Long Tail Keywords: how to get TONS of traffic from ‘unpopular’ search queries

David McSweeney
David is the owner of Top5SEO and a white hat SEO evangelist. SEO case studies make him a lot happier than they should, and he has a tendency to overuse ellipses...

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    It’s time to reconsider how we think about long tail keywords. And it’s also time to reevaluate the process we use to research them.

    Search Google for ‘long tail keywords’, click on a result in the top 10, and you’ll get a definition that goes something like this:


    You’ll also get a crazy long process for finding long tails to target, which will normally involve:

    • lots of manual Google searches;
    • multiple tools;
    • lots of ‘rinsing and repeating’;
    • huge spreadsheets;
    • hours of ‘exhaustive’ research;
    • trying to shoehorn these keywords into your header tags and content

    But you know what?

    These articles are all out of date.

    And the research processes are a complete waste of time.

    Now don’t get me wrong:

    Long tail keywords are still super important for SEO.

    But these days:

    Finding (and ranking for) them is simple.

    In a moment I’ll show you how. But let’s start with that definition.

    What Are Long Tail Keywords?

    Long tail keywords are the search queries with very low individual search volume, but an enormous total search demand as a group. The name comes from the “long tail” of the so‐called “search demand curve” — a graph, that plots all keywords by their search volumes.

    As a general rule (but not necessary), these keywords tend to be longer and more specific than more commonly searched for keywords.

    Most definitions for long tail keywords start with some arbitrary length.

    Depending on which article you read, that length might be 3 words+, 4+, 5+…


    Um… so which is it?

    Well actually, the correct answer is none of the above.

    Because the thing that makes a keyword long tail or not has nothing to do with length (although admittedly you won’t find many 2 word long tails).

    So if it’s not about length, then what is it about?

    What Really Makes A Keyword Long Tail?

    There are two elements that truly make a keyword long tail:

    1. Search volume
    2. Specificity

    And actually, the two go hand in hand.

    Because the more specific you get with a search phrase, the less volume there is likely to be.

    In fact, many long tails will have ZERO existing search volume. That’s because around 16–20% of daily Google searches are for completely new phrases that have NEVER been searched for before.

    Which might make you think that they are a waste of time.

    But you would be wrong.

    Because while individual volumes are low, long tail keywords actually make up around 40% of all search traffic on the web.

    So even though individual volume is low, the fact there are so many phrase combinations (probably an infinite number), means that the collective volume is high.

    And as a bonus, because they tend to be very specific, long tail keywords can be great for conversions.

    Editor’s note
    Turns out some people weren’t persuaded by David’s explanations, so I decided to jump in and give some extra details.

    Search volume or “search demand” (or simply “how many times people search for this keyword per month”) is the ONLY thing that differentiates “head” keywords from “tail” keywords.

    The name “long tail keywords” originates from an illustration called “search demand curve” (which you can see on the image above), where the “head” of the curve consists of a few keywords with insanely high search demand and the long “tail” represents a huge amount of keywords with very low search demand.

    And obviously the number of words in a keyword has absolutely nothing to do with differentiation of keywords into “head” or “tail” of the search demand curve.

    David also mentioned “specificity”, but it is rather a byproduct than a defining trait of a long tail keyword.

    And I have a great example to illustrate all of the above.

    Here are three keywords:


    All three of them have the same number of words in them. All three of them have the same level of specificity. But one of them is long tail keyword while the other two are head keywords. Can you guess which one is long tail? 🙂

    PS: we have also carried out a pretty cool research of 1.4 Billion keywords and some of our takeaways about the “long tail” of search are pretty insightful. Check it out here: What we learned about “Long Tail” by analyzing 1.4 Billion keywords

    Tim Soulo
    Tim Soulo
    Head of marketing at Ahrefs
    One of my favourite analogies about the way Google ‘thinks’ is AJ Kohn’s wonderful description of search engines as ‘blind 5 year olds’.
    Words are of great importance to search engines. It’s one of the easiest ways it can categorize a page. But it is not reading the page like you or I. A search engine wouldn’t score well on a reading comprehension test. Instead it’s trying to understand the page by what words are most prominent, based on the number of times a word is mentioned and the size and placement of those words.

    It’s easy to grasp:

    Search engines are dumb. You have to spoon feed them information.

    But that analogy is from 2008. And a lot has changed since then.

