The Long Tail of Page One Rankings

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When I’m meeting with clients or prospective clients, I’m often asked how important it is to rank on page 1 of the search engines. It definitely is, and more on that topic in a minute. Then it’s typically not long before I’m asked how many keywords clients should rank for. That’s usually a longer conversation where I like to introduce the concept of the long tail (which I’ll be covering as part of this post).

I’ve written about the power of the long tail of SEO on my blog, including details for how to rank for long tail keywords, and my hope is that you’ll soon understand why I feel so strongly about it. In addition to discussing the importance of ranking highly in search and how powerful the long tail is, I often refer to the latest Google heat map study to reinforce my recommendations and to explain search behavior.

I find that if you start connecting the dots between high rankings, the latest heat map study, and the long tail of SEO, then organic search strategy becomes much clearer (especially for people outside of the Search industry). So, I ended up running an experiment recently and the results displayed a strong connection between the three elements I mentioned above. In fact, the results were so intriguing that I decided to write this post to detail my experiment! With that quick introduction out of the way, let’s get moving.

Organic Search and The Web Analytics Addiction

Like many of you reading this post, I’m fanatical about checking my web analytics reporting. I especially love digging into natural search reports and analyzing which keywords drove quality traffic to site, did those visitors bounce, where did they go on the site, did they convert, which type of keywords did they enter, did they use on-site search, etc.

My goal is to see how those visitors contributed to the overall success of the website that I’m analyzing. Several of the sites I manage use Google Analytics (GA) to track website activity and I’m definitely a big fan of GA. In early January, a blog post from Andre Scholten caught my attention. His post explained how to track where your keywords actually rank in Google within your Google Analytics reporting (on the fly). For example, seeing each keyword that led to your site, but also quickly seeing which page of Google it was listed on when people clicked through.

Keep in mind, I could use a number of tools to run a position analysis on target keywords, but that’s not feasible for long tail keywords, since you might be dealing with thousands of keywords at a time. In addition, you wouldn’t have ready access to deeper analytics reporting like you would in GA. So, I read Andre’s post and I quickly set up new profiles and custom filters for a number of websites that I manage. Needless to say, I was eager to see the results in Google Analytics.

It was only a few hours before I started seeing the results show up, and I picked up a trend pretty darn quickly. To be honest, it was a trend that I thought I would see, since I know the power of the long tail. That said, when you view it across a large number of keywords, and all at one time, it was definitely intriguing. Then as more and more keywords showed up, the trend simply got stronger.

Yes, It Is Important To Rank On Page 1, To Say The Least

I’ll cut to the chase. Almost every keyword I saw in the reporting ranked on page 1 of Google. I started scanning more keywords, clicking through additional pages of keywords, and an overwhelming amount ranked on page 1…

So I checked the other sites I used for this experiment and saw extremely similar results. I started manually checking keywords, head terms, torso, and long tail terms. It was incredible to scroll through the reporting and see page 1 rankings for almost all of the keywords. But here’s the rub, just because the final keywords that led to each site ranked on page 1, that didn’t mean it was the person’s first query…

That could have been their second, third, or fourth refinement. The long tail was absolutely in effect and was easily revealed. It clearly showed the importance and power of targeting long tail keywords and what that can mean for the volume of quality traffic. Sure, there were several head terms that ranked on page 1 of Google and those keywords did send a good amount of quality traffic to the sites I tested. But, there were terms that easily could have been the result of someone refining their query after not being happy with the search results.

For those of you unclear what a long tail keyword is, here is an example from my own blog:

how to use swfobject to provide alternative content for seo
— Sure, that could have been the person’s first query, but it also could have been their third or fourth, right? I don’t think many people in SEO often have a new client walk in and say they want to rank for a long tail keyword of that length! 😉 Which leads me to my next point, the long tail of SEO. Don’t worry, this will all connect by the end of my post.

