Nerf ball people.

  • seanhecking

    I think it’s really hard for SEO to NOT be focused on “long tail” searches. The “short tail” should be used as a guide for optimization but realize that “long tail” searches are what will drive conversions. Even if your site is not ranking on the first page of Google for your “short tail” keyword, the long tail keywords can still attract lots of qualified visitors.

  • Aubrey

    I tend to believe that it depends on the client and the type of conversion you are aiming for. While generally I stay away from long tail – it can be useful in some instances. Keeping conversion in mind, I have seen more success through short, simple phrases that compliment the content written. Great post!!

  • Dan Patterson

    When I think of doing SEO I think of dominating the SERPs for all relevant keywords for the site. If you aren’t expanding into the mid and long tail and just focusing on the short tail you’re missing out on a ton of opportunity. I think this is another classic example of Jill shooting from the hip and then trying to clean up what she said later.

  • Lyena Solomon

    I wanted to highlight one aspect of the whole issue – clients. You mention them several times in your article, Alan. Clients is what we all focus on – their goals and their priorities. They want SEO not because of academic curiosity, but because they want more revenue.
    Therefore, I say, the argument about to do or not to do long tail is moot – if long tail strategy works for my client, I am obligated to do it as a professional; if the benefits from long tail are negligeable, I will put it on the back burner. Long tail is a tactic. If it helps me achieve my client’s goals – you bet, I am going after it.

  • Donny Gamble

    I would consider it SEO because you are targeting terms that will tailor to you get ranked for keywords that are a lot easier to go after

  • Cartmetrix

    With Google Live Search short tail SEO doesn’t cut it anymore. How many times have you started a query at Google with Live Search enabled and backed up to edit your query because the live results you were getting were nowhere near what you are looking for?

    Long tail keywords add to the specificity of the search and when used properly (by searchers and content providers) can get you to your result much quicker. While their volume may be lower, your CTR (for PPC) and PVV (Per Visitor Value, for SEO) should be much greater for properly targeted long tail keywords.

  • Patti Fousek

    This is a topic that us SEO’s often debate, I think… The moral of the story here is choose keywords for all phases of the buying cycle. Use your web analytics to decide which works better for your business… long tail or short tail keywords or maybe something in between.

  • JadedTLC

    Alan – Great points all around. I think Jill has been writing and involved in web writing for too long. She’s so smart that she’s not seeing how regular everyday content creators (ie writers) write. Unfortunately, they are HIGHLY untrained in web writing. They spill metaphors and sarcasm and irony across their pages and pages of content. Their articles about refrigerators might rank for the north pole because they describe the experience of buying a refrigerator with such flowery language the the (stupid) Googlebot doesn’t “get” that refrigerators are cold like the north pole, but the use of hyperbole has been employed.

    We, as SEOs, often forget the uneducated masses. My mother writes a blog about a puggle, but labels it with the name of the dog and “adventures” which to Google doesn’t really talk about a dog, a breed, or anything that someone may be looking for. These writers often use he/she/it/they/them – instead of nouns and adjectives. They aren’t bad writers; however, they are bad WEB writers. And SEO has to be implemented and coached into their style since they are loathe to learn or to change. They feel their Journalism/English degrees should suffice.

    I think Jill is an expert, but sometimes we get lost in our expertise. We forget about the people who don’t “get” what we do. Remember back to the time that you told your family what you did for a living and you ended up saying, “I work for the internets,” since they had NO idea what you were talking about.

  • alanbleiweiss

    wow – thanks everyone for the great comments – it appears there’s a lot of different opinions, as I suspected there would be. Lyena, I think you’ve got a valid point, but only if a client doesn’t have much of a budget. If they do, and if their goals are only to get high traffic based phrase ranking, I think that’s more a problem with client understanding of opportunities than anything.

    Sure, I might need to focus on what they want but I’d first advocate for the bigger picture before just blindly doing what they think they want.

    Patti, I <3 the reminder that there's a full life cycle to the user mindset. That's critical to understanding that SEO needs to be approached from different views along that cycle.

    Jaded, I'm still having problems when I need to tell my family / friends what I do for a living. πŸ™‚

    Thanks Jill – great to see you're on the architectural/structural side of things. It seems there's so few of us in this business lately.

    Carmetrix – good point – the threshold of long tail is a moving target more and more.

  • KristofferSEO

    If you ask me, SEO is about getting traffic from the search engines. Be it long term keywords or one word keywords. Doesn’t matter. They are just different tactics for the same goal.

  • KJ

    I’ve always believed that long tail phrases target the customer that has already done some research or knows more precisely what they want. Using a mix of short and long tail can also help your keywords and content look more natural.

  • KJ

    I’ve always believed that long tail phrases target the customer that has already done some research or knows more precisely what they want. Using a mix of short and long tail can also help your keywords and content look more natural.

  • Barry Adams

    Thanks for the shout-out here and the comment on my post, Alan. We’re squarely on the same page here. I think I know why Jill said what she said, but such a blanket statement deserves to be put in its proper context – and she failed to do so. Which is where we come in. πŸ™‚

  • Anonymous

    Totally agree… we’re all about the long tail keywords as well. Not only is it a great place to get traffic – usually faster than broad keywords but the long tail keywords usually convert better as well due to the searcher being more informed and closer to buying vs researching. We have great success in focusing on this area.