    Our blind 5 year old is now a teenager. She’s getting smart.

    Here’s a simple example.

    Google’s Understanding Of Synonyms And Similar Words

    I’m going to illustrate here with some short (or at least medium) tail keywords. Don’t worry, I’ll get to the relevance to long tail in a moment.

    Take a look at the following 4 keywords:

    • creepy photos
    • scary photos
    • terrifying photos
    • horrifying photos

    I’m sure you’ll agree, they are pretty much the same thing. That’s easy for us as intelligent, literate humans to understand.

    But, for our blind 5 year old Google it wasn’t so easy.

    Unless we spoon fed her the connection by including ALL of these phrases on page, she wasn’t going to be able to tie them together.

    Which lead to lots of unnatural sounding, written for SEO content, and one of my favourite SEO jokes:

    How many SEO copywriters does it take to change a lightbulb, light bulb, light, bulb, lamp, bulbs, flowers, flour…?

    Boom boom.

    So how about our teenage Google? Can she make the connection?

    Let’s find out.

    Take a look at the following page content:


    Here is the HTML title tag for the page:

    <title>The 30 Creepiest Photos Ever Taken</title>

    I’m sure you’ll agree that page is optimised for the keyword ‘creepy photos’. The words ‘scary’, ‘horrifying’ and ‘terrifying’ aren’t included anywhere on the page.

    But here’s the cool thing:

    It actually ranks in the top 3 spots for all of them.


    Position data from Ahrefs ‘Organic keywords’ report

    Which tells us 2 things about the way our teenage Google ‘thinks’:

    1. She now recognises the connection between the words
    2. She also realises that if a page is a good fit for one of these keywords, it should be a good fit for them all

    But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

    Because that page doesn’t just rank for 4 keywords. It ranks for 564 keywords!

    Keyword data from Ahrefs Site Explorer

    Keyword data from Ahrefs Site Explorer

    In the first few results, we can see that Google recognises ‘photos’, ‘images’ and ‘pictures’ as the same thing. The page ranks for them all, without being directly optimised for them.

    But the above are still short/medium tail keywords with reasonably high individual search volume.

    It’s when we start looking at long tail keywords that things really get interesting.

    First though, let me explain how (and why) the above is possible.

    The End Of ‘Words On Page’ SEO

    It’s clear that Google is now able to:

    • Group keywords together into topics;
    • Understand words with the same meaning;
    • Look beyond the ‘words on the page’ when deciding which content to rank

    But actually, despite some recent high profile articles professing otherwise, this is not particularly new.

    Because they have been doing that since (at least) 2013.

    How Google Hummingbird Changed The SEO Game

    In August of 2013, many SEOs noticed an increase in traffic for content rich sites.

    I personally noticed the spike on an affiliate site I ran at the time. The site was small (c 30 pages), but each page featured detailed, high quality content targeting a top level keyword (or topic) in the niche.

    This increase in traffic was due to the roll out of Google’s Hummingbird algorithm.


    75% spike in search traffic after roll out of Google Hummingbird

    Google’s stated aim with Hummingbird was to better understand the meaning behind queries, rather than focusing on matching specific words to content on a page.

    Danny Sullivan explains this change is his article on Search Engine Land.

    In particular, Google said that Hummingbird is paying more attention to each word in a query, ensuring that the whole query — the whole sentence or conversation or meaning — is taken into account, rather than particular words. The goal is that pages matching the meaning do better, rather than pages matching just a few words.
    Danny Sullivan
    Danny Sullivan Search Engine Land

    Now I have long been an advocate of writing natural copy for humans (not search engines), and covering topics in depth.

    It’s the practice I have followed for as long as I have been building (and optimising) websites.

    But for those SEOs who had not, this was a game changing moment. Particularly as it followed Panda, Google’s low quality content killer which launched in 2011.

    The End Of Cookie Cutter Content

    You’ve probably read articles which state that ‘500 word blog posts no longer cut it’. You may have even heard it said by me.

    And Hummingbird is the reason why.

    As Google’s understanding of content improved, it began to prefer detailed pieces covering topics in depth, over short pages targeting individual keywords.

    Like this:


    And in fact, I picked the keywords in the illustration above for a reason. That’s because our own anchor text guide ranks top 5 for them all.