The Powerful Long Tail of SEO

I think many people in Search understand the importance of ranking highly in Google, but I think too many people outside of Search are hung up on ranking for just a few target keywords. As mentioned earlier, I’ve written about the long tail of SEO on my blog, and it’s hard to overlook the power of the long tail when heavily analyzing search traffic across websites and verticals. I’m constantly talking about the long tail during client meetings, internal brainstorms, and to random people on the subway. Don’t worry, I’m in New York, so most people are used to this type of strange behavior. 🙂

To quickly review, the long tail of SEO includes longer queries, typically including three or more keywords. These longer queries derive from your target keywords (or your head terms). For example, a head term might be Nintendo Wii, but a long tail keyword might be what are the best Nintendo Wii games. Although many people focus on head terms, the long tail might generate more quality visitors in aggregate (taking into account all long tail keywords versus just head terms). Anyone tracking SEO for a living has probably seen the impact of the long tail.

How Does the Long Tail Manifest Itself? Check the Latest Google Heat Map Study

OK, so we’re getting closer to the connection I mentioned earlier in this post. Stick with me! There’s one more element I need to explain before we get there. I’m sure many of you have seen or heard about Google heat map studies. One recent study from Think Eyetracking (September 2008) revealed that people are now scanning the first few results on page 1 of the SERPs, and if they don’t find what they need, they are refining their searches.

Think about someone searching for nike sneakers, then nike running sneakers, then men’s nike running sneakers, and finally men’s nike trail running sneakers. That person would have refined their initial search three times before clicking a result. The results from this study also match what Google recently released when studying Universal Search. So the important question is, do you have content that can rank for long tail keywords? For many websites and businesses, the answer is NO. That’s unfortunate, since long tail keywords are much more granular and specific (and can yield highly targeted visitors).

Comparing the 2008 and 2005 Google Heat Map Studies:

Source: Think Eyetracking, September 2008

Tying It All Together, The Results From My Ad Hoc Experiment:

As mentioned earlier, I set up new profiles and custom filters so I could track the position in Google for keywords leading to several sites that I manage. The sites I chose to test have varying search strength and focus on different verticals. The custom filter showed me which page each keyword was listed on when visitors clicked through by displaying the number of the first result on that page. For example, (Page: ), (Page: 10), (Page: 20), (Page: 30), where (Page: ) means page 1 in Google, (Page: 10) means page 2, (Page: 20) means page 3, etc. See the screenshot below for how it looks in Google Analytics (with my notes in dark blue).

Quick Disclaimer Before Revealing the Results: Although this was not a scientific experiment, the results across various websites I tested were overwhelming. Based on seeing the results, I also started checking other sites I manage that weren’t initially part of the experiment, and saw the same trends across a large number of keywords. I will provide the results from my experiment below, along with how each type of keyword performed (head or long tail).

I analyzed over 3000 keywords across several websites I manage. Here are the results:

Percent of Keywords Driving Traffic That Ranked on Page 1 of Google

  • 92% of the keywords that led to the websites I used in this experiment ranked on page 1 of Google.
  • 6% ranked on page 2
  • 1% ranked on page 3
  • 1% ranked beyond page 3

Total Number of Head Terms Versus Long Tail Keywords

7% of the total keywords were head terms and 93% were long tail keywords.

Percent of Traffic From Head Keywords vs. Long Tail

Traffic-wise, long tail keywords comprised 78% of visitors from organic search and head terms drove 22% of visitors.

To quickly summarize the results:

  1. Ranking on page 1 of Google is extremely important, with 92% of the keywords driving traffic to the sites I tested, ranking on page 1.
  2. Based on the latest Google heat map study, people are scanning the first few results on page 1 and refining their searches (using longer tail keywords). This is represented by the total number of head terms versus long tail keywords (93% of keywords being long tail.)
  3. The percent of traffic from long tail keywords far outweighs the number of visitors from head terms.

Search Behavior Revealed and What This Means for You

Setting up this handy filter in Google Analytics enabled me to easily see the impact of high rankings along with the power of the long tail. By the way, you should also set up this filter so you can easily analyze the rankings of all your keywords on the fly… You can still use various search tools to run a position analysis on your head terms, but this filter enables you to see rankings across all of the keywords leading to your website.

So What Does This Mean For You As A Search Marketer?

