In the world of SEO, we’re all admittedly looking for “the next big thing” to score a high ranking on Google’s algorithm. It can be all too easy to be mesmerized by the staggering amount of results that a single Google search result can yield. Millions of results for a simple, generalized topic – what are the odds that anyone will even see your content, let alone click on it?

Not very good, which is why an increasing number of SEO-savvy bloggers and marketing experts are looking to a new, more organic and targeted approach – long-tail keywords.

So, what are they, and how can they help you improve your SEO game?

Long-tail Keywords 101

To begin with, let’s tackle the first and most obvious question on the table – just what are long-tail keywords, anyway, and how are they different from traditional SEO keywords?

For those not in the know, long-tail keywords are keywords which are longer than traditional keywords, more particular, and aimed at much lower traffic search results. These facts are related. Their more specific wording makes them appear in search results with fewer searches. The tradeoff of this is that because there are fewer searches, you have a much greater chance of ranking more highly, and thus generating traffic and business.

Long-tail keywords thus take something of a “quality over quantity” approach to SEO targeting.

Which is better – ranking #123 in a keyword for which there are hundreds of thousands of search results, or ranking second or third for something that has “only” around ten thousand?

The stereotype of Google searches is that they’re short, choppy, and generalized.

As a matter of fact, this is a myth.

As many as 70% of our searches tend to be in the form of long-tail keywords.

Conversions are the name of the game. While you should by no means abandon conventional “head” keywords, long-tail keywords can often help you get more bang for your SEO buck. As we’ll see below, this has a lot to do with the added authenticity it boasts, how it structures its keywords, and the synthesis of single blog posts and variations thereof that it can promote.

“Words, Words, Words” and Authentic Keywords

When you studied Shakespeare in school, chances are your teacher told you that he makes use of iambic pentameter in his poems and plays. If you love literature and the Bard, this may have really resonated with you, but otherwise, you might have wondered when this would ever come up in life again.

Well, today’s the day that knowledge suddenly becomes relevant again, because in the same way that iambic pentameter is the poetic meter which most closely resembles natural English speech, long-tail keywords as an SEO strategy most closely resemble the way we actually search for things. What difference does that make? A lot, as it turns out.

The unstressed-stressed syllabic pattern of iambic pentameter just feels “natural” to English speech patterns, which is part of the reason why Shakespeare’s best lines feel so organic to English-speaking audiences. Of course, making things sound “organic” is precisely what you want in the SEO game, and long-tail keywords capture that better than their shorter Google Ad Words-driven alternatives.

As the old saying goes, a thousand monkeys typing away at typewriters forever will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare. SEO bots can produce some Google Ad Words-baiting keywords. But just as those monkeys at typewriters could never have or capture the authentic genius of Shakespeare, so too do can shorter SEO-baiting keywords never truly capture the nature of what we’re really asking when we search for things.

Hamlet famously tells his actors to “hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.” He decries acting that’s simplistic and exaggerated, arguing that good acting means authenticity, with art imitating life and vice versa.

Much the same ethos is at work with long-tail keywords. They are far more targeted and focused than generalized, or “heat” keywords, and as a result, when used properly, they can be much more effective at converting clicks into positive traffic. Rather than opting for keywords which are more generalized and simplistic, long-tail keywords strive to mirror the structure and content of queries.

How is that accomplished?

An Organic Search Engine Guessing Game

Really think about how you tend to search for things when you type in words online. Jeopardy fans rejoice, because as with the show’s famous answer format, we tend to search online in the form of a question. Search results often begin with words that naturally begin a question: “are…”, “is…”, “who…”, “where…”, “why…”, and so on.

Head keywords don’t tend to organize themselves that way, instead opting for a structure which is shorter and more generalized. Long-tail keywords, by contrast, structure themselves in such a way as to capitalize on specific niches.

For example, let’s say that you’re interested in taking a trip to London for a few weeks. Naturally, you are going to want to make sure to book a place to stay ahead of time. Now switch roles and put yourself in the place of a hotel owner, bed and breakfast, an app like Airbnb, or another service which hosts guests who are looking for a place to stay while traveling. What type of keywords can you put into your content to help generate the best results on Google?

(Note: My wife is taking my daughter to London for her thirteenth birthday in a few weeks, so this is timely. However, she did not need my help in planning whatsoever.)

Your first instinct might be to include and bid for keywords such as “vacation London” or “hotel in London.” It’s simple and generalized, and so casts quite a large net, which would hopefully net you a few fish among those fishing around the Web looking for a place to stay. However, while this impulse isn’t necessarily wrong, per se, and that kind of keyword strategy can be effective when used correctly, it is nevertheless likely too general to make a huge difference for your hotel or bed and breakfast on its own.

Why might that be?