    The long tail keyword ‘how to create anchor text’ is a particularly effective example.

    That phrase does not appear anywhere on our page.


    And an ‘allintitle:’how to create anchor text’ search on Google shows us that there are 40 pages which are directly optimised for the keyword.


    Yet, because of our in‐depth coverage of the topic ‘anchor text’, we rank above them all.


    To be clear: I did not specifically attempt to rank for any long tails with that article. I just covered the topic of ‘anchor text’ in depth and Google automatically associated multiple long tail keywords to the post.

    Of course the above example is anecdotal. So let’s back it up with some data.

    What Our Analysis Of 2M Keywords Says About Topic > Keyword

    We recently analysed over 2 million keywords for our study of on‐page ranking factors.

    Here are two key takeaways from that study which support the view that Google is:

    • Less interested in traditional ‘words on the page’ optimisation;
    • More concerned with associating keywords with overall topics

    1. Keyword In Page Title

    Conventional SEO wisdom says that to rank for a keyword you should include it in your page title.

    So did the data support this?


    We found that the majority of pages ranking in Google’s top 10 did not contain the keyword (in exact match form) in their title.


    2. Keyword In Content

    So how about in content?

    Did the majority of pages ranking top 10 at least include the keyword somewhere on the page?

    You’ve probably guessed — again the answer is no.


    Despite our data finding that pages could rank for keywords without including them in exact match form, we would still recommend that you include your ‘main’ keyword in the usual places (title, header tags, content etc).
    The Takeaway: Optimise Your Content For Topics
    The old school SEO approach of creating huge lists of keywords, then creating separate pages for each of them is a thing of the past.

    One strong, authoritative page, covering a topic in depth, can rank for multiple short, medium, and long tail keywords.

    Even when those keywords are not included anywhere on page.

    Let’s find out how to do it.

    So let’s get to the point:

    We recommend that you focus on optimising your content for topics instead of targeting individual long tail keywords.


    Because Google is smart enough to group individual long tail keywords into topics and subtopics.

    The evidence clearly shows that ranking for multiple long tails is now a bi‐product of creating super high quality content with in‐depth coverage of a topic.

    You no longer have to worry about including every long tail you want to rank for on‐page. Those days are (thankfully) gone.

    And the cool thing is that even though individually those long tails have sucky volume, when you add them all up, you can get some serious search traffic.

    One brick is useless. But if you have lots of bricks you can build a wall (no, not you Donald Trump).

    But, now for the caveat:

    In‐Depth Content MUST Be Combined With Link Building

    The evidence also shows that just creating great content is not enough.

    It’s when great content is combined with strategic promotion and proactive link building that the magic happens.

    Because our study of 2 million keywords also found that backlinks continue to be the single biggest SEO ranking factor:


    To be clear: once you’ve created awesome in‐depth content covering a topic, you still have to build links if you want to rank in the top spots.

    So how do you go about creating super in‐depth content that (with the right promotion) can rank for multiple long tail keywords?

    Here are 2 methods.

    In the first method I’m also going to include some tips on working out how many backlinks you’ll need to rank. The same tips will also apply to the second method (although I won’t repeat them).

    Multiple Keyword Ranking Method 1: Competitor Research

    The ‘Top pages’ report in Ahrefs Site Explorer is your secret weapon in long tail keyword research.


    Because it will show you competitor pages that are already ranking for HUNDREDS (or even THOUSANDS) of long tail keywords.

    Here’s the process.

    Step 1: Find Your Competitor’s Top Content In Organic Search

    Let’s take a look at the ‘Top pages’ report for one of my favourite content marketing blogs — copyblogger.

    Site Explorer > Enter domain > Explore > Organic keywords > Top pages


    Here is a quick explanation of the metrics I highlighted above:

    • Traffic — The total organic search traffic for the page
    • Keywords — The number of individual keywords for which the page is ranking
    • Top keyword — The individual keyword which brings the most organic traffic to the page. This is likely to be the ‘topic’
    • Its volume — The total monthly search volume for the top keyword
    • Pos — The position the page ranks in for its top keyword

    To view the individual keywords that a page is ranking for, just click the arrow next to the number under the ‘Keywords’ column.


    Looks like this one is ranking for lots of interesting keywords under the topic ‘how to get a book published’.

    Step 2: Export The Keywords For Analysis

    To view them all, I’ll export the report into a CSV file and open the spreadsheet in OpenOffice.


