Andrew Shipp
May 05, 2020 | 22 min read

Anyone who has ever conducted keyword research is well aware of the term “long-tail keywords”. But at the same time, it may not be crystal clear to everyone what they really are. 

Do long-tail keywords always have a low search volume? Do they always consist of 3-5+ words? Do they always have low competition?

As you would expect, this is a fairly complex topic that can get pretty confusing, so the short answer is both yes and no. To explain it, a longer, more elaborate answer must be given.

So, join me as I investigate what long-tail keywords are, what role they play in SEO, how to use them, and what misconceptions you should forget about.

What are long-tail keywords

Alright, so the number one question is what makes a keyword long-tail? Here are 4 distinct characteristics:

  1. Consist of several words (3-5+).
    The idea here is not simply to say that if a keyword consists of multiple words it automatically becomes long-tail, but that long-tail keywords address very specific topics–which is why they consist of several words–and their intent is clear.
  2. Low search volume.
    Because of their specifics, fewer people search for them online. So, technically speaking, long-tail keywords are just not very popular.
  3. Low competition.
    It’s commonly accepted that the lower the popularity, the lower the keyword competition is. But this is not always the case as some long-tail keywords have a whole line of companies competing for the top ranking spots.
  4. High conversion rate.
    Again, because long-tail keywords tend to be very specific in their phrasing, their search results usually match the searcher’s intent more closely. In other words, Google presents searchers who enter long-tail keywords with the exact results they’re looking for. For this reason, pages that rank for long-tail keywords tend to have a higher conversion rate.

Now that we know how to tell if we’re dealing with a long-tail keyword in its classic sense, let’s focus on understanding the role they play in search engine optimization.

Why long-tail keywords matter in SEO 

Let’s start off with something simple. In practically every blog post you can find online on long-tail keywords, you’ll find a similar graph: 

Correlation of keyword search volume and conversion rate

This graph is important to understand because it highlights the paradox of long-tail keywords. Despite their search volume being low–as in they are not popular search terms–their conversion rate, or how often they satisfy search requests, is really high. 

As you can see, although the search query “playstation” is getting a lot of searches each month, it may well be an informational query, meaning that people are just looking. However, the long-tail keyword “playstation 4 controller battery life” is getting only 10 searches a month, but the pages that target this search query definitely know what the searcher is looking to find and give it to them. 

The surprisingly high conversion rate of long-tail keywords becomes an even more significant discovery when you combine the data in the above graph with the one below (this is gonna blow your socks off):

Long-tail keywords make up the vast majority of search queries

According to data from Ahrefs, the absolute majority of search queries consist of multiple words and get less than 100 searches a month. And since these are among the most important characteristics of long-tail keywords, we can come to a conclusion that they are long-tail.

To further support this, we at SE Ranking have conducted our own study that analyzed over 25 million keywords tracked by our customers and found that almost 44% of keywords with 1,000-9,999 monthly searches are made up of three or more words.

Keywords word length vs. search volume SE Ranking study

So, considering all this data, we can come to a conclusion that long-tail keywords get a large share of searches and create a loophole that we can take advantage of. You can get your web pages ranking high without practically any competition and get a lot of conversions!

Think about it: What’s the point in targeting 1 popular search query that has a lot of competition fighting it out for Google’s top spot (and even if you do succeed, most searchers are just looking) when you can compete for 10 long-tail keywords instead?

As a result, we can identify two main reasons why long-tail keywords are worth targeting.

First of all, they are more likely to drive people who are close to the end of the buying cycle, aka hot leads, and those that have an intent that you are ready to satisfy. In other words, long-tail keywords have a high conversion rate.

We reached out to Helen Pollitt, Managing Director at Arrows Up and an all-round SEO expert to comment on this and she confirmed, saying,

Long-tail keywords are highly effective in driving traffic to your website. In fact, due to how specific the search terms usually are you have a better chance of writing content that directly answers the users’ queries and therefore provides a better user experience. 

Searchers using long-tail queries are refining their searches to bring back more specific results. If you are ranking well for those search terms you are likely to win traffic that is closer to conversion. 

For example, “high heel shoes” has 6,600 searches per month but it isn’t clear from this search query exactly what a user would want to be shown on a landing page. Do they want examples of shoes, shoes they can buy or simply images? The search phrase “red high heel shoes with next day delivery” has far fewer people searching for it. The long-tail phrase is clearer in the searcher’s intent so creating a page that meets their needs and converts is much easier.

Secondly, long-tail keywords are easier to rank for since their level of competition is typically not high. For example, Google produces over 6 billion results for the head keyword “shoes” versus half a billion results that come up for the long-tail keyword “buy black designer shoes for men”.

By the way, the same idea also applies to running advertising campaigns on Google Ads, where long-tail keywords are, generally, cheaper to bid on.