Well, don’t just target head terms! Perform extensive keyword research, analyze your competition, speak with customers, understand what people are searching for, and always keep the long tail in mind. For example, ensure your website ranks highly when people refine their searches. You don’t just have to rank for a highly competitive head term to yield quality visitors that can impact your bottom line. Knowing this, you’re next logical question might be, “So how do I target the long tail?”

There are so many ways to create compelling content that targets the long tail that I can’t cover them in detail here (this post is already getting too long!) It’s why I often refer to SEO as the multi-channel channel. You can write blog posts, create how-to videos, conduct studies and surveys, write whitepapers, create tutorials, build tools and functionality, etc. The list goes on…

Yes, it definitely took a while, but I told you I would tie this together at some point! For those of you that have benefited from the power of the long tail (or have been knocked over by it), please chime in! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Glenn Gabe is an online marketing consultant at G-Squared Interactive. He currently helps clients maximize their digital marketing efforts via SEO, SEM, Social Media, Viral Marketing and Web Analytics. You can read more of Glenn’s posts on his blog, The Internet Marketing Driver and you can follow him on Twitter to keep up with his latest projects, news, and updates.

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  • Wes McDermott

    Absolutely brilliant post Glenn, you kept my attention throughout, which is pretty tough to do, so I’ve been told anyway 😉

    The power of the long tail is huge that’s for sure!

  • André Scholten

    Very creative thinking with my filter, great post.

  • Simeon

    Looking at Google heatmap 2005 and 2008 it shows that visitors get more rush today than 3 years ago. It can be used optimizing information on our own sites. The most important information must be placed on top left corner of the main area.

    Great post anyway. Thank you

  • Gab Goldenberg

    Your eyetracking pics confirm imho that our attention spans are getting shorter online, especially w Google and due to Google. Also, the value of ranking below position 5 decreases daily.

  • Adrian P

    Great post! It was refreshing to have so much useful content.
    One question about long tail: I wonder if this is only applicable to industries with heavy search traffic? I work in a very niche market… we’ll just call it local luxury goods. When dealing with video games, used cars, etc., there is plenty of traffic to be had. But in the market I work, the web traffic is already a small pie, and targeting what I consider long tail terms in this field tends to produce little traffic, which results in even less leads. To the point where the ROI is… scarce.
    What are your thoughts?
    BTW- I ride the Q/B home… I’d love it if some crazy person started chatting up long tail on my way home!!

  • Glenn Gabe

    @Wes, I’m glad you liked the post and that it kept your attention! It was amazing to see that many keywords ranking on page 1… I had to write the post. 🙂

    @Andre Thank you! I’m really digging your GA filter… It absolutely revealed the power of the long tail.

  • Glenn Gabe

    @Simeon, Yes, the latest heat map study revealed that people were scanning the top 5 organic listings and clicks were primarily occurring in the top 3. If people didn’t find what they wanted, they refined their searches.

    @Gab, I definitely agree with you. Our behavior while searching has become Search, Scan, and Refine. We want the right results, and fast.

  • Augustine Fou

    The power of long tail keywords is even more important when you realize, as Glenn observed, the users who type in long tail keywords like “can I mix Mobil1 with the motor oil already in my C300?” are probably much more clear on what they are looking for than someone who just types “motor oil.” Analytics data supports that they stuck around a lot longer, went a lot deeper into the site and pages, etc.

    So despite not having many users per long tail keyword, these are the exact users you want coming to your site. it is usually a good indicator of interest and intent too when they type in such specific keywords/phrases. And when you sum the whole long tail it can (and usually does) amount to more than the sum of head terms.

  • Sohbet siteleri

    Thank you very much

  • Cool Stuff

    This is very interesting and share these experiences. I have many longtail keyphrases on my cool stuff blog here in UK and have found exactly the same findings – I get at least 80% of my traffic via longtail phrases. I have stumbled this article as I feel this is one of the best SEO articles/research I have read in a long time. Thanks for sharing and good luck with your sites.

  • andreas.wpv

    One of the best posts on SEO I’ve read. This works wonderful, done so similar myself.

    I would go one step further: Minimize your efforts for the ‘head’ keywords. Do basics, but spend as much of your resources as possible on the ‘tail’ keyphrases.