First, because plenty of people are going to be searching for generalized keywords like that, and so while it’s true that it can generate hits, it will be doing the same for the thousands upon thousands of other local establishments in London and beyond. That’s hardly a way to make yours service stand out from the pack. Even if you don’t care too much about the uniqueness of the articles on your site, you still need them to be unique and rank high enough in the Google algorithm for them to rank above the countless other search results – and “vacation London” alone almost surely won’t do the job. What’s more, big companies bid big for those most basic search terms, so unless you think you can outbid major hotels or companies, you’ll need another strategy.

Clearly, we need a better tactic.

Particularizing Your Long-tail Search Results

Sticking with that London vacation example, one of the biggest ways by which you can generate more traffic to your site via a long-tail keyword is by making your keyword phrase specific enough as to rank higher amidst fewer results.

In an example such as ours, particularizing your keyword with a more specific London-based location can be a great way of accomplishing this.

After all, London is huge. There is a lot of variation here, and thus a lot of different options in terms of where one might stay besides simply “in London.” Harrow and Holborn are both technically in the London area, but they’re quite different from each other. Harrow is on Northwestern outskirts of the Greater London Area, and is more residential and inexpensive. Holborn, by contrast, contains the Charles Dickens Museum, the British Museum, and Bloomsbury, and is much closer to the heart of the city.

That difference in price, location, and neighborhood will naturally attract different clientele.

Therefore, rather than a head keyword of simply “hotel in London,” a more targeted long-tail keyword such as “great affordable hotels near Holborn” or “cheap hotels in Harrow” can yield far more targeted and thus positive results.

Targeting Keywords and Topics

That being said, this approach is more targeted for a reason. It is designed to drive traffic to more specific search results. As a result, using the same long-tail keyword for multiple articles will not work. It can cut into the uniqueness of each one, diminishing their impact.

You therefore need to make sure that you are developing and utilizing new long-tail keywords for each new article. In a way, this should already be a given. You ideally want each article featuring a long-tail keyword to be specifically tailored to that keyword, and vice versa, in such a way that they complement one another perfectly and thus boost the niche search results for the content in question. You thus ideally want to make sure that you have your long-tail keywords coordinated with the article ahead of time, ensuring that the former is organically integrated into the latter.

Variations on a Long-tail Keyword Theme

That being said, there is nothing wrong with writing variations of different long-tail keywords in separate blog posts and synergizing your content that way.

There is a proud tradition of classical music doing something similar, with composers taking inspiration from previous basic themes and putting their own spin on them. The classical refrain “La Folia” is a theme which both Corelli and Vivaldi worked with, each producing similar yet distinct versions. Tchaikovsky has a magnificent piece entitled “Variations on a Rococo Theme,” and later composers would in turn riff on some of Tchaikovsky’s own themes.

The same basic idea is at play when you are concocting long-tail keywords which are similar yet still distinct from one another.

Let’s stick with our hotel example, and nail down Holborn as our location. Once you’ve put in that first keyword and organically slipped it into an article in such a way as to make your SEO manager smile, you can then start thinking about variations on that long-tail theme. You can make a host of different posts slightly rearranging or using synonyms for words in that initial post, thus leading to content which is both homogenized yet different.

Focusing on Specific Products and Services

Let’s focus on one way to do that, namely, by focusing on specific products and services offered.

As the owner of a hotel, you’ll want to think about the different services you offer. Slight variations on those services or the way in which you word them can produce distinct long-tail keywords.

For example, “great affordable hotels in Holborn,” “best cheap hotels in Holborn,” and “best cheap hotels in Holborn for families” are three distinct long-tail keywords targeting a single specific “idea” three different ways. This can thus garner you three different search results on Google, thereby increasing the chances of someone clicking on any one of those links. What’s more, the similarity and overlap between the links is close enough that traffic to one of them might be beneficial to all of them.

Focusing on Specific “Bragging Rights”

Back before head and long-tail keywords became widespread, before the advent of SEO and Google and online search engines, how did companies and brands market their services? By plugging their “bragging rights,” of course. Before they were concerned about chasing the most generalized keywords in the hopes of getting lucky with their Google ranking, they would try to show off how special and unique their organization was by plugging their services, location benefits, and other upsides to choosing them over the competition.

Another way to improve your overall SEO rankings with long-tail keywords by way of variations on a common theme is thus to follow that same model and design related SEO long-tail keywords around aspects of your company or service which you wish to highlight.

Returning to our Holborn example, remember what we said about it being located near the British Museum, the Charles Dickens Museum, and Bloomsbury? Just like that, you have three natural related long-tail keywords in the making: “best hotels near the British Museum in Holborn, “best hotels near the Charles Dickens Museum in Holborn,” and “best hotels near Bloomsbury in Holborn.”