E-commerce and Technical SEO Consultant Kristina Azarenko of MarketingSyrup was also kind enough to share her thoughts on why it’s important to target long-tail keywords, saying,

I see that many businesses are chasing high volume keywords thinking that they will bring more traffic and sales. There are two issues with this approach. Firstly, the competition for keywords with high search volume is also high, so it will take more time and resources to rank for them. Secondly, high volume terms are usually general, and when people use general search queries, they’re not ready to buy yet. So it’s better to use a combination of general keywords and long-tail keywords.

Long-tail keywords help you get people who come to your website with a buying intent. These people have a good idea of what they want and if you give it to them, it will be much easier to convert them into customers. 

This has worked really well for many of my clients. Building more specific categories for one online store has substantially increased the revenue. Instead of targeting general keywords, when you don’t really know what people are looking for, we targeted more specific searches.

Besides these two huge reasons why long-tail keywords are important in SEO, there are several less significant reasons like they help answer voice assistant searches as well as rank for the head term.

In terms of voice search, when running searches using our voice, we tend to move away from using short keywords and just use long colloquial expressions to express our search request. Plus, as of 2019, there are around 3.25 billion voice assistant devices used across the globe, and forecasts predict this number will grow to 8 billion in 2023.

Voice search devices

With so many people running searches using their voice, you can expect the number of long-tail keywords to keep growing, giving you an extra reason to continue creating content for such search terms.

As for helping you rank for the head term, let me quickly tell you what a head term is. 

Remember the graph that included the keyword “playstation” and “playstation 4 controller battery life”? Well, in this case, the long-tail keywords is a part of a bigger topic – PlayStation. In this case, the keyword “playstation” is the head term.

Now, Google understands what we’re looking for when we enter similar searches, plus it’s always trying to provide searchers with better results.

For this reason, search results that are displayed in SERPs for a long-tail keyword will include results that appear for the head term as well, even if these pages don’t actually rank for the search query that was entered into the search bar. 

Websites will often rank really high for multiple head terms and have decent to low rankings for millions of other keywords. These are long-tail keywords that have lower search volumes than head terms, but the former push the latter up in rankings by properly using search engine juice.

Types of long-tail keywords 

Now, when looking at a long-tail keyword, you have to ask yourself if its intent is general or specific. Does it represent an individual topic or focus on a far broader topic? What’s the SERP competition like? Answering these questions will help you understand the type of long-tail keyword you’re dealing with.

Depending on the purpose it serves, long-tail keywords can be broken down into three categories: supporting, topical and ‘weird’ ones. 

The first type, supporting long-tail keywords, doesn’t represent an individual topic, but supports much broader topics along with their head terms, hence the name. 

For example, if you Google a long-tail search term like “how to make a grilled cheese in a toaster” whose search volume is pretty low, it may be difficult to outrank the top results because the term “how to make a grilled cheese in a toaster” doesn’t represent an individual topic, but falls under the greater topic of “grilled cheese”. 

For this reason, when Google provides search results for supporting long-tail keywords, it may include results that appear for the head term as well, even if these pages don’t actually rank for the entered keyword. As a result, supporting long-tail keywords tend to have greater competition and are harder to rank for. 

The second type, topical long-tail keywords, as the name suggests, focus on an individual topic. 

For example, the long-tail keyword “private blog network” has a monthly search volume of 260. And the search results that come up in SERPs don’t focus on any other topic besides PBNs, meaning that there’s no head term to support.

Search results for private blog network

Such keywords are long-tail in the classic sense of the word, meaning they have a low search volume, highly-specific and are easier to rank for. Search results for topical long-tail keywords will include pages that rank for the specific term – not for a general topic. 

I want to point out that these are the long-tail keywords you should be targeting.

Unfortunately, not all long-tail keywords fall nicely under one of the two categories above. Lets refer to such keywords as ‘weird’ ones because they can focus on individual topics, but at the same time cover wider topics.

For example:

  • Long-tail keywords with location modifiers that point out a city or a region (“SEO services in Greater Wilshire”)
  • Seasonal queries (“sport fashion trends 2020”) 
  • Long descriptive names of specific objects (“how i met your mother”, “smithsonian national museum of natural history”).

In the latter case, even though the search queries consist of multiple words, they are “too” specific, referring to a single object: an organization, a book or a movie, a place, etc.

How to find long-tail keywords

There are plenty of ways you can find long-tail keywords. Just go through the list below and see which options suit you best. And if you ever need more long-tail keyword ideas, you can always come back here and explore other options.

Keyword research tools

Typically, tools that are specifically designed for keyword research, amongst other things, will provide you with the most complete information on long-tail keywords. Let me show you how you can do this with SE Ranking.