    Step 3: Filter And Group Keywords Into Subtopics

    Here’s what I’m not interested in doing:

    Trying to shoehorn all 363 of these keywords into my content.

    As I’ve already demonstrated, that would be a complete waste of time.

    Instead what I want to do is group all these keywords into subtopics, or headers.

    That’s going to be a manual process of running through the spreadsheet and filtering out everything that’s basically the same.

    It took me about 10 minutes to do it for this page. Here’s what I’m left with:


    So we have filtered our original list down to just 22 keyword groups.

    But as we know, we can still rank for all 363!

    Here’s how.

    Step 4: Outline A New Post Using Grouped Keywords As Headers

    We’re now going to create a new Google doc and create a post outline.

    We will use our grouped keywords as headers (H2) and subheaders (H3).


    We know that these are the main subtopics that Google associates with the parent topic ‘how to get a book published’.

    So by covering them all, we will be able to rank for all the variations we found when we exported the full list of keywords.

    And what are those variations?

    Long tail keywords!

    Step 5: Write Up An Awesome Post!

    The keyword research process above made it simple to outline our post and create keyword targeted subheadings.

    And we can rank for hundreds of long tail keywords without even thinking about them.

    But of course, a list of subheadings isn’t going to rank anywhere.

    We need to write up each section, making sure we go super in‐depth to create a truly awesome post.

    And then we can move on to the final step.

    Step 6: Get The Post To Rank

    Unless the topic you are targeting has very little competition, to get it to rank you’re going to have to:

    • Promote it
    • Build links to it

    I’m not going to get into link building tactics here. Our link building guide will tell you everything you need to know.

    But what I will do is show you how to figure out the number of links you’ll need to rank in the top spots.

    We’ll start by entering the main keyword ‘how to get a book published’ into Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer.

    Keywords Explorer > Enter keyword > Explore


    This will take us to an overview page for the keyword.

    Straight away we can see that the keyword has a difficulty score of 22. Which means we will need to build links from approximately 24 sites to rank on page 1.


    We use backlinks to calculate keyword difficulty as all our research finds link popularity remains the single most important ranking factor. We do however advise that you manually check a search result before picking a keyword to target. There are many other factors that influence rankings, for example content depth/quality, overall domain authority, other on page factors, so KD score should be used as an initial indicator only.

    Now page 1 would certainly be a good start. But for real traffic we really want to break into the top 3 results.

    So how many links would we need for that?

    To find out, we can scroll down to the ‘SERP overview’ report.

    This report gives us a preview of Google’s top 10 results for the keyword. It will also show us the number of backlinks and referring domains for each page.


    We can see that the page at position 1 has acquired links from 142 unique domains.

    There are also a couple of pages with links from 50+ domains.

    So it looks like to be certain of ranking in the top 3 positions, we will need to pick up links from around 50 different sites.

    Tough… but not impossible!

    Now onto the second method.

    Multiple Keyword Ranking Method 2: Parent Topics

    So we know that to rank for a ton of long tail keywords all we have to do is:

    1. Pick the right topic
    2. Make sure we cover it in depth (preferably using secondary keywords as subheaders)
    3. Build links to it

    Reverse engineering our competitors is a cool way to do that. But of course we’ll also want to find topics that our competitors don’t already cover.

    So how do we find even more keyword topic ideas?

    Simple: we use Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer 2.0.

    Here is the process.

    Step 1: Enter A Seed Keyword Into Keywords Explorer

    Let’s stay on the same subject and use ‘book writing’ as our seed keyword.

    Keywords Explorer > Enter seed keyword > Set preferred country > Explore


    Step 2: Find The Parent Topic For The Keyword

    On the overview screen we can see that particular keyword has a reasonable search volume of around 1,100 US searches per month.


    But actually, it’s not the best keyword for us to target with our content.

    Because it turns out that ‘book writing’ has a parent topic ‘how to write a book’, which gets 26,000 searches per month!

    So our ‘main’ keyword (or topic) should in fact be ‘how to write a book’.

    Let’s take a closer look at it.

    We work out the parent topic for each keyword by examining the #1 ranking result and finding the most popular phrase that it ranks for.

    Step 3: Check The Metrics For Your Parent Topic

    Turns out we found a pretty good keyword!