    One outcome of this for the overall marketing is you need to know your differentiators, your unique selling preposition, otherwise you don’t know what your long tail phrases are.

  • Barry Welford

    Good one, Gabe.

    I ponder more and more why Google keeps that “I’m feeling lucky” button, given that they’re serving up Universal Search results that confirm they know we may not be sure what we are looking for. Your analysis is another powerful reason why Google should do the obvious and lose the button.

  • Glenn Gabe

    @Augustine, you’re absolutely right. When you start analyzing longer tail keywords, you can see exactly what people were searching for. The keywords are so granular and specific and yield highly targeted visitors.

    @CoolStuff, Thanks for the stumble! Also, thanks for sharing your own search statistics. It sounds like your site matched what I found in my experiment (~80% of organic search traffic from long tail terms). That traffic is definitely powerful and targeted…

  • Glenn Gabe

    @Andreas, Great point. I get that question a lot when talking with clients about the long tail. “What should I target?” Understanding your unique selling proposition is critical to targeting the right keywords. I’m glad you enjoyed my post!

    @Barry, Interesting point. The button really doesn’t make much sense when you think about it… Actually, based on the heat map study, maybe it should just reveal the top 5 listings instead. 😉

  • Robert M. Cavezza

    Definitely loved this post! Any specific ways to target long tails besides those listed? Or have any good references to other posts about long tails?


  • steve

    Good article.

  • Erin

    Wow, thank you sooooo much. I have been trying to convince folks at my sites that ranking high for not-searched-very-often terms is just as important as ranking high for top search terms. Proof is in this pudding and now I know how to run a report to prove my point!

  • Truman

    Very nice post! I appreciate the time you took to post these results. Internet users are getting smarter in their searches and taking more time to think & read before they click.

  • Glenn Gabe

    Thanks @Robert. I’m glad you liked my post. Regarding your question about ways to target long tail keywords, it really depends on your your target market. For example, how-to videos or blog posts might make sense for one site where whitepapers and industry stats might make sense for another. That said, blogging provides a great platform for this (no matter which tactic you actually choose). I mentioned my blog post about the long tail of SEO above, which goes deeper on this subject.

    I would definitely perform extensive keyword research, speak with your customers, perform a competitive analysis, etc. to start to understand what people are looking for (for the specific business you are helping). I hope that helps.

  • Glenn Gabe

    @Erin, You’re very welcome. 🙂 I’m a big believer in bringing data to meetings (as you can see with my post!) If you are able to walk into your meetings with hard data backing your belief in the long tail (which is right on BTW), then you’ll be in great shape. I’m glad you are setting up the GA filter and I’m excited for you to see the results!

  • Glenn Gabe

    @Truman, You’re right. People are expecting to see strong search results based on their queries. If they don’t, they are clearly moving quickly to refine their searches. I get a kick out of analyzing the long tail terms. Some of them simply blow me away…

  • Richard Hill

    Absolutely true. Different metrics but we find that most of the sites that we handle have vast long tail traffic. It takes a while for clients to appreciate it though as they just about always have a fixed view about what will work for them to start with.

  • Jon Scott

    This was a great post. I use long tail keywords but it has forced me to think deeper into what they consist of. Thanks.

  • Online Internet Faxing

    Great post we always tell our clients at work that the best click through relates are when your website is above the fold which are the websites that you don’t have to scroll your browser to see. Although I have also heard several conspiracy theorists who won’t click on anyone higher then #11, and I’ve seen this in my logs as well. But that is nothing compared to where the real traffic is at.

  • Glenn Gabe

    @Richard, I agree. Many people just have a few head terms in mind when approaching Search. That’s until data starts rolling in and they can see the impact of the long tail. 🙂 I’m glad you liked my post.

  • Glenn Gabe

    Thanks @Jon. I’m glad you liked my post and you bring up a great point. Targeting long tail keywords definitely forces you to think creatively. There’s a big payoff, though.

  • agnes

    Thanks for providing the very good and nice information.

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  • Website. designer in nagpur

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  • Joelchrist

    Very good research on Valuable topic. Thanks for sharing this and explaining pretty well dude. Good luck.