Just go to the SEO/PPC Competitor Research tool that you can access without signing up and enter your head term. As a result, you will get lists of similar and related keywords that contain a lot of long-tail keywords for you to use.

Similar keywords for skin health

On top of that, the Long-tail keywords list you see on the right contains Google autocomplete suggestions. You’re welcome to explore it too, but there are plenty of quality long-tail keywords under the Similar and Related tab where, by the way, you can also see keyword search volume and competition data. With this data, you’ll have a greater understanding of how difficult it will be to rank high in organic search for these search terms.

Google Autocomplete

Google autocomplete is one of the easiest and most popular ways of getting new keyword ideas. Just go to Google and type in your head term. 

One great aspect of Google autocomplete is that you can add any character to the search and get different results each time. For example, let’s add a space bar after the second keyword, as in “skin health ”.

Google Autocomplete result examples

Try out different combinations of letters and words until you get enough long-tail keyword ideas to support your head term.

Google “Searches related to”

Another useful Google feature provides you with more semantic ideas based on similar searches that people run on Google in relation to the entered search query. 

Let’s take the same search query, “skin health”, and scroll all the way down to the bottom of the search results page until this box is in view:

Google Searches related to skin health

On top of that, you can click on a suggested related search option and scroll down to get searches related to that search query.

Note that the Keywords Everywhere Chrome extension can display a long list of related keywords and people-also-ask-for suggestions right on Google’s SERP. 

Google “People also ask”

The search giant’s “People also ask” box contains a list of questions that people ask in relation to the search query you entered. If you scroll down the same SERP a little bit, you’ll get a list of long-tail keywords that are in the form of a question. Simple as that:

Google People also ask results example

Just like with “Searches related to”, you can then run a search for any of the long-tail questions and get a new list of related questions. Basically, you can continue doing this forever.

Google Trends

A tool that can help you uncover trends related to long-tail keywords is Google Trends.

Enter any search query and see if the interest in this topic is on the rise or on the fall. That way, you can see whether a certain keyword deserves your attention right now.

Interest in skin health over time via Google Trends

As you scroll further down the page, you have the option of exploring related topics and search queries:

Example of Google Trends related topic and queries

So, you can pick a trending topic from the list on the left-hand side, and use the list of long-tail keywords on the right to support your content. And remember that while it is fine weather, mend your sails. In other words, you need to have everything ready before a topic is trending, so that when it’s time for those 2021 SEO trend articles to be trending in December, your pages will be long crawled and indexed.

Google Search Console Performance Report

If your website’s in business then maybe you are already ranking for your best keywords? Let me explain what I mean.

Chances are you already have several pages ranking on Google’s top 5 SERPs. And your long-tail keywords are most probably already ranking on Google too, but you’re not optimizing for them.

But in the vast majority of cases, if you do some SEO work on the pages that rank for long-tail keywords, they can quickly climb rankings and get to Google page 1. 

With Google Search Console, you can find these long-tail keywords under the Performance Report. Scroll a bit down until you see this area:

Example of long-tail queries under Google Search Console Performance Report

You can find the long-tail keywords you already rank for under the list of “Queries”. After some analytical work, you should be able to understand which long-tail keywords deserve top priority in terms of SEO.

Forums and Q&A sites

Forums and question-and-answer websites are your gravy train that helps you stay on the same page with your target audience.

Such resources are specifically designed to house various discussions, and the best part is that the people that participate in them are committed enough to register and have actual opinionated conversations.

In the vast majority of cases, the discussions that take place on such sites cover topics that aren’t fully covered by search engines or the search engines fail to provide a proper answer.

What I recommend doing is find the resources that focus on your niche/industry and look for topics that you can create content for, thus providing readers with relevant answers. Then, once you’ve established yourself as an expert on a discussion site, provide answers and link out to the content you specifically created to cater to your audience’s needs.

To find a forum relevant for you, simply type “topic + forum” into Google and start picking out the most promising ones.

Long-tail questions on Quora

As for Q&A sites, some of the most popular ones are Quora, Reddit, and Yahoo! Answers.

More tools for long-tail keyword ideas 

As for non-Google ways of getting long-tail keyword ideas, I suggest AnswerThePublic and Soovle. These tools were designed to help you expand your semantic core. 

Once again, let’s see what results we get if we enter the search query “skin health”:

Example of AnswerThePublic results

Subsequently, AnswerThePublic will provide a plethora of suggestions on keywords including in the form of questions, with additional prepositions, keyword comparisons, alphabetical keyword listings, as well as related keywords. 

As for Soovle, it pulls long-tail keyword ideas from Wikipedia, Amazon, Ask.com, YouTube, Yahoo! and Bing. 