    Let’s quickly go over the metrics I highlighted above:

    1. The keyword has a difficulty score of 34, which means we will need backlinks from approximately 43 sites to rank top 10.
    2. US search volume is 26,000. Note however that only 69% of those searches result in clicks.
    3. Return rate is a relative number, which indicates how often a user will search for this keyword again. This does not mean that a user will return 1.24 times on average, but the fact this figure is above 1 means there are likely to be some repeat searches.
    4. The ‘Clicks’ figure of 27,000 indicates that searchers are likely to click on more than one result.
    5. The average number of clicks per search is 1.04.
    6. The keyword has a global search volume (all tracked countries) of 51,000.
    7. If we ranked at #1 for this topic, we could expect to receive around 16,000 organic visits when we combined the volume of all associated subtopics and long tail keywords.

    Now let’s find out how many subtopics and long tail keywords are associated with this topic.

    Step 4: Find Subtopics And Long Tail Keyword Ideas

    Once again, finding additional keywords which Google associates with this topic (and we could rank for with our content) is easy.

    We simply click on the ‘Also rank for’ report and we’ll get a list of additional keywords that pages in the top 10 results.… well… also rank for.


    In this case there are 890 additional keywords, with a combined search volume of 142,000.

    Step 5: Export The Report Or Create A List

    As before, we’ll want to group these keywords into subtopics.

    We can either export the list and work in a spreadsheet, or alternatively we can create a list directly within Keywords Explorer.

    To create a list we simply select the keywords we want to add, click the ‘Add to lists’ drop down, then create our new list.

    Select keywords > Add to lists > Create new list > Enter name of list > Create > Apply


    We can then access this list from the Keywords Explorer home page.


    Once we have a full list of subtopics for our content, we can repeat steps 4, 5, and 6 from the ‘Competitor Research’ method to create our page and rank for hundreds of long tail keywords!

    And that’s all there is to it.

    • No multi‐tool processes;
    • No rinsing and repeating;
    • No shoehorning hundreds of keywords into your content (or creating thousands of pages)

    With smart research, careful topic selection, and solid promotion, you can rank for thousands of long tail keywords without even thinking about targeting them in the traditional sense.

    Much easier right?

    But finally…

    I’m sure you can see the huge benefit in optimising your content for head keywords and topics, rather than worrying about individual long tails.

    You’ll get much more ‘bang for your buck’.

    But like most aspects of SEO, there is an exception to the rule. There are some cases where you might want to create content that specifically targets a long tail keyword.


    Because ultimately, traffic is all about creating revenue.

    And some long tail keywords, are just too valuable (in terms of dollars and cents) to ignore.

    I’ll illustrate with a particularly extreme example. Take a look at the following long tail keyword:


    With a US search volume of 40–70 and a total traffic potential of 11–40, it doesn’t seem like it would be worth paying attention to.

    But that’s until you discover what someone searching that phrase is actually looking for:


    Yep, that’s a 5 MILLION pounds iPhone!

    Now I don’t know about you, but I’d be quite happy with selling just one of them a month. In much the same way that Usain Bolt is ‘quite’ fast.

    Like I said, that’s a pretty extreme example. But hopefully you get the point:

    If a particular keyword is super important to your business in terms of revenue, then regardless of how small the search volume is, you’ll want to make sure you rank at #1.

    And that will probably mean creating content which specifically targets that long tail keyword, then building links to it.

    Other than that…

    Go for topics over keywords!

    Over To You

    Do you agree that the days of exhaustive long tail keyword research are over? Are you already optimising your content for topics?

    Or perhaps you disagree entirely and believe that specifically optimising for multiple long tails should still a key part of SEO?

    Either way, let me know in the comments!

    And of course, if you have any questions about the takeaways or processes above, then feel free to shoot them my way.

    David McSweeney
    David is the owner of Top5SEO and a white hat SEO evangelist. SEO case studies make him a lot happier than they should, and he has a tendency to overuse ellipses...

    Article stats

    • Referring domains 175
    • Organic traffic 255
    Data from Content Explorer tool.

    Shows how many different websites are linking to this piece of content. As a general rule, the more websites link to you, the higher you rank in Google.

    Shows estimated monthly search traffic to this article according to Ahrefs data. The actual search traffic (as reported in Google Analytics) is usually 3-5 times bigger.

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