Superlatives are crucial here. “Fast,” “quick,” great,” “cheap” – these are all things which people often type into Google at the beginning of a search query, and so you’ll want to include them at the head of your long-tail keywords, optimizing on your product or service’s “best” features.”

You can also capitalize on keywords which anticipate vagueness due to the uncertainty of those searching about the exact name of the product or place for which they’re searching.

For example, Bloomsbury is home to a host of literary hotspots, from the aforementioned Charles Dickens Museum to the homes once occupied by Virginia Woolf and the legendary Bloomsbury Group to a bust of Woolf in Gordon Square. You know that, but visitors to the area might only know that Woolf lived there without knowing the specifics. Creating a long-tail keyword such as “hotels near where Virginia Woolf lived in London” can help drive traffic to your site from people who know they want to see something located in Holborn but who might not know that they’re in Holborn, or what Holborn even is.

Utilizing the Predictive Power of Autocomplete

That ability to predict what users will “actually” type into Google is critical for both the success of your long term keywords and your ability to attract attention to your site as a whole. One great way to do this and create coordinated variations on a common long-tail keyword theme is to use autocorrect for the beginning of a couple of long-tail keywords and see what variations autocomplete suggests.

Sticking with our Holborn hotel example, typing something simple like “hotels in Holborn” into Google will yield you loads of long-tail keyword-friendly autocomplete results, such as the following:

  • Hotels in Holborn London
  • Hotels in Holborn Central London
  • Hotels in Holborn 5 star
  • Hotels in Holborn cheap
  • Hotels in Holborn with parking

Notice how those keywords include different emphases, each indicating different things that real would-be customers care about. Some are keying into the location (specifically, looking for hotels in “Central London,”) some are most concerned about 5-star quality, some care most about a cheap price, and some about something as niche as a hotel with parking.

All of these thus represent golden opportunities for you to create articles with long-tail keywords that utilize those particular search queries, directly targeting real customers’ real needs, and thus drastically improving your ranking on Google and your chances of appealing to those would-be customers.

We don’t always type things into Google in a grammatically correct fashion, of course, as those results show, so you’ll have to clean up the grammar a bit when integrating those keywords into your content. Nevertheless, this exercise can be a quick and easy way of discovering a ton of organically-related long-tail keywords as you continue to synchronize and specialize your content.

Tail to Head

You might notice that the “hotels in Holborn” example is similarly structurally insofar as “Holborn” is always at or near the end of the keyword. In our example, we used “hotels in Holborn” and let Google Autocomplete suggest additional keywords such as “5 star” and “cheap.” We can take advantage of that with long-tail keywords in part because the main term here, Holborn, is at the tail end of the keyword.

You therefore want to always be sure to build your keywords from the tail back towards the head. Superlatives such as “great” and “cheap” are comparatively easy to add at the front of the keyword. What’s more, as stated, we tend to search for things in the form of a question, and so naturally which words we choose to begin the question with will change. What won’t change, however, is the main targeted keyword, the “tail,” and so by putting it at the end where it belongs, you place more emphasis on it. This also helps Google Autocomplete suggest extra searches which might be beneficial to you.

The Power of Lists

Never underestimate the power of lists. People like searching for and clicking on them due to their neat, easy to read style. They’re also nicely suited to the long-tail keyword format. Having SEO long-tail articles on “Ten Things to Look for in a Hotel in London,” and “Five Things to See in Holborn” can combine to help give Google the right idea about what you’re featuring.

Focusing in on the “Conversion Tunnel”

Of course, getting clients to see your content is one thing. Actually getting them to click is quite another. Conversions are the name of the game in the SEO world, but it’s a difficult game to play.

If you’re worried about it, don’t worry – you’re not alone. According to one survey, 65% of companies say that conversion rates rank among their biggest concerns.

That’s why you’ll want to focus in on what’s known as the “conversion tunnel,” that is, the means by which you translate those points of first contact into conversions. That “conversion tunnel” takes you from the point of first contact through the sales process and to the point at which you close the deal with a customer. All of your search results will arrive at your search results at an earlier stage of the process, and indeed, you can target certain long-tail keywords to focus in on certain stages.

The prospect of making your blog entries and other content seen on Google can be incredibly daunting. The pressure to try to chase short, generalized keywords to latch onto key terms with millions of potential hits can be enticing.

But inauthenticity has never been a good way to market oneself or one’s business, and that remains the case today. It is far more important and, indeed, effective to choose a more targeted and organic SEO strategy, and long-tail keywords fit the bill perfectly.

They’re not just “the next big thing” in SEO marketing – they were and have been “the thing” driving it the whole time.

Infographic Long Tail SEO Keywords by Carlton Smith on Scribd