We have reached out to technical SEO expert and partner at Elementive, Matthew Edgar, to name his top sources for getting long-tail keywords, and here’s what he had to say:

The best method for getting long-tail keywords is by interviewing your customers or users. Give your customers or users open-ended questions related to the topics covered and listen to the words and phrases they use in response. More and more, the way people search is the same as the way people talk, and this is especially true with long-tail keywords that are more obscure. 

The more you can use these words and phrases, the better your content will be for the end-user (for SEO, UX, CRO). If you can’t talk to customers, or in addition to talking to customers, you can also analyze social media posts or email communication from your customers to find the words they use. In some cases, analyzing social media posts or emails is even more helpful than talking since this is looking at how people discuss your product or service in writing, which is even more similar to how they search. 

In addition to these user-focused methods, the more traditional SEO tools, like Google Ads Keyword Planner, Google Search Console, and Suggested Search all can be helpful to locate long-tail keywords.

Each way of collecting long-tail keywords listed here offers something special, so make sure to try out each option.

How to use long-tail keywords

Okay, so now that we have our long-tail keywords, what do we do next?

Do we create content for each single keyword? Can we move the words in long-tail keywords around or do we have to use them in content as is?

Everything really depends on your business and the type of content you publish. 

If you have an e-commerce site with multiple products on offer, add long-tail keywords to product description. But try to use them as naturally as possible.

If the majority of your long-tail keywords are informational or supporting queries and you have a blog, you can write a blog post for each long-tail keyword to drive hot leads to your site.

If your long-tail keywords ask popular questions about your business, it’s only fitting to create an FAQ section with answers to these questions.

As for whether or not you need to use exact phrases or synonyms, we once again turned to Helen Pollitt for a comment and she replied, saying,

There’s no right or wrong way for using long-tail keywords in copy. It really depends on how the search engines are understanding the user intent behind the query and if that changes when you change the words around. 

For some phrases it might be fine to deviate from the exact phrase as they mean the same. A good way to check this is by searching for the phrase and seeing what content is already ranking well for it. If the keyword phrase is in a competitive niche, or the search engines interpret the meaning of the phrases differently when slightly changed around, then you may need to be more precise in your usage.

Furthermore, the lion’s share of websites focus on one big topic, or the head term.

For example, even though our blog covers a lot of topics ranging from link-building to SERP optimization and from keyword stuffing to competitive analysis, it still falls under the umbrella of search engine optimization. Ultimately, all of the content we published is linked to SEO in one way or another.

So, identify the head term of your website and focus all of your content around it. 

A great practice to engage here is the cluster model. This is when you find several big subtopics like keywords, backlinks, and page optimization incase of SEO and interlink all related content on your site. 

That way, you’ll boost Google’s understanding of your blog or website as a whole, and on topical levels as well. So, link from long-tail-keyword-focused blog posts to those that focus on your head term. This will ultimately push pages that rank for the head term higher in rankings.

Last, but not least, we also reached out to Adrian Crisostomo, SEO specialist at SEO Hacker to comment on what keyword strategy they use and he was kind enough to reply, saying,

At SEO Hacker, our strategy is more long-tail keyword centric. This means that our lasting goal isn’t to drive irrelevant traffic to our client’s website, but we intend to make our client’s businesses grow and improve through taking advantage of the digital landscape. 

As such, we’ve had multiple experiences of having success in optimizing long-tail keywords for numerous clients. Which, not only increased their overall traffic but also significantly improved their sales numbers.

This once again underlines the importance of driving relevant traffic to websites, and long-tail keywords is how you can do it.

Now over to you

Who would have thought that there’s so much more to long-tail keywords than simply unpopular search queries consisting of 3-5 words?

Turns out that if a long-tail keyword has a low monthly search volume, it may not always be easy to outrank competitors because it can be a part of a much bigger topic. And Google tends to show similar results for head and related long-tail keywords.

So, I invite you to analyze the keywords that are already driving traffic to your site, optimize long-tail ones for SEO success, look for additional ways to expand your semantic core using the methods listed in this blog post, and then link out to content that focuses on your head term.

Then just rinse and repeat!

Did you find any long-tail keywords that you were surprised to see you are already ranking for?

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6 comments
  1. If I target “how to bake a cake for beginners” will I also come up in search for “how to bake a cake”. I assume the answer’s yes but want to be sure

    1. Great question, Stephen! It can happen, but this is not a definite certainty. I suggest you focus on writing the best content you can for your target long-tail keyword, but at the same time add other variations of it along with synonyms to the copy, naturally.

  2. great read! question: do i have to use the same long tail keywords throughout my posts? if yes, is there a keyword density i have to maintain? thnx

    1. Glad you asked this, Diana! You don’t have to worry about keyword density or anything like that. Just focus on writing really good content for human readers and search engines will appreciate this.

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