  • Anonymous

    I think there is just a severe misunderstanding of what long-tail is. It’s not “low search volume”. Keywords with 20-40k searches per month may be long tail if you head terms are 1M per month. It depends on the industry and search dynamics. Ultimately, it’s a statistical construct.

    In retail, the long tail of 60-70% of keywords drive 90%+ of the traffic. So JCP should definitely care about the long tail, and SEO in retail is all about the long tail because otherwise you miss 90% of the traffic.

    My guess is there are SEO’s in the industry, not saying Jill is one, but there are respectable people who earn a living but aren’t working on sites driving $50M+ plus off organic traffic. Anyone doing SEO at scale knows the long tail is key.

  • Michael Real

    I agree with Lyena. Very nice comparison on what the short and long tail SEO are. Really nice. But as what Lyena said, SEO is all about revenue so it is going to be the clients decision on what to use. Really good discussion as well.

  • Jason Acidre

    In my experience as an SEO practitioner, I think even your content are focused on targeting short tail keywords or generic keywords, your content can still be picked up by search engines for long tail search terms. Well, the point is, having these two in your mind upon creating the content wont do any harm. My take on this is to just concentrate on keywords that bring in substantial traffic and make sense once traffic is on the way to your pages.

  • Gaz

    Writing a heap of content doesn’t get you any extra traffic if the domain or even the pages themselves are not considered important by Google. There are lots of very large retail sites out there with heaps of content that still do not rank well for a number of reasons, all of those reasons are SEO-related. Long-tail is very much SEO.

  • Moosa Hemani

    Alen, cognates for conceiving this great write up.

    Well, my argument starts where one says that long tail is about writing lots and lots of content I guess now is that time when people have to understand that SEO itself is what? I guess nothing. SEO is the an umbrella and not only linking comes under it , its technical content writing and many other aspect that joins together to make the SEO what SEO is today.

    I guess your last paragraph defines all obviously you cannot stop someone from doing what he/she likes but the best practice is the conjunction of long and shot tail keywords as your SEO strategies.

  • Myseopandit

    I think that the selection of long or short tail keyword depends on the type of the business carried out. Its better to use your web analytics to decide on the keyword to be used.

  • Anonymous

    @Alan….the piece by Barry goes a LONG way in explanation…and I’d agree with him and you on this….

    i.e. — long-tail IS SEO, eh!



  • SEO Freak Show

    This is bigger than a simple debate on short tail and long tail. If every site was equal and every site had the same content, links, etc then sure, debate away on what works/converts better.

    But telling me that long tail is worthless is a bunch of BS. Both short and long have their place in SEO.

    Each domain is different, each page of the site is different, each of which need their own strategy.

    Choosing only short tail because you think long tail doesnt have enough volume is a lame excuse for not knowing what the F you are doing in the first place.

  • Shannon

    Great article, Alan. I agree that short tail should usually be your primary focus, but that long tail cannot be ignored (and isn’t possible to ignore if you are writing quality content that addresses questions/information that is relevant and useful to the reader). I think this is more important now than ever with most people using Google Instant, which spurs the user to think in long tail terms. Search engines quite simply want to be the best – to guide their users to the page they were looking for as quickly as possible. Long tail keywords help do this. I was wondering, however, where you are gathering your Before SEO and After SEO statistics from? Are those GA results? Thanks!

  • Doc Sheldon

    Great piece, Alan! I agree with you completely that long tail has a place in a comprehensive SEO campaign. Admittedly, it may often be a small piece, but I think it’s often something that can bring some quick results while waiting for the longer-term efforts to yield results. Unfortunately, many small businesses need to see some immediate benefits to remain committed.
    Hmmm… I wonder if it would kick off a storm of debate if I said, “Links are not SEO”. πŸ˜‰

  • new era caps

    If you aren’t expanding into the mid and long tail and just focusing on the short tail you’re missing out on a ton of opportunity.

  • iPhone Application

    Some time long Tail keywords are effective in result and some time not

  • andru greal

    I really love organic search engine marketing. Where else can you get a ton of highly targeted visitors to your web site, day after day, all for free? Nowhere, that’s where!

  • rich cederberg

    Strategic use of long tail was important to me when I was starting out, and while I did get found some it didn’t bring the results $$$ I was hoping for. So I think it is an OK start up strategy until you’re ready to go after short tail.

  • Allan Svelmoe Hansen

    I am firmly in the long tail SEO is SEO, because even though it is also “content”; it is understanding what your users search for and write your content to match that.

  • Search Monkey

    Agreed – Its all SEO baby! But then again I’m an SEO soo I may have a biased opinion…

  • Cool New Gadgets

    Interesting stuff here, I usually combine keywords and try to come up with long tail keywords.. hard but when you get the hang of it, you’ll be ok..

  • Nathan

    Absolutely good points and explanation of long-tail keywords. Perhaps some of the other participants here are correct in claiming Ms. Whalen’s hubris stems from the fact she is such an expert and isn’t quite focusing her writing talents on the right things.

    With that said, I think it’s easy to have long-tail phrases without even hardly thinking about them as you write. Sometimes they combine with more popular phrases anyway. Therefore, you get a double bang for your buck